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.
Find the full article here.
I remember thinking years ago how odd it seemed that people’s joint pain (often occurring for no known reason) would be addressed by simultaneously stretching muscles, moving joints, strengthening other muscles, and changing posture (plus ice, heat, US, etc). It didn’t seem logical that all of those pieces fell perfectly into disarray, leading to pain.
Does it make more sense that joint immobility and muscle tightness and weakness led to the impingement, or that the impingement led to those findings? What I find more rational is that a joint impingement, a joint derangement, or, simply put, a joint that’s a bit stuck occurs because, well, joints are mobile things and these things happen. The most obvious example is you unknowingly sleep in a certain position and you wake up with stuck neck joints. Or your shoulder joint gets impinged because you repeatedly move in a new way starting tennis again. Or your low back gets deranged because you sit in the exact same position in your office chair for hours a day. These factors and others can easily lead to minor (fixable!) joint disruptions. In fact, most of these examples, especially the neck scenario, will resolve with daily movement (and possibly a little rest) on their own - no doctors or other help needed.
I deduce in the clinic if a joint is impinged/not moving optimally by repeatedly moving joints and gauging the effect. I don’t rely on “impingement tests.” I secondly don’t believe in the value of imaging except for a small minority of cases. It’s much more likely that the bony configuration of your joint (eg shoulder acromion or hip acetabulum) has been that way, if not your entire life, then most of your life, and therefore this new pain is due to new factors.
To address it, in contrast to the stretching, strengthening, and movement I alluded to above, we look for the specific joint movement that unpinches the joint. It’s typically one that is not regularly performed in the person’s daily life. The theory as to why these things occur is that it’s normal for joints to get a bit stuck if you don’t move them in a variety of directions or if you spend the majority of your time in one uninterrupted direction. They’re so common that most self resolve, but I see the stubborn ones. -- Laura
The supraspinatus is the most commonly affected rotator cuff tendon/muscle. It helps lift the arm up, out to the side. When people encounter pain or difficulty lifting their arm like this, they like to jump to the conclusion that the rotator cuff (or supraspinatus) is to blame. Sometimes it is. However, despite the fact that MRIs regularly show changes or “abnormalities” with the supraspinatus tendon or muscle, other mechanisms are at play when it comes to lifting your arm. The supraspinatus does not work in isolation (things rarely do). Problems with joints, capsules, and nerves can also make lifting your arm painful and/or weak.
When I say supraspinatus “problem” I am referring to a tendinopathy, tear, pull, or strain. How I rule in a supraspinatus problem, given no red flags. Step One: Rule out neck derangement. Step Two: Rule out mid back derangement. Step Three: Rule out shoulder derangement. Step Four: Rule out frozen shoulder. Step Five: Rule in supraspinatus problem.
Some of these steps can be completed by asking a few questions. Some require movement testing. The most important point is to recognize that other things can also create weak and/or painful shoulder abduction or a positive “empty can” or “full can” orthopedic special test. -- Laura
Ultrasound imaging (USI) may be one of the newer forms of imaging, but newer doesn't mean better. USI for abdominal organs and the uterus is valuable, but its value when it comes to musculoskeletal problems is not convincing. A new study in Physical Therapy in Sport entitled “Ultrasound imaging features of the Achilles tendon in dancers. Is there a correlation between the imaging and clinical findings? A cross-sectional study” does not find a correlation.
The study looked at the Achilles tendons of 29 dancers with no pain nor functional problems - 58 tendons total. With USI, 62% of the young women had at least one abnormal tendon. Of the 58 tendons, 26 were abnormal when examined using USI. This study also points to others that do not find a relationship between what USI shows and pain.
How is this applicable? Say one of these dancers with an abnormal tendon starts having pain in her Achilles after the study. It’s easy to assume that the tendon - which was abnormal on USI - is the problem. However, given that it was abnormal without pain, it makes sense that something else could be causing pain - perhaps something that cannot be visualized. For that reason, we should test a person’s musculoskeletal system by moving her musculoskeletal system. Versus imaging, that gives us improved chances to find the true source of the problem. --Laura
It’s easy to be misguided by immediate results from an intervention, whether the intervention is movement or something else like heat. For example, if we do 20 knee extensions in semi-loaded and you gain significant range in your obstructed knee flexion, that could be due to a few factors. One, I am just “warming up” the knee joint (or whatever structure(s)) so now we get more mobility. Meaning, if we do anything that moves the knee a lot, we’ll get more flexion. Or, two, extension in semi-loaded is truly the specific, necessary exercise for this knee to unlock flexion.
There are ways to answer this inquiry. For one, if we then wait several minutes with the knee resting, we can re-test flexion. After resting, if the gains remain, it’s less likely the factor was simply being “warmed up.” Similarly, if the person does that extension exercise over a few days at home, we should see improved flexion out of the gate (when “cold”) on the next visit. And, if we do a separate knee exercise 20 times and flexion does not improve or worsens, then we know there is something special about semi-loaded knee extension for this particular knee.
It’s not uncommon to see great changes in the clinic that don’t hold up over several days of repetition. That’s fine. It was prescribed as a home program to see the effect, not as a cure. That response tells us a lot of information regarding diagnosis and what to do next. But don’t persist if you see any type of positive change that, over time, just doesn’t stick. Sometimes that simply means the positive change that initially occurred was due to a general “warming up” phenomenon. Now look for the intervention that can create lasting positive change. --Laura
If you fix a medical problem by eating well for a month, it's silly to expect the improvement to stick if you return to eating crap. The same applies to mechanical, or orthopedic, problems. Consider movement (and sustained positions) your “diet” when it comes to mechanical problems. There are certainly some mechanical problems that never have to pay attention to diet again. But for most, it matters. There’s no hard and fast rule; each patient’s case is unique, and is understood during the treatment process.
If nothing in a person’s life changed except she bought a new sports car, used it a lot, noticed lumbar stiffness getting out of the car she never had before, and a week later she had an L5 radiculopathy to her big toe, there’s a great chance that position is a factor. Let’s say that point is confirmed during treatment. Meaning, sitting in the sports car now exacerbates leg symptoms and/or obstructs low back movement. After resolving the patient’s low back derangement, does that mean she can never use that car again? Probably not. But it’s likely she’ll do much better long-term if she adjusts the car’s seat, or does her corrective exercise before and after car rides over 30 minutes, or makes sure to check her low back motion after being in the car. In this scenario, resuming her old “diet” of just hopping in her sports car - and adopting that specific mechanical seated position - without thinking twice will likely lead to recurrence. -- Laura
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