Sometimes lots of exercise and activity is warranted, but not usually. It’s important to realize that the large majority of a patient’s recovery occurs outside of my office. That being said, we best utilize our time together figuring out what needs to be done when you leave. We investigate which movements or exercises are best for you to do on your own time. We also spend time discussing your prognosis, trouble shooting, reviewing how to self-assess, and so on. If a patient is under the impression that she goes to physical therapy to do her exercises and then does little to no work at home, that ensures very slow progress at best. I love going to the gym (I first joined Gold’s Gym way back when I was 17), but what I offer patients is more critical thinking and problem solving versus a place to work out. -- Laura
I look for direct cause and effect. In most cases, the cause. the intervention, is movement. Movement is usually generated by the patient, but I can use manual techniques if needed. Here’s a simple, common example of how I implement this in the office.
A patient presents with isolated pain on the right shoulder, lateral aspect. History: intermittent pain, pain usually with reaching, no pain at rest, can’t throw, present for 3 months, staying the same, no trauma, notices loss of flexion which can vary. Physical exam: no pain at rest and no cervical or thoracic loss of ROM or pain. Shoulder flexion: moderate loss with pain at end range. Shoulder internal rotation: minimal loss with pain during movement. Concordant pain with resisted abduction and pain-free weakness in external rotation (3+/5). All other shoulder baselines are normal. I don’t regularly do special tests.
Now I want to investigate if there is a particular movement (directional preference exercise) that has a positive effect on those baselines. I test 10 reps of cervical retraction and extension with overpressure: no effect on baselines. I test 10 reps of right lateral cervical flexion with overpressure: no effect. I test 10 reps of thoracic extension with ball overpressure: no effect. I test 10 right shoulder internal rotations (hand behind back): shoulder external rotation improves to 4+/5 and flexion is less painful. We do 20 more internal rotations and flexion is now only minimal loss and there’s no more pain with resisted abduction. We have found a significant positive effect with the exercise repeated shoulder internal rotation.
That will become the patient’s home program until the next visit. It’s about demonstrable cause and effect, not theories or guessing. It’s about being specific and not giving someone who needs one movement a program of seven things to stretch, strengthen, and retrain when it’s not needed. -- Laura
My appointments are investigative - moving this way or that way and assessing the effect minutes or even seconds later - and then prescriptive. To my great curiosity, I’ve had patients respond positively to a movement/exercise (that is, symptoms or movements immediately improve) and state it was probably due to their recent injection or their pills. It doesn’t work quite like that. Cortisone from three days ago was a constant during our entire time together; the variable was the performed movement. The same goes if you've been on a Medrol dose pack for 5 days. While these may have an overall positive influence, they are not the variable we are experimenting with in the clinic.
I am deliberate in my clinical testing specifically so that we can establish cause and effect and not base decisions on probabilities. (Was it the medicine? Was it time? Was it therapy? Was it sleeping in a weird position?) Let's be as precise as possible. Just as I know how to anticipate the result of an intervention, the other clinician giving you the injection or prescription should also be able to tell you what to expect from the shot or pills. -- Laura
This is a simple way to categorize approaches to fixing an orthopedic issue: surgically invasive, other invasive, and not invasive. You always want a diagnosis first, and since clinicians in orthopedics diagnose with different approaches, a second opinion is warranted if you are not pleased with your options or progress. (I diagnose primarily via a method of repeated movements, which, on the whole, is more helpful than diagnosing via imaging.)
We all know what surgery is. In my opinion it should be the last resort. Among the many reasons why, surgery (or intentional trauma) should be picked last because of the relative risk. The “other invasive” group includes prolotherapy, PRP, cortisone or any other injection, stem cells, dry needling, pharmaceuticals/supplements, and so on. Things that generally penetrate or enter a person’s skin/body. In the category of “not invasive” are movement, clinician techniques like mobilizations, various modalities such as heat and ice, and others.
Each category has pros and cons. What I find encouraging in this day of costly high-tech alternatives is that an expert program based on movement will still fix most problems! -- Laura
Perhaps I am splitting hairs when I differentiate between load and force. However, I think it’s important to refute the common conception that fixing orthopedic problems is all about progressive loading, extreme effort, sweating hard. Most of my patient visits feel more like a visit to the doctor’s office than a visit to the gym. It’s about looking for a solution, devising a home protocol, and education.
While I use loading, what initially fixes most orthopedic problems is not loading in the truest sense. Yes, injured tendons/ muscles need load to remodel and repair. Yes, load is needed to return someone to prior levels of function if there’s been deconditioning. My experience, however, is that most problems involve a joint not moving well ... remedied quickly with movements (forces), usually requiring little muscle action at the problem site. If I diagnose a shoulder derangement, the top two movements I’ll use to reposition the joint are functional internal rotation with a belt (passive) and extension with the patient’s hand on an elevated surface (passive for the shoulder). I envision those more as different forces on the shoulder joint vs different loads. The words don’t really matter, but, to me, the implication does. -- Laura
Joints behave differently loaded (weightbearing) versus unloaded (non weightbearing). This applies to extension, flexion, etc. - all planes of motion. Just picture your ankle: if you are moving your ankle while lying down, you are moving your foot as your leg is stationary. But if you are squatting in standing your leg is moving as your foot stays stable. These are quite different ankle joint movements, with different forces.
I assess and treat patients using repeated movements. I am SPECIFIC with the exercise I investigate as well as with the one I prescribe a patient, which includes whether the movement is performed loaded or unloaded. Loaded knee flexion may have no effect for a patient, but unloaded knee flexion may prove beneficial. Loaded lumbar extension may make a patient’s symptoms worse, yet unloaded lumbar extension may work. Because I consider loaded and unloaded movements different, I have more movements available to me. While that may seem overwhelming, it’s not. There are patterns and clues in the history and mechanical exam that lead me (by implementing the method) to explore one movement compared to others. --Laura
In general, those who strength train work opposing muscles - quads/hamstrings at the knee and biceps/triceps at the elbow, for example. Notwithstanding specific athletic performance needs (a very small population), it’s generally a good idea to balance muscle groups so that innate human biomechanics are not significantly thrown off.
In the same vein, joints should be worked in opposing directions. Knee extension/flexion and elbow extension/flexion, for example. In my book, the most important manifestation of this credo is with spine flexion/extension. While people perform many activities of spine flexion (forward bending), they rarely move into spine extension (backward bending). Considering only the gym, you see squats, burpees, deadlifts, sit ups, hamstring stretching (and more!) involving spine flexion. Only on rare occasions will you see a standing back bend or “cobra” or “upward dog” stretch on the floor. I have no problem with flexion; I just want balance. Public gyms provide a glaring example that people will attend to muscle balance but rarely joint - specifically spinal joint - balance, but this applies to everyday life as well. --Laura
Here’s a list of exercises I may prescribe for a person who complains of shoulder pain. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but my point is to illustrate that “shoulder pain” is a symptom, not a diagnosis. There's no universal fix for pain in the shoulder just like there's no universal fix for head pain or chest pain. I evaluate the person, make a diagnosis, and find the specific exercise a patient needs. Patients almost always get just one exercise at a time.
-seated cervical retraction
-seated cervical retraction-extension
-seated cervical retraction-extension-rotation
-seated cervical extension
-seated cervical flexion
-seated cervical protrusion
-seated cervical lateral flexion toward
-seated cervical lateral flexion away
-seated cervical rotation toward
-seated cervical rotation away
[all of the above also in supine]
[all of the above also sustained]
-seated thoracic extension
-seated thoracic lateral flexion toward
-seated thoracic lateral flexion away
-seated thoracic rotation toward
-seated thoracic rotation away
-seated thoracic flexion
-prone cervical retraction
-prone cervical extension
-prone thoracic extension
-supine thoracic extension over a fulcrum
[all of the above also sustained]
-shoulder functional internal rotation
-shoulder internal rotation
-shoulder extension with internal rotation
-shoulder horizontal abduction
-shoulder horizontal adduction
-shoulder functional external rotation
-shoulder external rotation
-shoulder internal rotation in flexion or abduction
-shoulder external rotation in flexion or abduction
[shoulder exercises also with resistance]
-shoulder caudal glides
[all movements may also be performed as clinician mobilization]
When discussing athletic performance, we think of coaches, strength and conditioning specialists, trainers, and so on, but my role comprises the foundation. Power, balance, and mobility are certainly trainable, but if your body is not fully normal to begin with, training will only get you so far. If performance prowess is your goal, you need normal nerve conduction, nerve extensibility, strength, mobility, biomechanics, etc. first. (Having no symptoms doesn’t mean everything is functioning normally.)
Consider jumping. If there’s even a slight derangement (painful or not) in the lumbosacral spine, the electricity supplying necessary muscles can be impeded. Tiny malalignments in the foot, ankle, knee, hip, or spine joints can affect strength, mobility, balance, and movement patterns with jumping. Abnormalities with muscles or tendons themselves (rare) will also impact jumping.
My expertise is in ensuring people have normal physiology before they go train to make it exceptional. (There are, of course, some allowances.) Perhaps most importantly, I teach people how to self-assess and self-treat so they can always perform with optimized physiology. It takes only minutes. I believe that many “off” days are due to minor, transient joint malalignments - which can easily be self-detected and corrected if you learn how. --Laura
The primary law with tendons is first clinically (not via imaging) ruling out that it’s not a joint problem masquerading as a tendon problem. Joint misalignments (spine and extremities) can cause pain in tendinous areas and inhibit muscles, which unfortunately leads many clinicians to treat innocent tendons. If the “tendon” is taking forever to heal, it’s likely not the tendon. Tendon/muscle pathology comprises a small proportion of problems.
When it’s indeed a tendon, rehabilitation is relatively straightforward. A tendon’s collagen often needs to be remodeled to become functional again. This is accomplished by regularly (several times per day) loading the tendon for a few months. It may never look normal again, however. Causes why the tendon became dysfunctional initially should be addressed, and proper spine and extremity mechanics should be ensured.
The load a tendon needs is individual-specific. I find the load that creates pain (about 6/10) for 15-20 minutes following the exercise - which may be isometric, concentric, eccentric, or ballistic. Once a load doesn’t meet that criterion, the load is increased so it’s effective. Tendon rehabilitation is largely about 1) ensuring it’s a tendon, 2) educating the patient, and 3) encouraging briefly painful self-management with limited office visits. -- Laura
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