It’s not uncommon that sleeping makes problems worse. That is, symptoms become exacerbated and/or movement becomes limited. Morning stiffness to a small extent is allowable when it comes to spinal flexion, but, otherwise, after being up and about for a few minutes, you should have the same amount of mobility you went to bed with.
During sleep, we often spend considerable time in one position without moving - whether we want to or not. It is my opinion that most orthopedic problems are related to movements and postures, so it makes sense that, just like with sitting or walking, sleeping postures can easily make people worse (or better).
If the thought process is that people need muscular strength to “hold” or “stabilize” joints in the right position, then there must be profound weakness if the simple act of sleeping causes joints to destabilize. Similarly, sleeping should not be aggressive enough to strain/pull muscles.
My thought process is this: I agree healthy joints should be able to withstand prolonged positions while sleeping, but I don’t think the answer is muscle-driven stability. And I don’t think muscles get pulled in our sleep. Benign positions like sitting or lying can indeed move joints - regardless of how much muscle is nearby. And these subtle changes can commonly cause symptoms. On the whole, strength is wonderful, but I believe we need to get the joint better first by moving the joint itself.
It’s true that spinal discs enlarge when we lie down to sleep, and that may be the sole factor why someone has more pain and/or less motion upon waking (vs related to any certain position). But even if that is the causative factor, then, again, I want to primarily address the disc (part of the joint) versus address the musculature around it. It’s also true that not all orthopedic problems are joint problems. Sleeping on a painful tendon can worsen symptoms, too. But most problems do have to do with joints - and addressing them effectively is important. -- Laura
If neck, mid, back, or shoulder blade symptoms are worse with driving or after driving, it’s worth considering your car posture. The same applies to symptoms anywhere in the head, face, shoulder or arm, all the way to your fingers. (The lower portion and bottom seat can play a role in low back and leg problems.) Most cars put the mid back in flexion and the neck in flexion and/or protrusion. In other words, the mid back joints are rounded and the joints of the neck are either bent forward or pushed forward.
If a posture has no effect on symptoms while you’re in the position nor after, and if your movement ability is not negatively affected, then there’s no problem. For a lot of patients with upper body complaints, though, posture in the car does warrant discussion. Many patients note driving is exacerbating and many patients spend a fair amount of time in their cars. The good news? With all of the patients’ cars I’ve assessed, adjusting the ergonomics of the car is easy and inexpensive. The theme is usually (if not always) to get the upper body straight, not flexed. The hardest part is for patients to get used to it - but that beats symptoms! -- Laura
Sometimes the neck isn’t just the neck. Movements affect joints of the neck in distinct ways. When you're at rest in sitting, for instance, the lower cervical is typically in flexion wheras the upper cervical spine is in extension. The designation into three separate sections (upper cervical, mid cervical, and lower cervical) is helpful. Retraction and extension target different parts differently, as do protrusion and flexion. Retraction-extension is not identical to pure extension. Lateral flexion in neutral is different than lateral flexion in retraction. And so on. As I believe most orthopedic disorders are fixed with specific movement, I am specific when it comes to finding that particular movement. -- Laura
So sit-ups flex your spine? So what? We flex our spine thousands of times a day and sit flexed an awful lot as well. As long as you (1) know how to discern if an activity (such as sit-ups) is harming you and (2) know how to correct it if it is, you are good to go. The best way to know if an activity is harming you outside of symptoms is ascertaining if it decreases your motion. (If we’re talking about the low back, that means flexion, extension, left sideglide, and right sideglide.)
I incorporate sit-ups into my workouts as well as other spinal flexion exercises. I like sit-ups with my legs straight and ones with my legs bent. But, what do I also do? I spend 10 seconds every day checking if I have my normal low back motion and also perform prophylactic movements. (I’m lying on my stomach propped on my elbows right now.) If I were just starting sit-ups, I would check right after to make sure they didn’t cause me to lose motion (they never did).
Are there certain things certain people can’t do? Of course. Sit-ups could hurt your back just like brushing your teeth could or a long car ride could; they’re not extra scary. By understanding the concepts of how to keep joints healthy, we don’t have to avoid nor fear specific exercises. I’m here to teach. -- Laura
If someone tweaks something, the question then becomes, what was tweaked? I find most tweaks occur in joints - not muscles, tendons, ligaments, labrums, nerves, or other structures. Think of a kitchen drawer not opening properly. Usually it’s the moving, connector parts that get tweaked, not the metal or the wood itself. The analogy is that joints are the primary moving units when it comes to our bodies.
Tweak also usually implies something not major, which I like. Problems that aren’t that serious can typically be fixed simply with movement. The final important point is that tweaks are not only acute events - long-standing symptoms can also be the result of a simple unrecognized tweak that just stuck around, never getting the proper treatment. These long-term problems often have fixes just like the recent tweaks that people do recall. -- 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
People end up replacing and fusing their joints, not their muscles. We must focus on keeping joints healthy, not just muscles. Yes, having muscle strength helps support joints, and training muscles for endurance and strength inevitably moves joints. But focusing on joints is different than simply getting the byproducts of working out muscles. The best way to monitor joint health is monitoring range of motion. The great news is that maintaining range of motion only takes minutes a day. It’s easy to preserve full motion with self-mobilizations once you have it and once you understand the factors that decrease it. For example, you can check your shoulder mobility in one minute. Want to strip it down to the bare minimum? I’d say make sure you can reach all the way up your back and that you can elevate your arm all the way up, out to the side.
Please keep working out those muscles - they're important for musculoskeletal as well as overall health. It’s easy to see, though, that joints more often fail, not muscles. In addition to controlling lifestyle factors, we can also very easily “exercise” our joints. The most important thing is to get joints all the way to end range (especially your spine!) and make sure you can continue to do so. This is what I teach my patients how to do. --Laura
Differential orthopedic diagnoses for shoulder blade pain include a strain/pull/tear to any of the muscles in the area (there are many) and a shoulder joint disturbance. It’s very rare that you injure one of those muscles - and shoulder joint derangements only infrequently refer pain posteriorly to the shoulder blade. Can a frozen shoulder refer pain back there as well? Sure. But that’s not usually going to be the chief complaint of someone with a frozen shoulder.
The joints in the cervical spine and the thoracic spine can refer symptoms to many areas, and the shoulder blade is a big player. With altered electricity coming from irritated spinal nerves, it’s not uncommon to find spasms or trigger points in the shoulder blade muscles. Those findings are the symptoms, not the culprit. Local weakness can also be a finding due to spinal nerve irritation. I find that in nearly every case I’ve seen in which the person complains of shoulder blade pain (or ache or tightness), we can fix it with repeated or sustained movements of the spine - in the sagittal, frontal, or transverse plane. -- 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
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
Learn more about the world of diagnosing and treating orthopedics here!