You’re assessing, assessing, assessing to arrive at a diagnosis. And then even when you think you have the diagnosis, you’re assessing, assessing, assessing to make sure you’re on the right track.
I want a plan that helps; that goes without saying. But when you’re figuring things out, you want to know about any and all effects - helpful, harmful, or indifferent. In order to get to the helpful plan, we need to understand what’s going on, which importantly includes knowing what tests and/or treatment strategies have no effect or which ones make you worse.
If a repeated movement has no effect, that might make me think there’s more likely a tissue problem instead of a joint problem. Or that we have a joint problem that needs more force, or a different direction. If repeated movement in a particular direction makes things worse, then it is more likely you have a joint derangement, and now we have information about which direction would be helpful. Knowing that something we test has a negative impact (on pain, movement, etc.) is just as powerful as knowing something has a helpful impact.
All of these pieces - all of these effects of repeated movement tests combined with the verbal history and physical baselines (as well as any other necessary diagnostic tests) - help us understand what’s going on. There are dozens of these puzzle pieces, by the way! And the faster we know what’s going on, the faster we can hone in on the treatment you need. -- Laura
The Main Point Isn't That Most Mechanical Disorders Can Be Fixed With Movement. It's That Most Orthopedic Disorders Are Mechanical.
Diagnosing a problem is always the most important step. Then you match the treatment to the diagnosis. When we diagnose orthopedic disorders we can think of 3 main categories: mechanical (or functional) problems, structural problems, and inflammatory problems. A huge problem I see in medicine is problems being diagnosed as structural or inflammatory when in fact they’re mechanical.
What do I mean by mechanical? Problems that are affected by movement, usually fixed with movement, and, significantly, not structural or inflammatory. My skill set is in treating these problems, which are >90% of problems. (My skill set is also in diagnosing which problem you have to begin with. If it’s structural or inflammatory, I refer you to a clinician who treats those.)
A structural problem is like a fracture, tear, stenosis, or dislocation. They cannot be fixed with movement; they need a separate treatment approach. I’ll say this again: very often people’s tears, etc. are diagnosed as structural and recommended a structural-problem solution like surgery when in fact the tear is not structurally unsound. Instead, the tear is causing or is related to a mechanical problem, which can be fixed with movement. People move and function just fine with “structural” problems “diagnosed” by imaging all the time!
Inflammation won’t be fixed with movement. In the acute stage inflammation can often be fixed with rest/time. In a sub-acute or chronic phase, other anti-inflammatory treatments may be necessitated.
Some may argue that central sensitization is its own category, which I'm fine with. But a central processing problem such as that may be better classified as a neurological versus an orthopedic disorder. There’s room for debate.
When I assess patients I’m asking: is this mechanical, structural, inflammatory, or other? By asking the right questions, listening, and expertly moving patients (when safe), we can figure it out. If someone has a structural or inflammatory problem, they won’t get better with movement. But they are the outliers, and you have to use repeated movement testing (when safe) to discern if someone’s tear, for instance, is truly a structural problem or a more easily fixable mechanical one. -- Laura
Yes, some patients have problems that cannot be fixed with movement. But how will you know unless you test movements and interpret the effect? In almost all orthopedic cases, diagnosing should involve repeated movement testing. Morton's neuroma is currently diagnosed by imaging and provocation testing, but, as Michael David Post and Joseph R. Maccio's paper "Mechanical diagnosis and therapy and Morton's neuroma: a case-series" demonstrates, a repeated movement exam is needed to assess if patients will benefit from repeated movements.
If you take people with no toe pain and put them in an MRI, many will have neuromas. So we know they can be present without causing pain. When patients do have pain, then, we can't assume their neuroma is the cause. We need to investigate if the spine is the cause or the toe joint is the cause. Additionally, assuming a neuroma is causing pain still doesn't mean the patient won't do well with repeated movement treatment (but you have to find the correct movement).
What percentage of patients who complain of toe pain receive a competent repeated movement exam? How many with toe complaints will have a clinician investigate their lumbar spine? And what percent will even be recommended to see a movement-based therapist if the image shows a neuroma? If these three patients hadn’t resolved their problems in just a few visits with repeated movement, what types of therapies, injections, surgeries might they have had? In this case series, three patients with medically-diagnosed diagnosed neuromas abolished their toe pain with repeated movements, with those results remaining at one year. One patient required repeated movements of the lumbar spine (low back) and two patients needed repeated movements of the affected toe.
When it comes to movement testing, I believe in end-range repeated movement testing that investigates the relevant spinal segments as well as the relevant affected joint(s). This is the core foundation of the McKenzie method. Movement testing is not the same as orthopedic special tests or palpation tests or provocation tests. It means repeatedly moving a person in the clinic and at home and evaluating the effects if has on the person’s symptoms and mechanics. Looking at a picture and seeing if something hurts when you press on it is rarely enough. -- Laura
When the public hears that all it takes is a quick MRI to know what their orthopedic problem is, it can be hard to educate regarding the importance of movement testing. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes, but movement testing may take more time. However, even if I have to test someone using movement for a couple weeks, we do save time in the long run. Repeated movement testing - combined with clinical reasoning of course - tells me which type of treatment is appropriate (physical therapy, injection, medicine, surgery, etc.) or if another form of testing (ie imaging) is needed. It also tells me, if physical therapy is indicated, what specific treatment is called for. We want to match treatment to the correct diagnosis. -- 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
Again, it boils down to function vs structure. Most problems are things not functioning well - not structural damage. Think thyroids under or over producing hormones, hearts not pumping blood efficiently, bacterial infections in the gut.
In the musculoskeletal system it’s often nerves misfiring, joints not moving well, muscles not activating. Movement testing reveals these. Structural musculoskeletal issues, though, primarily need imaging to be visualized; they’re hard to see with the naked eye. Those who believe musculoskeletal problems are largely due to structural damage (I do not) therefore usually rely on imaging. A glaring problem with imaging, however, is that people with no complaints will have structural changes upon imaging. That those “changes” become “damage” in the presence of complaints is an unsubstantiated leap.
I use movement to test (and treat) the structure and function of people’s musculoskeletal system. In the event a relevant structural issue that will not respond to therapy is suspected, the individual is referred to the appropriate clinician. -- Laura
Imaging can show plenty of things that are not related to people’s complaints. You need to move people to understand their problem. I am not against imaging when used under the appropriate circumstances. But imaging people’s spines (who have no red flags) before moving them to arrive at a diagnosis is plain wrong. Stenosis is quite normal with aging and is present on images of people with zero pain. Therefore, we know stenosis is not an automatic pain generator. If you have complaints and imaging shows stenosis, it holds that something else could be causing your pain. We don’t know until we move you. In my experience, the large majority of patients who have come to me saying another clinician diagnosed them with stenosis have done very well with therapy. In most of those cases, therefore, something else was causing their symptoms and their initial diagnosis was incorrect.
Scenario one. Your image shows stenosis. We move your spine and, despite the bony stenosis your image shows, you respond well to movement(s) and your symptoms resolve. [majority of cases in my experience]
Scenario two. Your image shows stenosis and, after we move you for several visits, it becomes clear that the stenosis is related to your symptoms. We discuss how we need just a couple weeks of specific movement to see if we can change any correlated soft tissue stenosis and impact your symptoms. We know that there is bony stenosis on the image but we still don’t know if bone or soft tissue is the real issue. Soft tissue we can usually change with movement, bones we cannot. After a few weeks your symptoms decrease or resolve so that no further intervention is desired/needed. [fewer cases]
Scenario three. Same as number two except, after the couple weeks of specific movement, your symptoms are unchanged. At this point we can integrate different strategies in therapy with goals of minimal to moderate overall improvement of symptoms - or you can have a surgical consult with the goal of more significant improvement. [fewer cases]
The point is we don't know which scenario applies to you until we move you. -- Laura
The technology we have to see what is going on inside our bodies is tremendous. However, it is not always helpful. Just like many of us develop wrinkles and gray hair, orthopedic changes in our body are normal. Since we know that many people have these changes (eg disc bulges or cartilage defects or neuromas) WITHOUT symptoms, we should realize that if a person has complaints we cannot automatically blame these changes. A thorough clinical exam with repeated movement testing is necessary for diagnosis. We find that the bulk of patients just have a joint that's not sitting quite right which can be resolved with movement.
If the patient's complaint is not resolving within several visits using the McKenzie method, then an image may be warranted to see if there is a structural finding that is consistent with the patient's complaint. This is rare, however - the percentage of times I request a patient get an image is under 5%. -- Laura
Mechanical pain isn’t a new concept - it’s the most common kind of pain. Besides pain, tightness, numbness, clicking/locking, and tingling are also possible symptoms. The bad news is usually mechanical problems are diagnosed incorrectly as structural problems (eg torn meniscus). The good news is almost all are fixable - if you find a clinician who can diagnose and treat them, like a McKenzie expert.
Mechanical problems are those that, simply, can be fixed with movement. Examples include pinched nerves, dysfunctional tendons, pulled muscles, and frozen shoulders. However, the biggest subset of mechanical problems is joint derangements. Derangements (misalignments) are when something (somehow!) obstructs the joint, such as a fat pad; a herniated/bulging disc; a bone fragment; or a piece of meniscus, labrum, or cartilage. Treatment for muscles/tendons involves tissue remodeling movement; joint derangements require specific movements to restore proper alignment.
Outside of mechanical problems there are structural, chemical/inflammatory, and nervous system problems, among others. Most healthcare providers and patients conclude that symptoms are from a structural issue because of unreliable orthopedic tests and MRIs. Orthopedic tests are false positives in the presence of mechanical derangements and MRIs consistently show abnormalities that are irrelevant. An expert mechanical exam is needed. -- Laura
Osteoarthritis (OA) is prevalent with aging. So is gray hair. And wrinkles. OA is a form of joint degeneration, just like gray hair and wrinkles represent types of degeneration. But we think of hair and skin changes kindlier, accepting them as normal, harmless parts of getting older.
OA, on the other hand, gets a bad rap – a painful rap – when in fact it can also be normal and harmless. An association between OA and pain is unfortunately widely believed. If someone’s knee hurts and a knee MRI shows osteoarthritis, we quickly blame the osteoarthritis for the pain and tell ourselves that it can’t be fixed (unless we have surgery). When our head or skin hurts, do we automatically blame our grays or our wrinkles?
It is clear OA doesn’t necessarily cause pain because we find plenty of OA in people without pain. In fact, a person over 60 undeniably has OA somewhere in her body. Pain in a joint may be from OA, but it may also be from an irritated nerve, a dysfunctional tendon, or a misalignment in the joint – which are all typically very fixable! Expert McKenzie clinicians identify (and then treat) the true cause of someone’s pain. -- Laura
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