I recommend checking the spine first in nearly all patients, but if your symptoms are not improving (even symptoms like sinus congestion!) with whatever treatment, repeated movements are worth a try. The McKenzie method typically uses repeated movements to address patients' symptoms as movement is frequently the best medicine - and carries little to no risk as we use the least force necessary. While my role is to investigate exactly how you need to move, it's true that most therapeutic movements are those opposite our normal joint position. In this patient's case, that means neck retraction (moving the neck back). --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
Painful thumbs? Numb fingers or hands? Weak grip? The nerves in the neck and the upper mid-back control the hands. Specifically, nerves C6, C7, C8, and T1. (The "C" stands for cervical, which means neck. The "T" stands for thoracic, which refers to the mid-back.) Most hand issues are a result of the nerves in the neck/upper mid-back being compressed. If someone has problems in BOTH hands, the issue is almost ALWAYS coming from the spine. While it is normal for your hand to fall asleep if you lie on it in a weird position, it is not normal to experience numbness/tingling/pain on a regular basis, even with sleeping. If I determine that your hand symptoms are indeed coming from the nerves in your spine, I treat it with two things: movements to decompress the nerves and postural correction. Posture can refer to your sitting, lounging, and/or sleeping habits. I often suggest modifications to your car seat too. --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
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
Another wonderful demonstration of how so many problems in our bodies originate from nerve impingement at the spine - and how a McKenzie clinical evaluation can discern this! In this scenario the patient's complaints of ear fullness, hearing impairment, and sinus congestion (right-sided) are successfully treated with moving the neck backwards (a motion called retraction). The nerves that exit from the upper neck interact with the cranial nerves which supply the ear. By moving the neck in this one specific direction the nerves coming from the upper neck are decompressed, leading to symptom relief. The video is 24 minutes. Enjoy! -- Laura
Dr. Agarwal explains why he uses the McKenzie method in his primary care practice (outpatient and inpatient). One point he makes which I love: the McKenzie method looks to find the cause and understand the problem, especially through focusing on how the patient responds. He gives an example of a patient with headaches and high blood pressure. --Laura
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