A positive FABER test does not incriminate just the hip & SI joints; it can be positive in the case of lumbar pathology as well. FABER stands for Flexion, ABduction, External Rotation. It's a test in which, in supine, the hip is placed in that position, like a figure 4. As with almost all orthopedic special tests (OSTs), I use the FABER as a baseline that informs my thinking — not as a test that tells me a diagnosis.
Just like basic range of motion, strength, or the ability to do a functional activity can be a baseline, so can a test. The FABER test, after all, judges range of motion and its effect on symptoms. As we implement an intervention, we examine if and how baselines change. I know what I expect to see change for each specific diagnosis.
So if I note that FABER is positive on the left and/or right, the questions become: Is it relevant? And: Will it change? Based on that particular baseline and all the other information I’ve gathered (verbal and physical), we apply specific movements and assess the result. I know there's a strong chance lumbar procedures, hip procedures, and/or SIJ procedures can change the FABER test. -- Laura
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
For the Lower Body, The Most Significant Aspect of Sitting All Day is Lumbar Flexion, Not Hip Flexion
I know this because I test it versus make assumptions. The hips and lumbar spine are physically close to each other, but tests can easily differentiate the two. We can move the lumbar spine without moving the hip and vice versa.
As I’ve written before, I strongly disagree with the popular idea that prolonged sitting (which puts the hips in flexion) leads to tight hip flexors which leads to pain in the hip flexors. That theory falls apart on so many levels. For starters, since when do tissues (especially “tight” tissues) hurt when put on slack? What is actually happening in the majority of patients who experience anterior pelvic and hip pain in sitting (the “hip flexor area”) is they are experiencing referred pain from the lumbar spine, which is also almost always in flexion when seated. In a smaller number of cases, the pain is referred from the hip joint(s).
If you have pain, you can’t just assume it’s from the muscle in that area. Often it’s coming from somewhere else, which I usually address with specific movement. You’ll get better faster - and stay better longer - if you treat the actual problem. -- Laura
There is absolutely a time and place for joint replacements. While it’s every patient’s decision, I believe it’s best to explore conservative measures first - if for no other reason than risk alone. An individual’s determination should be based on a collection of facts and viewpoints.
It’s typically true that, when compared to replacement, therapy 1. poses less health risk 2. mandates less time off work 3. costs less 4. instills more self-efficacy 5. hurts less. Of course in the right patient group, it also provides superior outcomes. Within 5 visits I can usually arrive at a prognosis. With a poor prognosis (ie there’s too much structural compromise to improve), presenting the option of a surgical consult makes sense. If a patient explores therapy and a replacement is indicated, little time or money is lost in that endeavor if the therapist is skilled at arriving at a prognosis early.
“How can a person with a given diagnosis of OA who’s been recommended a new knee do well with therapy?” I treat a patient with joint complaints just like everyone else. I diagnose the patient based on a history and movement exam and treat accordingly. Most diagnoses do well with therapy, but in some cases it becomes clear that surgery is needed. -- Laura
Hamstring pain is posterior thigh pain. Quadriceps pain is anterior thigh pain. IT band pain is lateral thigh pain. Adductor pain is groin pain.
Of course it fits that people who aren’t clinicians would label pain using structures they know. And it’s obvious most people can name big muscle groups! My issue is when clinicians inappropriately do it.
If the patient uses this language, in an effort to create rapport, I may use it with interactions with that patient as well. Mimicing language can be a nice therapeutic tool that is easy to implement. (I typically will adopt the patient’s word for describing his or her own symptoms, for example; my favorite instance being my patient who referred to his radiating leg pain as his “lightning bolt.”) I’d prefer, however, to use the correct language if possible since accurate patient education regarding his or her problem is key to a successful outcome.
I do not use these terms to refer to these parts of the body outside of that specific patient context, though. Yes, if the patient has true hamstring, quad, ITB, or adductor pathology, these words are clearly apropos. But those patients (especially among non-athletes) are rare. In most cases a patient’s posterior, anterior, or lateral thigh pain or groin pain is referred pain from the spine or hip. --Laura
Regularly sitting for prolonged periods, especially slouched, can lead to orthopedic problems. But the problems arise almost always from joints, not muscles. I continually hear people (health professionals, notably) declare that sitting’s “shortened” position of the hip flexors can cause painful, tight hip flexors. Granted this doesn’t affect all sitters (nothing does), but if large amounts of time in shortened states can lead to painfully tight muscles, then where is the observable pattern? Why aren’t more biceps affected secondary to prolonged elbow bending? Where’s the complaint of painful anterior neck muscles as our heads are so often forward?
Though I make my case verbally, people won’t budge. It’s likely the only way to prove my point would be to demonstrate an evaluation and treatment of someone with this given “diagnosis.” In the absence of that, I put forth that, one, we have ways of clinically determining if this is occurring, which, importantly, involves ruling out joints and nerves. Two, if we consider joint mechanics, deranged upper-mid lumbar segments and hip joints can send referred/radicular pain to the hip flexor area. Deranged elbows usually refer pain to the medial, lateral, or posterior elbow. And neck derangements typically send pain posteriorly and laterally – rarely anteriorly. The deranged joint pattern is observable. --Laura
Tendon issues are unfortunately incorrectly diagnosed all the time. That is, issues that are not tendon problems are diagnosed as tendon problems. “Issues” and “problems” refer to tendinopathy, tendinosis, tendonitis, and tendon tears. We have hundreds of tendons in our bodies; they are pieces of tissue that connect our muscles to our bones. Those that get an unfair share of the blame are the four rotator cuff tendons in the shoulder, the two main tendon groups at the elbow, the Achilles tendon of the ankle, and the patellar tendon at the knee. This frequent misdiagnosis happens for two chief reasons.
One, tendon problems are common on images such as MRI so, in the absence of an expert clinical mechanical exam, the tendon is identified as the culprit simply because of a picture. The concern with this is that tendon problems are common on images such as MRI in people with NO pain or other symptoms. So if Sarah has a large supraspinatus tendon tear on her MRI and no shoulder pain and John has a large supraspinatus tendon tear on his MRI and does have shoulder pain, can you assert that the supraspinatus tendon tear is causing his pain? Not from that information alone, you can’t.
(Say your car starts acting funny. You open up the hood to take a quick look. You see a lot of leaves around the engine. Can you assume that the leaves are causing the problem? Or would your mechanic need to run some diagnostic tests? After all, we know that there are plenty of cars with leaves stuck under the hood that run just fine.)
The second reason for this misdiagnosing conundrum? Lack of expert clinical “mechanics.” When I first began as a physical therapist, if a patient came to me with shoulder pain (with or without an MRI report), I performed the orthopedic shoulder tests I learned in school. While there are several tests aimed at diagnosing a rotator cuff tendon problem, these tests are actually not very good. They can regularly be positive when something other than the tendon is at fault. If physical therapists, orthopedists, general practitioners, surgeons, chiropractors, athletic trainers, etc. are still basing their diagnoses (and subsequent treatment) on these tests, they are missing a lot of crucial information.
Once I learned during my post-doctoral coursework that other problems can mimic tendon problems, I began looking for these in the clinic. And, lo and behold, most of the time it is something else causing the patient’s problem. The top two problems that mimic tendon problems are misalignment in the spine joints whose nerves send signals to the area of the tendon (eg the neck) and misalignment in the extremity joint closest the tendon (eg the shoulder).
How do I diagnose a tendon problem then? These are my top two criteria:
In closing, don’t jump to conclusions based on an image or the location of pain. A lot of shoulder pain is coming from the neck or from a shoulder joint that is not sitting properly – not a rotator cuff tendon. Likewise, a lot of pain on the outside of the hip is coming from the low back or from a hip joint that is not sitting properly – not the gluteal tendon. Our bodies are beautiful in their intricacy and nuance, making my job as a mechanical therapist exciting. It is the ability to understand this nuance that makes a clinician effective at diagnosing and treating. --Laura
Has someone told you you have weak gluteus medius (hip abductor) muscles? The L4, L5, and S1 nerves supply the electricity to this muscle, so there's a GREAT chance the glute med is weak because those nerves are inhibited in your (slouchy) low back. In that case, the solution would simply be to free up those nerves in the low back - and the strength would return immediately! Could save months of strength training, not to mention actually addressing the true cause of the weakness. -- Laura
Last night was a great night! Runner's Depot in Davie hosted my presentation on the spine and how it relates to running injuries. Runners have a reputation for having a lot of injuries and, worse, a lot of recurrent or persistent injuries. The crux of my talk is that a lot of injuries in the lower extremities are misdiagnosed as local injuries and not correctly as injuries originating from the nerves in the lumbar spine. For example, plantar fasciits is commonly misdiagnosed. Yes, it exists, but not as frequently as it is diagnosed. The hallmark sign of plantar fasciitis is extreme foot pain with first steps in the morning. That usually eases throughout the day, but returns each morning since the plantar fascia is on slack all night as you sleep and is then stretched with your first steps out of bed. If that sign is present, I still investigate the spine to rule it out. But when that hallmark sign is absent (for example, the pain is variable throughout the day or week), the diagnosis of a lumbar spine injury is more likely (or another diagnosis). More specifically, a nerve may be being hit or pinched in the lumbar spine and producing pain along the part of that nerve in the foot. IT band issues, patellar tendonitis, hip labral tears, and meniscal damage are a few other pathologies that come to mind when I think about regularly misdiagnosed injuries. Irritated nerves from the spine can produce pain in any area of the lower extremities and must be ruled out in the decision-making process. And remember, just because something is on an x-ray or MRI does not mean it is causing your symptoms. Images are full of problems in people without symptoms so a clinical diagnosis, in which structures and tissues are individually stressed, is needed.
I don't think that spine injuries are more prevalent in runners; nearly everyone will have a spine injury at some point. We just need to be able to diagnose them correctly when they do exist. That way, runners, like everyone else, can get back to doing what they love to do as soon as possible! --Laura
Take a look at this study! 45 volunteers with NO history of hip pain, injury, symptoms, or surgery were given an MRI. (Average age of volunteers: 37.8 years.) MRI's of these asymptomatic participants revealed abnormalities in 73% of hips, with labral tears in 69% of the joints.
I clearly love saying this: just because it's on an image doesn't mean it is causing problems. You need a quality McKenzie mechanical evaluation in the clinic to find out what is actually causing symptoms. --Laura
Check out the short study here: http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/40/12/2720.short
Learn more about the world of diagnosing and treating orthopedics here!