Nerves - like discs - often inspire fear in people. Yes, they can be injured just like other structures, but nerve problems are not necessarily more severe than other types of orthopedic problems.
We temporarily impact nerves all the time, stretching them and compressing them just like other structures. You bang your funny bone and your arm throbs for a minute. You sit on your leg and your leg and foot go to sleep for a few minutes. These examples teach us both how resilient nerves can be and how irritation and compression can create symptoms. (Perhaps even more importantly, they teach people that nerves can send symptoms away from where the root of the problem is.) Understanding how your body works is the first step in mitigating fear when something goes wrong.
Most nerve irritation problems I see stem from the nerves being irritated near the spine. These irritations create variable symptoms; it can feel like the numbness and tingling you feel when you compress a peripheral nerve in your arm or leg or it can be pain, tightness, heat, etc. Nerves serve the very important role of relaying information and sensation throughout your body, and, like other structures, they can usually heal given the right environment.
I sat at a performance years ago with my legs crossed for at least 30 minutes without moving. When I went to get up I almost fell because there was little power in my ankle muscles nor was there great sensation. I realized what had happened and I wasn’t afraid. On the contrary, I thought it was really fascinating how I couldn’t lift my foot up at all. I expected it to resolve in 15 minutes or so and it did. I often remember that incident when I happen to be sitting with my legs crossed, the back of one knee over the other.
Big picture: don’t be afraid when it comes to nerves. If they get compressed or irritated wherever in the body, most of the time, by removing the compression (typically with movements) and by giving it an environment to heal, it will heal. To be clear, many neurological symptoms (having to do with nerves) are not orthopedic in nature, but they too can usually be fixed if you get the correct diagnosis. --Laura
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 the diagnosis is a structural problem, then the location of pain is almost always where the structural lesion is. Structural lesions with bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs, cartilage, and menisci create local symptoms. The main exception is when structural lesions occur with nerves, in which case symptoms can travel along the nerve. So if what you suppose is a problem in a structure changes location, it’s more likely that instead of there being a problem with the structure, there’s a problem with how things are functioning - which is the majority of problems. With functional problems (that is, something is not working well instead of a structure actually being broken), it's common for pain to change location. Muscle strain, tear, pull pain doesn't move. It's where the strain, tear, pull is. -- Laura
Perhaps if people consider common “medical” problems, they can better understand musculoskeletal problems. While a cough may feel like it’s coming from the throat, plenty of things can cause a cough. It can be due to a problem in the stomach, lungs, sinuses, nose, mouth, or throat. A quality verbal history and evaluation will steer the clinician’s investigation into the cause (diagnosis).
While your knee may hurt, plenty of things other than your knee can cause your knee pain. While your hands may be tingling, plenty of problems other than hand problems can cause that tingly sensation. While your shoulder may not rotate, there may be a cause other than your shoulder. While your calf muscle may be weak, there could be a cause other than your calf muscle.
Signs and symptoms such as a cough, pain, paresthesia, decreased mobility, and weakness are pieces of data which help us understand the problem. The location of signs and symptoms is not necessarily the location of the diagnosis. -- Laura
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
Saying you treat pain is like saying you treat sneezing or itching - they're symptoms. You can manage pain, but you’re not, in essence, treating it. You treat the cause of the pain. When people ask me if I treat shoulder pain or jaw pain, etc., I know what they mean. The short answer is: I primarily evaluate to see if I can help with what is causing the pain.
Pain management strategies (such as ice, heat, unloading, medication, creams, gentle movement, and so on) have value, and I recommend them as needed. The goal, however, is to find and fix the cause of someone’s pain (musculoskeletal or other) just like you figure out why you’re sneezing or itching. Are there cases when a cause cannot be deduced? Sure; but they are rare and, by methodically eliminating diagnoses, you still should be left with only a few reasonable hypotheses. -- Laura
In brief, spinal nerves are responsible for sensation in a certain area and power to certain muscles. There are thirty-one spinal nerves, numbered according to the area of the spine where they emerge. We often name nerves that are the combination of two of more spinal nerves, such as the sciatic nerve, which is the combination of lumbar nerves 4 & 5 and sacral nerves 1, 2, & 3. (The sciatic nerve is usually irritated by way of the fact that one of its five spinal nerve roots - at the level of the spine - is irritated. As I’ve written before, nerve entrapments in the periphery, outside of the spine, are rare.) Spinal nerve roots are commonly irritated.
In contrast, cutaneous nerves, which are named, are responsible for sensation in a certain area, but do not power muscles. In the absence of direct trauma or compression (including due to surgery), it’s rare to irritate these nerves.
Even though their sensory areas overlap, in the presence of a sensory problem (numbness, tingling, pain), there’s a way to determine which is at fault. We have clinical nerve tension tests, muscle power testing, and repeated movement testing to indicate which nerve is the problem. We don’t have to guess. -- Laura
The perfect position is the position that reduces, abolishes, or prevents symptoms. And if a lumbar roll doesn’t reduce, abolish, or prevent symptoms, then it is not indicated. A roll may make symptoms worse initially, but, as therapy progresses, it becomes helpful. Or it may only be tolerated for 20 mins but eventually is useful for long stretches. Its use should always be assessed, not recommended without reasoning.
When it comes to prevention, often that looks like a person who doesn’t have symptoms in sitting but has trouble rising, especially with straightening his low back. Or it may look like a person who has no pain all day sitting at work but then pain in the evenings at the gym. If using a lumbar roll all day prevents pain later at the gym, then it is indicated.
Lumbar rolls can be extremely effective as can any decent lumbar support built into a chair. The point is usually to reduce prolonged spinal flexion or enhance extension. Lumbar rolls can be easily added, adjusted, and removed. They can come in the form of a rolled up sweatshirt, household pillow, or something purchased. I’ve had patients support their low backs with water bottles and purses. I myself used my wallet while driving once. Their low cost and ease of use make them potent tools for helping those with musculoskeletal complaints. -- Laura
The speed with which I say that is noteworthy considering years ago that question wasn’t high on my list. When you effectively probe patients about their symptoms (most notably via a good verbal history), you’ll notice it’s actually not that common for people to have a symptom in only one isolated spot. A man might come see you because the front of his right knee hurts, but with questioning you find it’s also sometimes on the left knee and his back gets tight sometimes. Or a woman has left neck pain but when you do movement testing she notices right neck pain too. Or a kid says the outside of his elbow hurts but, yes, the inside of his elbow is tingly.
Where the symptom is is extremely important - regarding someone’s history, during the physical exam, and during repeated movements. The pain someone is describing could be in a completely different area (for example, wrists hurting with prone lumbar extension) or it could be relevant. Where the pain is matters in terms of both diagnosis and treatment; if I didn’t have that information I’d be lost. Most importantly, it tells me information about which structure is misbehaving (significantly, joint vs musculotendinous tissue), which movements are likely to be beneficial, and how to interpret the effect of movements. -- 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
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