We don't have to assume a muscle is tight or a muscle is weak. We don't have to assume a joint is obstructed or a joint capsule is restricted. We don't have to assume a muscle is inhibited. We don't have to assume a structure is inflamed. We don't have to assume a nerve is compressed or entrapped. There are tests for these things.
These problems are distinct and can be distinguished from one another through competent and thorough testing. Sometimes that testing takes five minutes in the office. Sometimes it takes movement testing at home for two weeks. If needed, in rare cases we also have imaging testing to rule in or out fractures, relevant structural compromises, and sinister pathology. The heart of the matter is we don’t have to assume. I’ve spent over a decade learning and perfecting this testing so I can find the problem fast and then instigate the correct treatment. Differential diagnosing ability is central to helping people. -- Laura
Most of orthopedics is getting joints moving better, getting nerves conducting electricity and moving better, and getting tendons functioning at full capacity. Rare is the case that true strength needs to be built in a muscle or muscles to resolve a problem. Those scenarios include when atrophy is creating problems (secondary to a number of possible factors) and when there has been injury to a specific muscle. While I often use general “strengthening” exercises as an adjunct to the primary intervention, the intent there is to get the musculoskeletal system moving and working again, not strengthening. Of course, muscular strength, which takes significant time to build, has myriad positive effects on the body, and I wholeheartedly support strength training in general. However, when problems arise, specific distinct solutions are typically called for. -- Laura
I recently saw a social media post entitled “Prone Exercise Progression for Low Back Pain.” If only it were that simple! There is no "prone exercise progression" for low back pain. Prone exercises are used for certain diagnoses with certain patients. Pain, after all, is not a diagnosis. We don’t treat heart pain or lung pain - we treat the underlying diagnosis. Will I allow that there are rare cases in which we can’t establish a true cause? Sure. But in those cases you get there by ruling out a multitude of possibilities.
Not only can we do better than treating the symptom of pain, but we can be specific about what each individual needs. A prone exercise progression will help some people with some diagnoses. It will also do nothing for some people and will make some people worse. You can try whatever you find on the internet if you want. We all do it from time to time. But success is more likely when you have an individual diagnosis and plan. -- Laura
Structures other than muscles can be tight. For example, nerves can get tight. Clinically we say they have lost extensibility, are compressed, or are entrapped. However, they do effectively get “tight” in many cases. Joint capsules can also get tight, as can the joints themselves. I usually use the word obstructed when referring to joints, but, to most patients, they in essence feel tight.
Tightness is also a common referred sensation. With referred symptoms, people tend to name the muscle where they feel the symptom. For instance, if the joints in the low back are referring symptoms to the front of the thigh, people usually say (and assume) they have a quadriceps problem. Understanding the concept of referred symptoms is crucial ... but it’s also very important to recognize that it’s not just pain, numbness, and tingling that can be referred. It’s also common to have referred sensations that feel tight, achy, or even hot or cold. -- Laura
Part of effective diagnosing is understanding the basics of how joints, muscles, and nerves work. People with low back pain commonly think they “pulled” a muscle. They may have. I will allow that it is possible. However, in ten years of work, not once have I diagnosed someone with a pulled or strained muscle (or tendon) in his low back. (It’s almost always a joint-driven problem - and joints can refer pain to muscles.)
A symptomatic pulled (also known as strained or torn) muscle - anywhere in the body - will hurt when contracted. Each personal case is different, but at some angle and with some type of resistance, when that disrupted muscle is asked to contract, it will provoke pain. The second finding with pulled muscles is that they often hurt when put on tension (stretch). This may or may not create a minimal range of motion loss in the plane in which the muscle is on tension. Third, when the affected muscle is on slack (at rest) and not contracting, nothing should happen and range of motion should be full.
An extensor muscle performs extension. If it is pulled you’ll usually find painful resisted extension, pain at end range of flexion with minimal to no motion loss, and full pain-free passive extension. This applies to extensor muscles everywhere, including in the low back. Therefore, if passive low back extension (prone, using the arms or a machine) is limited or painful, I’m not likely dealing with a muscle problem. If standing extension is pain-free but limited, I’m also likely not dealing with a muscle problem.
Again, knowing the foundations of biomechanics is essential. Just that simple piece of information can allow me to rule out a muscle. Unfortunately, many people (including clinicians) don’t apply these fundamental rules to diagnosing problems. Muscles can hurt due to referred pain, so just because pain is felt in a muscle doesn’t mean the muscle is the problem. A competent diagnostic process will provide the answer. -- Laura
As I've written before: most orthopedic answers lie in moving people in directions they don’t usually move into. Top of that list? Yes: extension. How often do you bend your low back all the way back? Your neck? Your shoulder? Your hip?
But that doesn’t mean all problems are fixed with extension exercises. (Taking a step back, not all orthopedic problems are fixed with movement. Over 90% are, but that leaves room for conditions that require different interventions.) A person who responds to exercise, may need repeated rotation, side glide, side bend, flexion, or any combination of movements. I look for the exercise that positively affects a person’s symptoms, movement, and function. It really can be put that simply. While most need some form of extension, there are dozens of potentially therapeutic exercises.
Robin McKenzie did not invent the exercise of extension, but, as far as I know, he was the first to regularly explore if repeated extension (in its various forms) could be therapeutic. It’s really a shame that students (and others) have the notion that there are Williams flexion exercises and McKenzie extension exercises. It is not only an oversimplification - it is wrong. I am having one patient now perform lumbar flexion for her home program - and applying the McKenzie method to her problem is what got me there. -- Laura
Nerves becoming trapped outside of the spine are much less common than people think. Commonly talked about examples include entrapment in the ankle (tarsal tunnel), wrist (carpal tunnel), elbow (cubital tunnel), buttock (piriformis) and forearm (pronator teres). If there is trauma to an area, it certainly makes sense that the nerves in the area can be injured and/or the healing process can lead to tissue “entrapping” the nerve. But, without significant trauma, it’s quite rare to see this phenomenon.
While many patients tell me they indeed have carpal tunnel (or whichever), they usually describe symptoms inconsistent with that diagnosis (ie they say it affects the whole hand). Furthermore, they report that no clinician has investigated movements of the neck and mid back as part of the diagnostic process.
The nerves that end up in your periphery are commonly irritated as they exit your spine. If someone has symptoms in both hands or in both ankles, the likelihood that the spine (or something systemic) is the source increases dramatically. So while I agree that peripheral nerve entrapments can exist, I can’t remember the last time I found this to be a patient’s true diagnosis. Getting the correct diagnosis is the most important step in getting better after all. -- Laura
I realize that it often feels good to stretch forward when your back or neck hurts. People even do it when it does hurt because they feel as though they’re getting a “good stretch” that “hurts so good” that they “need.” While I sometimes use forward bending of the spine as the foundation of therapy, it’s rare - under 10%. It does make sense that it can feel good, though! If you temporarily increase space and take pressure off a problem area, it can feel nice. My job, however, is deciding what patients need to achieve real, long-term success. By the time patients see me, they have usually already figured out on their own if something gives them short-term relief (certain stretches, heat, ice, meds, etc.). -- Laura
I don’t think I’ll ever forget when a patient said this to me - in a friendly way. It was visit 4 and it was time for discharge since we had met her goals: no more pain and back to exercising. She was ecstatic to have her old self back, but wanted to let me know how skeptical she had been. She said she hadn’t believed anything I had said but figured she would do what I had asked because 1. Her doctor had specifically recommended the McKenzie method 2. She had already tried a round of physical therapy and not improved 3. She was not a surgical candidate 4. She had nothing to lose, especially given the homework was so simple.
What was I saying that was so unbelievable? That it seemed she was in the large cohort of patients with her symptoms that would heal quickly with simple exercises, performed repeatedly. That often times joints stop moving well and we can find specific movements that return them to normal. She abolished her years-old low back and right thigh pain with lumbar extension procedures over several weeks. Between visits 3 and 4 we reintroduced lumbar flexion and yoga.
I of course realize that what I tell people is almost always contrary to what they’ve already been told. I do my best to get patients on board (to serve their own interest), but it doesn’t always work. Luckily, this patient came around - because she started to feel better. She also told me on that last visit that she would tell everyone about MDT. -- Laura
I spoke with the McKenzie Institute USA about common myths of the McKenzie method.
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