Persistent Low Back Pain: The Physical Therapist’s Role

Low back pain is the most common cause of disability and lost work time in industrialized countries.   Persistent low back pain is characterized by periods of high and low pain intensity which can persist for years.  Periodic “flare- ups” are common and often result in the seeking of medical treatment.  Medications and surgery are often ineffective and may be harmful in some situations.  Physical therapy is a non-invasive treatment approach which is often considered in those with persistent low back pain.  However, improvements are often short-term for those with longstanding pain.  Similar to surgery and medications, the long-term success of physical therapy treatments for chronic back pain is questionable.

Traditional approaches utilizing physical therapy involve a short, but intense course of treatment such as 12 visits over a 4 to 8 week period.  However, this type of treatment approach is likely insufficient to positively influence a person’s beliefs and behaviors about their pain.  Changing these beliefs and behaviors are crucial if an individual with persistent pain is to self-manage through physical activity and lifestyle changes.

Persistent Low Back Pain is Complex

When pain persists beyond expected time frames, changes occur within our nervous system.  These changes include abnormal pain processing pathways and poor execution of movement patterns.  Because the nervous system is so complex, individual “pain experiences” vary greatly among those with persistent low back pain.  Diagnostic tests and scans, including MRI, are of little help because the primary problem is in the nervous system, not the low back.

The low back muscles of those with persistent pain undergo substantial changes over time.  This is believed to be caused by changes in the central nervous system.  These changes include atrophy (loss of muscle) and deposits of fatty tissue in the place of the lost muscle.  In particular the lumbar multifidus muscle has been shown to be selectively atrophied in many, but not all, individuals with persistent back pain.  Not only does the structure of muscle change with long-standing pain, but so does the nervous system’s ability to activate certain muscles.  Some muscles may become underactive while others become overactive.  These patterns differ among individuals with back pain making symptoms highly variable.   A common strategy is when many muscles of the low back contract simultaneously resulting in an unhelpful stiffening or bracing of the trunk.

Persistent Low Back Pain & Exercise

Altered pain processing pathways in the nervous system and changes in the back muscles leads to difficulty learning low back exercises.  A long term stimulus is likely needed to overcome atrophy of spinal muscles and to regain proper muscle function.  Performing low back exercise several times per week for 1 to 2 months is not adequate dosage.  Therefore, those with persistent pain may require repeated practice for several months in order to master the most basic of exercises.

In order to restore normal movement patterns exercise prescription must be matched to the individual’s beliefs and functional problems.  Ongoing types of cognitive interventions, such as education about the science of pain are beneficial to facilitate participation in exercise and physical activity.  An emphasis on education and a gradual progression of physical activity then becomes the long-term treatment.

The Role of the Physical Therapist in Helping Those with Persistent Low Back Pain

A recent episode of low back pain often responds well to manual therapy treatments such as mobilization, manipulation, or massage.  Sometimes, ice or hot packs can be helpful in these situations. However, passive interventions are of little help for those with persistent pain.  Instead, treatments that effectively involve the patient in long-term performance of physical activity are likely to be most valuable. These approaches seek to empower the patient by emphasizing their own preferred types of physical activities which can be progressed and modified as needed over time by the physical therapist.

There is no one-size fits all approach to prescribing exercise for those with persistent low back pain.  Core stabilization exercise receives a great deal of attention but this form of treatment is only helpful in some.  The same goes for stretching, resistance exercise, and aerobic exercise.  All these forms of exercise can be helpful in some but not all.  Therefore, the physical therapist and the patient should collaborate to develop an exercise plan which the patient finds enjoyable or preferable.  This is the only way the program will be adhered to for the long-term.

Final Thoughts on Physical Therapy for Persistent Low Back Pain

The traditional approach of attending physical therapy sessions 2 to 3 times a week for 4 to 8 weeks is not optimal.  Instead, the physical therapist and patient should seek to develop a long-term working relationship over time.  Initially, physical therapy sessions may occur multiple times a week but only for a few weeks.  Sessions should then be spaced out over time.  The physical therapist can assist the patient in progressing or modifying their exercise program at each session.

The physical therapists primary role is as a coach or guide who empowers the individual to self-manage for the long-term.   The ultimate goal is for the individual to manage and be prepared for fluctuations in their back pain.  Those with persistent back pain are ideally suited to directly access the services of a physical therapist without a physician referral.  In these instances, sessions are best when spaced out every few months or as needed.

Five Exercises to Train the Abdominal Muscles

Abdominal muscle weakness and poor control of the trunk (or “core”) can negatively influence athletic performance and activities of daily living.  Poor trunk muscle strength has been associated with injuries in baseball players and several other sports.  Also, exercises to improve trunk muscle strength have been shown to improve soccer and distance running performance.  Trunk muscle weakness has also been linked to falls in seniors and low back pain in adults and children.

Exercises to strengthen the abdominal muscles and improve coordination of the trunk should be integrated into a comprehensive total body strength training program.  Training should never focus on any single muscle or body part.  In general, abdominal exercises should start in supported positions, such as supine lying, and progress to more functional positions, such as standing.  Exercises are predominately training for muscular endurance with short sustained holds (8 to 10 seconds) and a progressive number of repetitions.  As exercises become less challenging, the number of repetitions should be increased or the exercise itself should be progressed to a more challenging position.  The five exercises which follow are ordered from the most basic to the most challenging.

Dead Bugs

Begin in a supine lying position with the arms held straight up and the feet off the floor.  The hips and knees should be bent to 90 degrees.  Gently flatten the low back into the floor and maintain this abdominal contraction throughout the exercise.  Simultaneously raise the right arm overhead and extend the left leg without touching down.  Hold this position for several seconds and maintain low back contact with the floor.  Reverse the movement back to the starting position. Then, perform the opposite diagonal pattern with the left arm and right leg.  You should alternate sides with each repetition.  Maintain low back contact with the floor throughout the exercise.

Stability Ball Roll-Outs

Begin in a tall-kneeling position with both hands on the ball.  Roll the hands along the ball until the elbows or upper arm contacts the ball.  The elbows should remain extended as the hands and hips move together.  Engaging the gluteus and abdominal muscles help maintain proper position during the exercise.  As you lower the body towards the floor, maintain a neutral spine position and avoid arching the low back.  Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement back to the starting position.

Side Plank with Rotation

Begin in a side-lying position resting on one elbow.  Raise the trunk and knee off the floor until you are fully supported by your elbow and feet.  While maintaining the side plank position, reach up and then under and behind the body with the top hand.  This will induce trunk rotation and challenge the oblique abdominal muscles.  Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement back to the starting position.

Half-Kneeling Cable Chop

Assume a half-kneeling position next to a cable column or anchored resistance band.  The kneeling position removes contributions from the lower body and increases the demands on the trunk, pelvis and hip musculature.  From a balanced and upright kneeling position, pull the cable or band diagonally across the body towards the opposite hip.  Maintain a neutral spine and trunk position throughout the exercise.  Avoid rotating the body as your arms pull across the body.  Resisting this movement is what activates the abdominal muscles.  Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement back to the starting position.

Lateral Lunge with Press and Reach

This advanced exercise starts from a standing position next to a cable column or anchored resistance band.   Holding the handle or band close to the body; initiate the exercise with a lateral lunge.  Once the lunge position is attained, slowly press the arms straight out in front of the body.  The band or weight will induce a rotational challenge to the trunk muscles.  Resisting this movement is what activates the abdominal muscles.  Next, slowly raise the arms straight overhead while maintaining the lunge position.  Maintain a neutral spine and trunk position throughout the exercise.  Hold this position for several seconds before reversing the movement sequentially back to the starting position.

Closing Thoughts on Abdominal Exercises

Abdominal exercises are one component of a comprehensive exercise program targeting total body muscular strength and physical performance.  Abdominal exercises performed in isolation are rarely successful for improving performance or decreasing pain.  When developing your program, consider these five trunk muscle exercises.   Performing each exercise in a controlled fashion, with a focus on proper technique and muscular endurance will elicit the best results for the long-term.

References

  1. Chaudhari AMW, Mckenzie CS, Pan X, Onate JA. Lumbopelvic control and days missed because of injury in professional baseball pitchers.  Am J Sports Med. 2014;42(11):2734-2740. doi:10.1177/0363546514545861.
  2. Granacher U, Gollhofer A, Hortoba T, Kressig RW, Muehlbauer T. The importance of trunk muscle strength for balance, functional performance, and fall prevention in seniors: A systematic review. Sports Med. 2013;43:627-641. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0041-1.
  3. Reed CA, Ford KR, Myer GD, Hewett TE. The Effects of isolated and integrated “core stability” training on athletic performance measures: A systematic review. Sports Med. 2012;42(8):697-706.

Evidence for Exercise and Neck Pain

Neck pain can be debilitating and limit your quality of life. It may impact your ability to drive, participate in activities you enjoy, and enjoy activities with your family. Luckily physical therapy can have profound impacts on reducing disability and limitations associated with neck pain. Evidence for strengthening of your neck muscles including the longus capitis and longus colli as well as manual therapy provided by a licensed physical therapy can help improve your neck mobility and even improve numbness/tingling in your arms associated with neck pain.

A Case Study using Exercise for Neck Pain

In a clinical case of a 28-year-old individual with neck pain and left arm symptoms, a physical therapy program consisting of manual therapy directed at the mid back, neck, and left arm reduced pain and improved the overall quality of life in just 10 visits of therapy services. The patient also benefited from stretching exercises for the cervical musculature and strengthening of the longus capitis and longus colli. Treatments to improve the mobility of your nervous system can help decrease the numbness/tingling you may experience with neck pain, this is known as a cervical radiculopathy.

Posture can influence neck pain
Exercise for neck pain

Conclusion

See a physical therapist today if you are experiencing neck pain with arm symptoms associated with a cervical radiculopathy to determine if you can benefit from physical therapy treatment, even without a referral from a physician. The physical therapist is trained to determine if treatment is indicated, ask your local therapist today.

-Dr. Steven Ferro, PT, DPT

Reference

Cleland, J. A., Whitman, J. M., Fritz, J. M., & Palmer, J. A. (2005). Manual physical therapy, cervical traction, and strengthening exercises in patients with cervical radiculopathy: a case series. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 35(12), 802-811.

Abdominal Oblique Injuries in Rotational Sports

Abdominal oblique injuries, also known as side strains, are common in rotational sports such as baseball, tennis, golf, and track and field.  These injuries are characterized by a sudden, sharp onset of pain near or on the side of the rib cage.  The injury usually occurs during some type of rotational sports movement such as swinging a bat, club or racket; or throwing a ball.

Trunk rotation plays an important role in generating and transferring power during sport.  It is through the trunk or core, that forces are transferred from the lower body to the shoulder and arms. Activities such as throwing and swinging require the core muscles to both stabilize the trunk and create force in order to transfer power to the upper body.

Anatomy of the Abdominal Oblique Muscles

The core includes the thoracolumbar, abdominal, pelvic, and hip musculature.  These muscle groups provide trunk stability to allow integrated limb movements, such as throwing and swinging, to occur. The abdominal core muscles include the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique.  Most abdominal injuries occur in the internal and external oblique muscles.  Less commonly, injuries can occur to the intercostal muscles between the ribs themselves.

The Role of the Oblique Muscles in Sport

The internal and external oblique muscles are responsible for flexion and rotation of the trunk, as well as providing trunk stabilization during complex sports movements.    Poor mobility of the hips or thoracic spine can contribute to excessive stress and compensation through the trunk musculature during swinging or throwing.  Rehabilitation often addresses hip mobility with manual therapy techniques performed by the physical therapist.  An imbalance between right and left side oblique muscles are also common is in sports such as golf and baseball.  This may place excessive forces through the lead side oblique musculature.  Finally, the large forces generated by lower body muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings) may overpower the weaker core musculature leading to injury during explosive sports movements.

The incidence of Abdominal Oblique Injuries in Baseball

A 2010 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine investigated the incidence and trends of abdominal injuries in professional baseball players.  From 1991 through 2010, abdominal strains accounted for approximately 5% of all injuries in Major League Baseball.   Nearly half of these injuries occurred in pitchers.   These injuries occurred most often during the early part of the season.

In both pitchers and position players, the majority of injuries occurred on the side opposite to their throwing arm.  Pitchers missed, on average 35 days on the disabled list, while position players missed 26 days on average.  Players who receive steroid or PRP injections have been shown to miss more time from injury.   More than 1 out of every 10 sustained a re-injury during their career.  Most of these re-injuries occurred during the same or the following season.   As a result of these injury trends, many MLB teams have increased their focus on preemptive core and trunk strengthening exercises for all players.

Closing Thoughts

The incidence of abdominal oblique injuries is on the rise in rotational sports such as baseball and golf.   These injuries can result in substantial loss of playing time.  Proper training can prevent abdominal oblique injuries from occurring.  In a few weeks, I will post an article describing exercises which can help reduce the risk of sustaining an injury.  These exercises can also be part of a comprehensive rehabilitation program to safely return an injured athlete back to sport.

References

  1. Camp CL, Conte S, Cohen SB, et al. Epidemiology and impact of abdominal oblique injuries in major and minor league baseball. Orthop J Sport Med. 2015;5(3):1-8. doi:10.1177/2325967117694025.
  2. Conte SA, Thompson MM, Marks MA, Dines JS. Abdominal muscle strains in professional baseball. Am J Sports Med. 2010;40(3):650-656. doi:10.1177/0363546511433030.
  3. Nealon AR, Kountouris A, Cook JL. Side strain in sport: A narrative review of pathomechanics, diagnosis, imaging and management for the clinician. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20:261-266.

Finished Your Physical Therapy: What’s Next?

The day has come.  You’ve dedicated your time and put in the work now you and your physical therapist have decided you’re ready for discharge.  So what happens after you have completed physical therapy?

Some patients leave physical therapy feeling 100% and return to their regular active lifestyle and prior fitness routine.  In many cases, though the patients we see are ones that do not live an active lifestyle and have no prior fitness routine. Some patients may only feel 80% better and insurance benefits or financial limitations will not allow continued care. These patients, in particular, are the ones who may leave therapy feeling uneasy or unsure.  They may have many questions they are asking themselves:

  • What if I never feel 100%?
  • When will I find time to continue the home exercises on my own?
  • How long will I have to continue these exercises for?
  • What if the exercises feel like they aren’t helping me anymore?
  • Will I be disciplined enough to do them?
  • What if the pain starts to come back?
  • What if I stop doing the exercises?

Exercise After Physical Therapy

Chances are if you are asking yourself any of these questions, you may be someone who requires or would benefit from more guidance moving forward.  Ideally, you would benefit from a long-term fitness routine or group exercise program.  If you are someone who did not exercise regularly prior to staring physical therapy there is a good chance that you will not continue to do the exercise once you are done.  The intentions may be good but many people do fall short.  Some people are disciplined self-motivators but many are not.  Also, it is easy enough to say “I can’t find the time” or “life just got in the way”.   Anyone at anytime can find the excuse as to why they haven’t been able to continue with a routine.

Building Healthy Habits

Most of the time patients attend physical therapy for 2 or 3 visits a week for a few weeks, most commonly between 4 and 8 weeks.  Research says it can take 2 months or more (66 days on average) to form a new habit.  It takes repetition for the new behavior pattern to become imprinted in your neural pathways. In fact, research by Kaushal and Rhodes suggests it takes at least 4 gym sessions per week for 6 weeks to establish an exercise habit. That doesn’t mean you can’t develop an exercise habit by going less frequently; it just means it will probably take longer for it to become automatic.

If you have already been attending physical therapy 2-3 times per week DO NOT stop dedicating that time to yourself when you are done. DO NOT take a week off and decide to figure out the next step later. DO NOT lose your momentum! If you know that you are someone who needs that continued guidance and motivation ask your physical therapist to help you find the right exercise program to start with.  Depending on your fitness level, behavior characteristics and health goals there will be options that are better for some than others.  Fitness is a booming business right now and there are plenty of options out there.  Some people don’t know where to start.  Your physical therapist will have a general knowledge of what types of exercises are done at different fitness facilities, however, depending on where you live these places vary.

Local Recommendations

The physical therapists at BSR Physical Therapy have been doing the research locally here in the Manahawkin, NJ area.  We are helping to build a library of long-term fitness options for our patients.  We want you to succeed in your health goals.

Most recently Dr. Amanda Higgins, Morgan Gamble and I attended a barre class at Black Sheep Studios on LBI.  The fitness studio had a welcoming earthy vibe.  We met with one of the owners Devon who was as personable as they come and full of energy.  It only took one class to know that this is a place where you won’t get lost in the numbers as the class sizes are small and intimate and everyone called everyone else by name.  The instructors paid close attention to form and corrective technique which is a must to get the recommendation from a physical therapist.  Their instructor Wendy provides individualized programs for people with the use of pilates transformers which is a hard find in this area.  They also provide a menu of other unique exercise classes that may be the perfect fit for some of you.

This place is one of many that can help you stay on track.  We want to see you succeed with your health and fitness long term.  Let us help you transition from physical therapy to fitness.

-Dr. Amy McMahon

 

Total Hip Arthroplasty (Replacement)

Total hip replacement is a surgical procedure that is most likely performed on people who have severe osteoarthritis of the hip. Other possible reasons for a hip replacement include, rheumatoid arthritis, osteonecrosis, fracture, and bone tumor. Since 2003, the number of hip replacement surgeries performed has increased by 33% in the United States. The most common age groups receiving hip replacements are people over 70 years of age.

Hip Replacement: Anterior vs. Posterior Approach?

There are 2 main surgical options for a total hip replacement; a posterior approach and an anterior approach. The type of surgical approach is typically determined based on physician preference. The anterior approach is a fairly new procedure which requires the surgeon to cut less muscle which some believe results in a faster recovery time. The posterolateral approach has been done for a longer period of time. One of the biggest risks following total hip replacement is dislocation. This complication has been noted to occur with 1% of surgeries with anterior approach and 1.3% with posterolateral approach.

The Role of Physical Therapy

The typical course of treatment after total hip replacement could involve a short stay in the hospital and in some cases a short stay at an inpatient rehab facility. Upon returning home, a large percentage of patients undergo a period of outpatient physical therapy, which usually lasts 1-2 months. Outpatient Physical Therapy consists of a combination of manual physical therapy, supervised exercise to improve range of motion, strength training of the muscles around the hip, and functional exercises that are geared towards returning the individual to prior functional activities.  At least one study shows that physical therapy had a positive effect on patients after a total hip replacement with faster recovery times and an increase in walking ability. Another study also found that physical therapy allows for an overall increase in functional status for patients who have received a total hip replacement.

Closing Thoughts

Physical therapy following hip replacement surgery requires a team approach between the patient, surgeon, and physical therapist.  If you are considering undergoing a hip replacement, or have recently undergone this procedure, please call one of our physical therapists to learn more about your recovery and return to function.

-Dr. Tom Michaels, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS

References

  1. Freburger J. An analysis of the relationship between the utilization of physical therapy services and outcomes of care for patients after total hip arthroplasty. Journal of Physical Therapy. 2000;80(5):448-458.
  2. Kishida Y et al. Full weight-bearing after cementless total hip arthroplasty. International Orthopaedics. 2001;25:25-28.
  3. Jolles B, Bogoch E. Posterior versus lateral surgical approach for total hip arthroplasty in adults with osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database Systematic Review. 2006:3.

Total Knee Arthroplasty (Replacement)

Total Knee Replacement (TKR), also known as a Total Knee Arthroplasty (TKA), is a surgical procedure commonly used to relieve knee pain due to arthritis or in some cases trauma-related injury. TKR is a viable option when the individual’s function is extremely limited due to pain and when conservative care, an exercise program, and weight loss was not substantially effective in relieving symptoms. Greater than 600,000 TKR are performed each year with approximately 90% of individuals experiencing significant symptom reduction.

Knee Replacement Surgery

There are multiple surgical approaches with Total Knee Replacement with most common types being Traditional and Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS). In both approaches, the damaged cartilage and bone surfaces are removed and replaced with prosthetic implants. The Traditional approach will typically result in an 8-12 inch scar, whereas the MIS results in a 3-4 inch incision. Research suggests outcomes for both procedures are similar over the long term, with fewer complications experienced with the Traditional approach.

The Role of Physical Therapy

Following TKR most individuals are fully weighted bearing on the involved lower extremity, but will likely have to use an assistive device for a short period (walker, crutches, cane). Best evidence supports that patients receive outpatient orthopedic physical therapy where the focus is on restoring normal knee motion, strength training, normalizing walking patterns and restoration of prior functional/recreational activities. Your physical therapist will work with you targeting your greatest impairments and develop a plan of care to help you achieve your goals. The entire surgery and rehabilitation process is typically 12 weeks in length with continued functional gains made after 12 weeks by the performance of a home exercise program.

A recent study suggests that approximately 98% of individuals who undergo TKR will be able to return work, including heavy work activities. Depending on the type of work patients with sedentary jobs can return to their work tasks as early as 1 month after surgery, whereas more strenuous jobs may take up to 3 months. Patients can expect to realistically return to walking without an assistive device, swimming, golfing, driving, light hiking, biking, dancing, and other low-impact sports. However, outcomes are specific to each patient and is based on prior levels of function.

Closing Thoughts

Physical therapy following knee replacement surgery requires a team approach between the patient, surgeon, and physical therapist.  If you are considering undergoing a knee replacement, or have recently undergone this procedure, please call one of our physical therapists to learn more about your recovery and return to function.

 

-Dr. Jermemy Boyd, PT, DPT, OCS

Resilience: The Final Piece of Recovery from Injury

Resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change.   Successful recovery from injury requires resilience to overcome physical and psychological challenges.  There will always be times during rehabilitation when things seem to never go as planned.  This could be a set back where pain or swelling increases temporarily for unexplained reasons.  During these situations, it can be easy to look for excuses or a quick fix solution.  However, the true solution often lies within us in the form of resiliency.

Developing Resilience

Physical therapists, trainers, or coaches can assist by instilling a sense of resiliency within their patients or clients.  This begins by developing trust and truly understanding what the end goal is.  Understanding the desired outcome and feeling prepared for when adversity strikes is a crucial step towards building resilience.  Attempting to motivate or push individuals is rarely successful under conditions of adversity.  Parents who continuously push their child in sports often undermine resilience and contribute to burnout.  The same often occurs during rehabilitation when healthcare providers fail to collaborate and problem solve with their patients.

Resilience and Mindset

Patients and athletes recovering from an injury often expect the worst.  This mindset is extremely detrimental to recovery.  In order to handle adversity and the challenges of rehabilitation, it is important to put in good old-fashioned hard work.  This work must be purposeful, intense, and practiced repeatedly in order to build resilience.  Those who commit to putting in the work build resilience and begin to expect success.  Those who fail to put in the work often expect the next set back and feel helpless about it.  Ultimately, we become what we continuously think about.  Expecting a set back with a sense of helplessness will nearly always lead to failure.

Resilience from Michael Jordan

Putting in the Work & Mental Toughness

Following through with a rehabilitation program at 100% is an example of putting in the work.  This contributes to developing resilience through physical means such as building a foundation of strength and optimizing movement patterns.  Putting in the work also develops resilience through mental toughness.  When injury or adversity ensues, some look for passive solutions while others dig deep into their mental toughness and work to make things right.   These are life skills and personal traits which go beyond rehabilitation or sport.

Conclusion

Successful recovery from injury requires resilience.  Resilience requires purpose, goals, hard work, repetition, and mental toughness.  Developing a trusting and collaborative relationship with your physical therapist will better prepare you for when adversity strikes.   When adversity does appear, the solution is often found within.   The resilient individual will adapt and overcome.  When things are not going well during rehabilitation, take back control and get yourself back on track.