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.
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
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
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
If you are not well-versed in ruling out the spine as the source of an extremity symptom, you are missing roughly half of the sources of patients’ problems. This issue can be mitigated if the patient has been referred from someone whom you trust has already effectively clinically cleared the spine. Often, however, people with knee pain go directly to a “knee doctor” or those with numb hands visit a “hand doctor” who, in my experience, only examine that specific body part.
A system, an algorithm, is needed to ensure success in any paradigm. In my practice, experience and pattern recognition factor in, but a structured process directs my evaluation and treatment. Most importantly, a patient’s spine is investigated before moving on to an extremity. I’ll say we need to ensure the problem is not coming from a faulty fuse box (since so often it is). How long I spend on this inquiry can be minutes, it can be days - it depends on the individual case.
There is certainly a role for these professionals, but our current utilization methods need revamping. Let’s use extremity specialists only when it’s clear-cut that that intervention would be most effective for helping patients. --Laura
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