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
The technology we have to see what is going on inside our bodies is tremendous. However, it is not always helpful. Just like many of us develop wrinkles and gray hair, orthopedic changes in our body are normal. Since we know that many people have these changes (eg disc bulges or cartilage defects or neuromas) WITHOUT symptoms, we should realize that if a person has complaints we cannot automatically blame these changes. A thorough clinical exam with repeated movement testing is necessary for diagnosis. We find that the bulk of patients just have a joint that's not sitting quite right which can be resolved with movement.
If the patient's complaint is not resolving within several visits using the McKenzie method, then an image may be warranted to see if there is a structural finding that is consistent with the patient's complaint. This is rare, however - the percentage of times I request a patient get an image is under 5%. -- Laura
If you lie propped up on your elbow for some time, it’s likely when you go to first move it, it’s stiff. Same with sitting on a crossed hip or ankle. As you start to move, the joint rapidly loosens and there’s no lasting impact. Do this enough, though, and it can become harder for a joint to consistently rebound to its correct alignment. And as the joint further deforms, this stiffness may become pain.
While this applies to extremity joints, these days it seems more prevalent in the spine. If your day entails primarily kneeling, it can become increasingly stiff and painful to straighten your knee(s). More commonly, though, if your day is spent protruding your neck looking at a computer or rounding your back driving in a car’s bucket seat, your spine may enter the stiffness-pain paradigm.
For many joints, it can be hard to notice stiffness/motion loss. Detecting stiffness, however, is often important in the prevention of pain, especially with previously painful joints. I therefore teach my patients how to self-test their affected joint each day. If stiffness is spotted, their corrective exercise should be performed to restore full joint motion and prevent unwanted escalation into pain. --Laura
Patient complaint: right Achilles pain preventing him from training and competing (sprinting). By taking a thorough history and mechanical exam, it is clear his pain is originating in his low back. When taking his verbal history, what made me suspect his spine - and not his actual Achilles tendon - is the tendon pain variability, his report of intermittent low back and calf "tightness," and his history of other lower extremity issues.
If a tendon itself is the problem it is very unlikely that it “warms up” and pain during a workout subsides. The more you stress a problematic tendon, the worse it usually gets. However, it is likely that a joint moves from a place causing pain to a harmless position as you move (“warm up”).
When we did the mechanical exam he had an obstruction to movement in his right low back and sciatic nerve tension on his right. When he initially did 10 right, single-leg calf raises, the Achilles burned starting with repetition #2. After repeatedly moving his spine into extension with pressure (about 30 repetitions), this test was much less painful. His homework was therefore spine extension in lying with belt overpressure. After a couple weeks of doing that (10 repetitions every 2 hours), we added spine bending to ensure the injury was fully healed. He was discharged at visit 4 with a prevention and maintenance program.
Many, many bodily joints and tissues need to function well to be able to fully bend forward. Poor hamstrings, though … they always get blamed!
To regain forward bending ability, I hardly ever loosen patients’ hamstrings. However, say a patient did simply need looser hamstrings - then clinical care is hardly needed. (Stretching is not rocket science!) With consistent home stretching, hamstring length better consistently improve.
In almost all cases, forward bending is limited because lumbar structures are moving improperly. Usually it’s that the joints themselves are misaligned. In other cases, compressed/adhered/trapped nerves create nerve tension that limits this movement (with or without contemporary joint malalignment).
Forward bending (lumbar flexion) is usually restored once we get the patients’ lumbar structures moving properly again. Importantly, using forward bending to achieve this is beneficial in only a small group of patients. More commonly I utilize lumbar extension or sidegliding.
So why do people say they “feel it” in their hamstrings? It’s either that they’re actually feeling the sciatic nerve(s) pull or that, in attempting to bend further, their body eeeks out more motion in the only structures it can – muscles and tendons – so they “feel it” there. Expert mechanical clinicians know better. --Laura
When discussing athletic performance, we think of coaches, strength and conditioning specialists, trainers, and so on, but my role comprises the foundation. Power, balance, and mobility are certainly trainable, but if your body is not fully normal to begin with, training will only get you so far. If performance prowess is your goal, you need normal nerve conduction, nerve extensibility, strength, mobility, biomechanics, etc. first. (Having no symptoms doesn’t mean everything is functioning normally.)
Consider jumping. If there’s even a slight derangement (painful or not) in the lumbosacral spine, the electricity supplying necessary muscles can be impeded. Tiny malalignments in the foot, ankle, knee, hip, or spine joints can affect strength, mobility, balance, and movement patterns with jumping. Abnormalities with muscles or tendons themselves (rare) will also impact jumping.
My expertise is in ensuring people have normal physiology before they go train to make it exceptional. (There are, of course, some allowances.) Perhaps most importantly, I teach people how to self-assess and self-treat so they can always perform with optimized physiology. It takes only minutes. I believe that many “off” days are due to minor, transient joint malalignments - which can easily be self-detected and corrected if you learn how. --Laura
I gravitated to the McKenzie method because it makes sense - and works. That is why most patients require many fewer visits than with other conservative care approaches, including "traditional" physical therapy. The McKenzie method is predicated on the simple fact that most orthopedic problems are mechanical and therefore can be resolved with a few specific movements (done repeatedly). I cringe when I read most of the orthopedic information out there, including the academic information I learned during my physical therapy doctoral program. It really is no wonder back pain is the number one disability worldwide and there are so many people in pain in the US (despite the wide variety of conservative and invasive treatments available). Plain and simple, I look at the body very differently than most clinicians - and treat differently, too. Nearly all of my patients come to me after having tried other interventions and with diagnoses that I frankly find incorrect. My passion for this extends beyond my office; my goal is to become a faculty member with the McKenzie Institute one day so that I may spread this reliable assessment and treatment approach to as many clinicians - and patients - as possible. --Laura
The primary law with tendons is first clinically (not via imaging) ruling out that it’s not a joint problem masquerading as a tendon problem. Joint misalignments (spine and extremities) can cause pain in tendinous areas and inhibit muscles, which unfortunately leads many clinicians to treat innocent tendons. If the “tendon” is taking forever to heal, it’s likely not the tendon. Tendon/muscle pathology comprises a small proportion of problems.
When it’s indeed a tendon, rehabilitation is relatively straightforward. A tendon’s collagen often needs to be remodeled to become functional again. This is accomplished by regularly (several times per day) loading the tendon for a few months. It may never look normal again, however. Causes why the tendon became dysfunctional initially should be addressed, and proper spine and extremity mechanics should be ensured.
The load a tendon needs is individual-specific. I find the load that creates pain (about 6/10) for 15-20 minutes following the exercise - which may be isometric, concentric, eccentric, or ballistic. Once a load doesn’t meet that criterion, the load is increased so it’s effective. Tendon rehabilitation is largely about 1) ensuring it’s a tendon, 2) educating the patient, and 3) encouraging briefly painful self-management with limited office visits. -- Laura
Ever wonder why, with all the technological medical advances in orthopedics, our population doesn’t seem better? In conservative care, there’s been electric stimulation, ultrasound, laser, and less techy modalities such as tape and soft tissue tools. Outside conservative care, we’ve gone so far as to make injecting steroids, fusing spines, electrifying nerves, and removing and replacing whole joints commonplace!
Perhaps the worst offender is the MRI. Imaging is certainly warranted in a few situations (as is surgery), but it’s current widespread use isn’t. Not only is this expensive for society, but overreliance is bad medicine: MRIs cannot reliably demonstrate cause and effect regarding symptoms and they often create needless fear in patients’ minds that they’re degenerating.
The human body has an amazing capacity to heal itself; orthopedic issues such as fractures, tears, disc herniations, sprains, etc. are regularly alleviated with time, not medical intervention. However, when a body’s independent healing falters, learning the right movement (and learning which to temporarily avoid) is key. Immobilization is rarely necessary. A clinician who uses her ears and brain to thoughtfully understand a patient’s problem should realize that a self-management protocol based on movement – nature’s best remedy – is almost always the best medicine. -- Laura
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