I recently saw a social media post entitled “Prone Exercise Progression for Low Back Pain.” If only it were that simple! There is no "prone exercise progression" for low back pain. Prone exercises are used for certain diagnoses with certain patients. Pain, after all, is not a diagnosis. We don’t treat heart pain or lung pain - we treat the underlying diagnosis. Will I allow that there are rare cases in which we can’t establish a true cause? Sure. But in those cases you get there by ruling out a multitude of possibilities.
Not only can we do better than treating the symptom of pain, but we can be specific about what each individual needs. A prone exercise progression will help some people with some diagnoses. It will also do nothing for some people and will make some people worse. You can try whatever you find on the internet if you want. We all do it from time to time. But success is more likely when you have an individual diagnosis and plan. -- 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
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
If you fix a medical problem by eating well for a month, it's silly to expect the improvement to stick if you return to eating crap. The same applies to mechanical, or orthopedic, problems. Consider movement (and sustained positions) your “diet” when it comes to mechanical problems. There are certainly some mechanical problems that never have to pay attention to diet again. But for most, it matters. There’s no hard and fast rule; each patient’s case is unique, and is understood during the treatment process.
If nothing in a person’s life changed except she bought a new sports car, used it a lot, noticed lumbar stiffness getting out of the car she never had before, and a week later she had an L5 radiculopathy to her big toe, there’s a great chance that position is a factor. Let’s say that point is confirmed during treatment. Meaning, sitting in the sports car now exacerbates leg symptoms and/or obstructs low back movement. After resolving the patient’s low back derangement, does that mean she can never use that car again? Probably not. But it’s likely she’ll do much better long-term if she adjusts the car’s seat, or does her corrective exercise before and after car rides over 30 minutes, or makes sure to check her low back motion after being in the car. In this scenario, resuming her old “diet” of just hopping in her sports car - and adopting that specific mechanical seated position - without thinking twice will likely lead to recurrence. -- 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
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
It is not uncommon to hear “My left leg is just not as stable as my right” or “I lack control placing my right foot on runs” or “My balance is much better on one side.” I haven’t encountered people voicing this about their arms, but it could certainly manifest in the upper body as well. I won’t say it’s always, but it seems like in all cases when patients have complaints about a lack of stability in one leg (not a specific joint, but the entire limb), it’s a spine issue.
Again, if we think of the spine as the fuse box, it makes sense that an irritated spine could create these somewhat vague complaints in the limb. While “instability” is usually a good, appropriate descriptor, it’s also often a lack of control, responsiveness, and/or balance. What I’ve seen people call “dead leg syndrome” on blogs is most likely an example of this too.
Don’t make the mistake I made. Years ago I noticed a marked difference in the stability between my right and left lower extremities. Leaning against the wall in the hospital one day with my legs about a foot from the wall, I could balance fine on my left leg when it was placed under my left hip socket, but failed miserably to do so on my right side. I spent close to a year doing relatively fruitless single leg strengthening and balance/coordination exercises. It got better, but not by much. Some time after that (having given up on making progress and having gotten into MDT), I remedied the issue with directional preference movements of my low back. -- Laura
Given how often I see patients whose non-spinal pain is related to their spine, I make sure to investigate the spine as a possible contributor or cause. As I’ve said before, that investigation varies in time based on the case.
If I read a study on patients diagnosed with “patellofemoral pain syndrome” or “shoulder impingement” and there is no mention of clinically looking into the effect spinal movements have on the person’s complaints, I take that study with a grain of salt. I use the word “clinically” on purpose: you cannot rule in or out spinal involvement solely with an image. At least 25% of people’s shoulder and knee pain I see is actually a spine problem, addressed with moving the spine.
I also say “probably” in this post on purpose. If an orthopedic study looks at people who have traumatically fractured their tibias, that is a different ball game. Most orthopedic problems, however, aren’t obvious traumas. -- 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.
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