Most of orthopedics is getting joints moving better, getting nerves conducting electricity and moving better, and getting tendons functioning at full capacity. Rare is the case that true strength needs to be built in a muscle or muscles to resolve a problem. Those scenarios include when atrophy is creating problems (secondary to a number of possible factors) and when there has been injury to a specific muscle. While I often use general “strengthening” exercises as an adjunct to the primary intervention, the intent there is to get the musculoskeletal system moving and working again, not strengthening. Of course, muscular strength, which takes significant time to build, has myriad positive effects on the body, and I wholeheartedly support strength training in general. However, when problems arise, specific distinct solutions are typically called for. -- Laura
Structures other than muscles can be tight. For example, nerves can get tight. Clinically we say they have lost extensibility, are compressed, or are entrapped. However, they do effectively get “tight” in many cases. Joint capsules can also get tight, as can the joints themselves. I usually use the word obstructed when referring to joints, but, to most patients, they in essence feel tight.
Tightness is also a common referred sensation. With referred symptoms, people tend to name the muscle where they feel the symptom. For instance, if the joints in the low back are referring symptoms to the front of the thigh, people usually say (and assume) they have a quadriceps problem. Understanding the concept of referred symptoms is crucial ... but it’s also very important to recognize that it’s not just pain, numbness, and tingling that can be referred. It’s also common to have referred sensations that feel tight, achy, or even hot or cold. -- Laura
Part of effective diagnosing is understanding the basics of how joints, muscles, and nerves work. People with low back pain commonly think they “pulled” a muscle. They may have. I will allow that it is possible. However, in ten years of work, not once have I diagnosed someone with a pulled or strained muscle (or tendon) in his low back. (It’s almost always a joint-driven problem - and joints can refer pain to muscles.)
A symptomatic pulled (also known as strained or torn) muscle - anywhere in the body - will hurt when contracted. Each personal case is different, but at some angle and with some type of resistance, when that disrupted muscle is asked to contract, it will provoke pain. The second finding with pulled muscles is that they often hurt when put on tension (stretch). This may or may not create a minimal range of motion loss in the plane in which the muscle is on tension. Third, when the affected muscle is on slack (at rest) and not contracting, nothing should happen and range of motion should be full.
An extensor muscle performs extension. If it is pulled you’ll usually find painful resisted extension, pain at end range of flexion with minimal to no motion loss, and full pain-free passive extension. This applies to extensor muscles everywhere, including in the low back. Therefore, if passive low back extension (prone, using the arms or a machine) is limited or painful, I’m not likely dealing with a muscle problem. If standing extension is pain-free but limited, I’m also likely not dealing with a muscle problem.
Again, knowing the foundations of biomechanics is essential. Just that simple piece of information can allow me to rule out a muscle. Unfortunately, many people (including clinicians) don’t apply these fundamental rules to diagnosing problems. Muscles can hurt due to referred pain, so just because pain is felt in a muscle doesn’t mean the muscle is the problem. A competent diagnostic process will provide the answer. -- Laura
The supraspinatus is the most commonly affected rotator cuff tendon/muscle. It helps lift the arm up, out to the side. When people encounter pain or difficulty lifting their arm like this, they like to jump to the conclusion that the rotator cuff (or supraspinatus) is to blame. Sometimes it is. However, despite the fact that MRIs regularly show changes or “abnormalities” with the supraspinatus tendon or muscle, other mechanisms are at play when it comes to lifting your arm. The supraspinatus does not work in isolation (things rarely do). Problems with joints, capsules, and nerves can also make lifting your arm painful and/or weak.
When I say supraspinatus “problem” I am referring to a tendinopathy, tear, pull, or strain. How I rule in a supraspinatus problem, given no red flags. Step One: Rule out neck derangement. Step Two: Rule out mid back derangement. Step Three: Rule out shoulder derangement. Step Four: Rule out frozen shoulder. Step Five: Rule in supraspinatus problem.
Some of these steps can be completed by asking a few questions. Some require movement testing. The most important point is to recognize that other things can also create weak and/or painful shoulder abduction or a positive “empty can” or “full can” orthopedic special test. -- 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
It takes many weeks for tissue to form adhesions and become tight. And when it is indeed tight, it does NOT vary day to day or week to week. I understand that the sensation patients report is one of “tightness,” but if there is variability, then the source of this tight feeling is not the tissue itself.
When I say tissue, what do I mean? I subdivide it into two main categories: contractile tissue (muscles and tendons) and non-contractile tissue. In the second group, most of the time we’re talking about joint capsular tissue, but there could also be problems with skin, fascia, etc.
Tissue can become tight for many reasons. Think of a simple cut on your skin. If you don’t move the affected tissue, over time the tissue will become tight as scar tissue lays down haphazardly, restricting normal, fluid motion. (This is a good thing - you want scar tissue to be strong! But consistent movement in the right direction will make it flexible.) Surgery is like a simple cut writ large. Many tissues are cut and repaired and, without proper re-integration of movement, often are tight months or years later. Some tissues get tight because they don’t get moved properly. That could be from life habits, patterns after a prior injury, or from 8 weeks in a cast, for instance. A frozen shoulder is another example of tight tissue - which, in the absence of an instigating trauma, usually comes on insidiously.
In these examples, it’s clear that tissue can certainly get tight - and that it can restore to normal length (with informal or formal therapy). It’s also obvious from these scenarios that this process doesn’t allow for a patient to report, “Well, some days it feels really tight, but then some days I’m fine.” Tissue does not behave like that. But joints do ... and they refer that tight feeling to nearby tissue. When I take a patient’s history, I ask very specific questions that narrow my possible diagnoses. If the patient describes variability, local tissue tightness is not the cause. --Laura
A tight flexor muscle will be apparent with extension. End-range extension will be limited, painful, or both. Other motions are not commonly as affected, if at all. For certain, flexion won’t be limited because, with flexion, the tight flexor muscle is on slack.
As I’ve stated before, muscles are incorrectly incriminated as someone’s problem way too often. While I see tendinopathies (a contractile issue, not usually a length or tightness issue), I can’t remember the last time I diagnosed a “tight muscle” or had a patient stretch a muscle. What I typically find are joint derangements - joint problems which refer symptoms to muscles. Joint derangements are fixed (often very quickly) with directional preference exercises.
Tight muscles exist, but they are very rarely the source of someone’s complaints. The better we are at diagnosing a problem, the better we are at fixing it. -- 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
Can we at least agree that a muscle spasm creates a shortening of the muscle as it performs its action? When you have a true calf cramp your foot starts to plantar flex (point down). When your hamstring spasms, your knee bends. When your toe flexors cramp, your toes curl. And so on. (There can be many causes of these muscle spasms including musculoskeletal, nutritional, and others.)
So, if your low back muscles were in true spasm, they (primarily extensors which extend - or backward bend - your low back) should pull you into backward bend. Why don’t they? Because while you feel muscular symptoms, it’s rarely (I want to say never) a true muscle spasm. Instead, it’s pain referred from the nearby low back joints. These muscular symptoms can be horrendous, but they are driven by the joint; and once you start to get the joint moving correctly again, the muscular symptoms calm down.
Many patients with low back problems actually lean forward or are stuck forward due to the joint derangement, which further disproves the common theory that muscle spasm is the problem and is what needs to be treated. -- 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
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