An important adage is: correlation doesn’t equal causation. One can assume one's neck or back hurts because of stress. Or one could investigate to see if stress and symptoms are simply correlated and not causal. An key step is to specifically look for a musculoskeletal cause to musculoskeletal complaints. It’s quite common that when people report stress they also report more time hunched over a computer or books or postures or activities that are different than what is typical for them. If there’s a musculoskeletal cause, then it’s almost always fixed with specific movements and postural changes. If the true cause is stress, then there are varied treatments aimed at generalized stress relief (not my domain of expertise). -- 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
There are muscles encasing our heads and faces. I think people actually understand the concept of referred pain (or non-local pain) when it comes to headaches - they just don’t know they do. Put another way, I don’t hear much about people massaging their head (cranial) muscles, rolling them, stretching them, or otherwise treating those various muscles.
Of course muscles in general can be the producers of symptoms, but it’s rare. I write about this extensively. Everyone loves to name and treat muscles, but, while important, they’re rarely the problem when it comes to orthopedic disorders.
People seem to intuitively comprehend that head pain or headaches can come about for a lot of reasons. Stress, dehydration, allergies, hunger, concussions, and illness to name a few. There are indeed musculoskeletal causes as well - just rarely the muscles. The joints in the neck and mid-back can refer pain (or any symptom) to the head. In rarer cases, the jaw joint can create local symptoms.
If people can understand that their head can hurt not as a result of the muscles in the area and that their chests and arms can hurt due to a heart problem, then hopefully people can start to grasp that arm pain or leg pain is not necessarily due to arm or leg muscles. -- 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
Nerves becoming trapped outside of the spine are much less common than people think. Commonly talked about examples include entrapment in the ankle (tarsal tunnel), wrist (carpal tunnel), elbow (cubital tunnel), buttock (piriformis) and forearm (pronator teres). If there is trauma to an area, it certainly makes sense that the nerves in the area can be injured and/or the healing process can lead to tissue “entrapping” the nerve. But, without significant trauma, it’s quite rare to see this phenomenon.
While many patients tell me they indeed have carpal tunnel (or whichever), they usually describe symptoms inconsistent with that diagnosis (ie they say it affects the whole hand). Furthermore, they report that no clinician has investigated movements of the neck and mid back as part of the diagnostic process.
The nerves that end up in your periphery are commonly irritated as they exit your spine. If someone has symptoms in both hands or in both ankles, the likelihood that the spine (or something systemic) is the source increases dramatically. So while I agree that peripheral nerve entrapments can exist, I can’t remember the last time I found this to be a patient’s true diagnosis. Getting the correct diagnosis is the most important step in getting better after all. -- Laura
I realize that it often feels good to stretch forward when your back or neck hurts. People even do it when it does hurt because they feel as though they’re getting a “good stretch” that “hurts so good” that they “need.” While I sometimes use forward bending of the spine as the foundation of therapy, it’s rare - under 10%. It does make sense that it can feel good, though! If you temporarily increase space and take pressure off a problem area, it can feel nice. My job, however, is deciding what patients need to achieve real, long-term success. By the time patients see me, they have usually already figured out on their own if something gives them short-term relief (certain stretches, heat, ice, meds, etc.). -- Laura
If it's accepted that arm and leg pain can originate from the spine, it should be understood that joint pain can as well. I screen the spine with extremity limb and joint complaints. Forearms, thighs, arms, legs, hands, and feet are not entirely different from wrists, hips, elbows, shoulders, knees, and ankles. Limb (between joints) pain is more often coming from the spine than isolated joint pain, but it still happens frequently. Clinicians need to look for this referred and radicular pain. I use repeated movements of the spine to investigate if extremity joint pain is indeed spinal in origin, which could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few visits. -- Laura
Yes, injured structures can be fragile, but your spine is not inherently fragile. It is no more fragile than your ear, knee, or foot. The spine is well designed, just like the rest of your body, to withstand considerable demand. And it is just as resilient as the rest of you to bounce back from injury.
Things go wrong. Things happen. We get ear infections. We twist our knee. We break our foot. We injure our spines too. And when things go wrong anywhere in our body, they are almost always fixable. Stop telling people spines are fragile. And stop listening to people who tell you they are.
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
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