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
This is a lateral shift. A lateral shift of the low back (lumbar spine) joints. It's not a hip, pelvis, SI, or IT band issue. They're not always as obvious as this, so orthopedic clinicians must remove the patient's shirt to see it. It is not observable in lying; the patient must be standing. It is corrected (often painfully) by moving the low back joints in the opposite direction first. Usually that entails side glides against the wall or in free standing, and sometimes I need to assist as the clinician. Once the patient has free movement in both directions side to side, we restore extension and flexion of the low back. These are not that common, but I will typically see a few patients a month with a lateral shift.
Many, many bodily joints and tissues need to function well to be able to fully bend forward. Poor hamstrings, though … they always get blamed!
To regain forward bending ability, I hardly ever loosen patients’ hamstrings. However, say a patient did simply need looser hamstrings - then clinical care is hardly needed. (Stretching is not rocket science!) With consistent home stretching, hamstring length better consistently improve.
In almost all cases, forward bending is limited because lumbar structures are moving improperly. Usually it’s that the joints themselves are misaligned. In other cases, compressed/adhered/trapped nerves create nerve tension that limits this movement (with or without contemporary joint malalignment).
Forward bending (lumbar flexion) is usually restored once we get the patients’ lumbar structures moving properly again. Importantly, using forward bending to achieve this is beneficial in only a small group of patients. More commonly I utilize lumbar extension or sidegliding.
So why do people say they “feel it” in their hamstrings? It’s either that they’re actually feeling the sciatic nerve(s) pull or that, in attempting to bend further, their body eeeks out more motion in the only structures it can – muscles and tendons – so they “feel it” there. Expert mechanical clinicians know better. --Laura
In orthopedics, the core comprises a specific group of muscles in the trunk/pelvis. (Others use core generally to mean trunk.) Core muscle strength is beneficial. Just as arm, chest, and foot strength are beneficial! Core muscles are not exemplary. They’re no more our “foundation” than our foot muscles or those running the length of our spine.
Many erroneously treat orthopedic low back pathology by strengthening the core. Assuming core muscle strength can be accurately assessed, if one or more of them is weak, the question is why. Muscles become weak (and painful) from pulls/tears. However, these are very rare when it comes to the large muscles of the core. (Tears follow a consistent, predictable pattern, too, which should make them obvious to an attentive clinician.) Pain can create weakness, but absent a clear tear, the pain usually originates from something other than the muscle.
The number one reason any muscle is weak (the large majority of cases) is because its electricity from nerves has been inhibited – either at the spine or extremity joints. It’s a joint problem. Therefore, in most cases strengthening a weak muscle (or entire group!) is simply attacking a symptom, which won’t fully resolve the problem. -- 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
Centralization is a very important concept, and is well-documented in many research studies. Problems in the spine often cause pain/numbness/tingling in the extremities (legs, feet, arms, hands) as affected nerves carry symptoms along the distribution of the nerve. Centralization is when symptoms move toward the spine. This is a GOOD thing - even if the spine pain is temporarily more intense (before it goes away for good). By the same token, peripheralization is not a good thing. We don't want pain that is moving farther away from the spine into the periphery (extremities). Keep in mind that centralization also applies when left or right low back pain or left or right neck pain moves to the center of the low back or neck.
Not all patients will experience centralization. Some extremity pain just goes away without moving to the spine first. If you are receiving treatment or are just monitoring or treating yourself, remember to avoid things that peripheralize your symptoms and to perform the activities or movements that centralize your symptoms. When I treat patients with spine or extremity symptoms, I use specific movements to elicit centralization - and prevent peripheralization. If you experience centralization, you know you're on the right track!
Your car seat alignment is very important for your health! For starters, we tend to spend a decent amount of time in our vehicles. Additionally, the time spent in your car seat is spent in one position. You're typically not moving around by crossing your legs, shifting your weight, etc. - because you can't. So if you're going to be stuck in one position, it better be the best possible position for your spine and body as a whole.
Three things are crucial: (1) Ensure the headrest is not pushing your neck/head forward. I turned mine around. It took time getting used to being in a NEUTRAL position, but now it feels natural (as it should!). (2) Get your bum level with your knees. No sinking into the seat! If you can't adjust your seat, sit on towels or purchase something. I use a wedge I got from my local Relax The Back store to lift up my hips. (3) Get adequate lumbar support. You might have an inflatable support in your car, but even that might not be enough. I use a firm McKenzie lumbar roll. -- 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
Among the many successful patient encounters I had in Peru, an especially memorable case was a male patient around 60 years old who presented with complaints of left knee pain with walking on hills and with squatting. He demonstrated a minimal loss of left knee extension, pain with left knee flexion overpressure and extension overpressure, weakness in the left hip flexor, and movement loss in his lumbar spine. We used squatting as his primary baseline test - it was indeed very painful for his left knee, which also buckled at the bottom of the squat, forcing him to push on a table with his hands to return to standing. Repeated movements in the sagittal plane for the spine had no effect on squatting; nor did repeated movements of the left knee (sagittal and transverse planes). I did not enjoy continually asking him to retest squatting, but that information was crucial, especially considering I would never see him again. I could sense he was growing frustrated as well since, after movement upon movement, squatting remained very painful. It wasn’t until we performed supine rotation in flexion that squatting proved better. With repetition, his squatting ability continued to improve. His knee now had no movement loss and no pain with overpressure and his hip flexor was strong. You could see the excitement on his face; the translator conveyed that the patient was happy and appreciative. I taught him how to perform the maneuver at home and am optimistic that he will be walking and squatting better in the future. -- Laura
Just as important as the mechanical therapy I provide to patients to eliminate their symptoms is the education I provide regarding how to keep their spines healthy in the future. A terrific analogy I've learned from mentors enlists teeth brushing. Just as we recognize the significance of keeping our teeth healthy via flossing, brushing, and dietary habits, we should acknowledge that devoting a few minutes a day to our spines is a worthy endeavor. My goal with patients in this educational arena has two facets.
The first is simply teaching people to be aware of the movements and positions our spines adopt on a daily basis. Unlike our peripheral joints which tend to get a fair amount of both bending and straightening throughout the day, when we look at spines, the majority of people in the US spend their days in an imbalance in favor of forward bending (flexion). (The upper neck, however, is often hanging out more in a backward bent (extension) posture. Why? Because our lower necks are stuck forward, and we need to see ahead!) To be sure, certain manual jobs, or desk jobs in which the computer monitor absolutely has to be to your side, create movement imbalances in other directions. Likewise for someone who takes hundreds of right-handed baseball or golf swings per day or throws overhead regularly. Once this observational ability sets in - which undoubtedly takes time - the plan of attack is straightforward: reduce the imbalance. This is akin to reducing your teeth's exposure to deleterious foods and drinks.
The second piece to keeping our spines healthy, and preventing re-injury, is intentional movement. As I tell my patients, just as you brush your teeth twice a day, give your spine some good, healthy movement twice a day. In the most common scenario, this translates to bending backwards - all the way backwards - about ten times twice a day. Sometimes it is rotation or even bending forward. My patients leave my care knowing what their specific movement is.
Like most people, over my lifetime, my spine scale was heavily tipped in favor of forward bending. Sitting slouched at desks over books, slumping "comfortably" into couches and chairs, and later bending over patients added up to a lot of spine flexion. Did I ever bend all the way backward? Maybe a handful of times. It's no wonder I injured myself. Once I learned to look at how we position ourselves, however, I adopted several changes to narrow the gap between the amount of my spine's flexion and extension. Firstly, I almost always sit with a lumbar roll which places my lower spine (except L5-S1, which remains in 60% flexion in sitting) in extension, or at least neutral. If I don't have something to support me, I sit up straight, slouching only occasionally. Secondly, I spend more time lying on my stomach propped up on elbows while reading, watching television, or using electronic devices. Thirdly, given the choice, I often choose to stand instead of sit; for example, I will stand when using my computer on my high counter or when out at places like bars or concerts.
As far as the second component - deliberate movements - I have two go-tos. A few times a month, I'll notice I need to rotate my spine to one side so I'll do that. Most days, though, I move my neck, mid back, and low back into extension a few times. This tallies up to roughly 5 minutes per day, which is a more than reasonable price to pay to keep what I call the "body's fuse box" working correctly. -Laura
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