Degenerative Disc Disease Correlation To Pain Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think

He came in with a look that resembled someone in grief.

I asked if he was okay and his response was a bit surprising.

“I was just told I have a disease which is causing my back pain, as a result, the pain may never go away.”

As I inquired more he told me the diagnosis was degenerative disc disease, which was causing his spine to shrink and as a result, it was causing the low back pain he was experiencing and would now have to seek treatment on a weekly basis just to deal with it.

This once active person (in his 50’s) was now disheveled because of this MRI diagnosis he had been given by another practitioner, he felt hopeless.

Why MRI Is Just One Tool That Should Be Used

Stories like this happen all too often with our patients.

They experience some sort of low back pain, (which usually they have never experienced before) and their doctor or other healthcare practitioner orders an x-ray or MRI and the results seem catastrophic. They are diagnosed with a “disease” or “syndrome” of some sort but aren’t given any really good information surrounding their condition.

While there is a possibility that disc degeneration (DDD) could be a contributing factor to their pain, it’s not as simple as just looking at some medical imaging to get a proper diagnosis.

There are several contributing factors including environmental factors, genetics, and associations with heavy physical work, lifting, truck-driving, obesity and smoking (smoking has been found as a risk factor for pain and DDD) found to be the major risk factors. However, these do not point to a clear pattern between degeneration and clinical symptoms.

Something that doesn’t get mentioned as often, is how this is also simply a part of normal aging. One systematic review points out some interesting facts to show just how much this happens. When looking at 3110 images of asymptomatic people the review showed: 

  • Prevalence of disc degeneration in people at 20 years old was 37% which increased to 96% in 80-year-olds.
  • Disc bulges occurred in 30% of people at 20 years old and 84% in those at 80 years of age.
  • Disc protrusions were 29% of 20-years-old and 43% of 80-years-old.

And all of these individuals weren’t experiencing any pain!!

Another study showed changes in the disc at multiple levels were more common in the elderly (in this case above 60 years) as well as other degenerative changes around the facet joints, ligamentum flavum, and disc bulges.

Even though degeneration has been seen in the younger population as well, there is little correlation between radiological findings and pain. Quite often people whose imaging shows major issues have no pain and those who present with minor signs experience severe pain.

Unfortunately, many of these people are referred for surgery (usually a spinal fusion) which eliminates motion and can lead to degeneration of adjacent parts of the spine. Another part of the problem here is this only addresses a symptom, not the cause and the surgical outcomes are not great. It is also important to note that 70-80% of people who have surgical indications for back pain or disc herniation recover whether they have surgery or not.

These surgical referrals usually happen because imaging has been used as a diagnosis, rather than just a tool used in the process. This isn’t to say imaging shouldn’t be used, but it should not be the only thing used. Overall we see the association between MRI findings and DDD are unreliable, so the importance remains on our clinical reasoning and of course, patient history as well as looking for any neurological deficits.

The Role Of Depression

Now that we understand DDD risk factors, it’s age-related changes, and correlation with pain there is another factor we need to look at. 

Depression. 

In a three year study looking at veterans who were asymptomatic with low back pain, they were given repeated MRI’s over this three-year span. The researchers made a point of not telling the participants the results of what they saw as they didn’t want the patients to alter their symptoms by becoming sensitized to trivial issues or amplifying their symptoms. 

Imaging findings varied, some discs were less severe, or even normal, and some became worse. The study concluded that central stenosis, nerve root contact, and disc extrusion were the most important imaging findings that may be risk factors for future back pain, however, protrusions were not a risk factor. 

But, the strongest predictor for low back pain was depression. 

Of those who self-identified (and were being medically treated for it) as having depression, their pain scores were greater at EVERY follow-up, whereas the progression of disc changes was only occasionally associated with new pain. Some of the participants also pointed out their activities were limited because of their depression. 

As we know (when reviewing the clinical guidelines of low back pain) bed rest used to be one of the main recommendations for those dealing with acute low back pain, but now exercise and movement is the far better recommendation. When we look at discs exercise does not affect them adversely and they respond well to long term loading strategies. 

So, think about that patient who comes in and is catastrophizing about the diagnosis they have just received. We know part of what we have to do is provide reassurance, in fact, this is a MAJOR part of what we have to do. Looking at all the information we have just discussed, letting them know that disc degeneration is a part of normal aging, there is little correlation between their diagnosis and pain (unless there are neurological symptoms) and quite often the issue resolves itself without surgery. Could we actually reverse their catastrophizing? Could we also assist this by encouraging them to exercise, even by getting them moving on your table to show that movement is safe? We know that exercise has great results in helping with depression and now we know it also helps with disc health, so aren’t these the things we should pay more attention to rather than focusing on MRI results? I’d say yes…and the research agrees. 

Articles Of The Week April 14, 2019

 

People will do all sorts of popular treatments for different parts of their body. There is a new trend where women are getting laser therapy on their vagina for a variety of reasons, but is the treatment actually valid? Well…there is still research to be done.

“Do Vaginas Need Rejuvenating?” – Sandy Hilton

Patient education and communication is a crucial part of treatment, but how much of what we say do they remember? This is where effective communication may be using short simple messages to help with education retention.

“Pain Science Education” – Lynita White

When it comes to our mental health, it turns out exercise does more for it than money. Although I’m sure most of us would have guessed that, there’s actually research out of Yale and Oxford that prove it.

“Exercise Makes You Happier Than Money” – Ruqayyah Moynihan

Continuing with mental health, how about its relationship with food? If we were to include education on nutrition as part of mainstream healthcare is there a potential for real change? This article argues it would.

“Why Isn’t Nutritional Therapy A Primary Therapy For Mental Illness?” – Eirik Garnas

Research is showing us that one of the best things we can do for arthritis, is loading the affected joints. When loaded properly we can actually combat the effects arthritis has on the joints.

“Arthritis And Movement: Your Weightlifting Prescription” – Mike DeMille, DPT, and Erin Murray

How Recognition And Communication Can Help Cauda Equina Syndrome

Sometimes a patient walks into your clinic and it’s hard to decipher what’s going on with them.

It may be something we’ve never seen before, their signs and symptoms don’t add up, or their pain doesn’t seem to correlate to their description of the cause. When things don’t seem to add up, our clinical reasoning has to jump into full effect to figure out what’s going on.

Looking at the red flags of low back pain, one of the conditions that really stands out is Cauda Equina Syndrome.

While it is rarely seen in practice (I have yet to ever encounter a patient with it) it is something we should have a working knowledge of, so our clinical reasoning can jump into action.

Early recognition and referral to medical help can make a massive difference in its development and effect on a patient, so we have a responsibility to recognize and refer out when necessary, and in this case, it is!

Recognizing Cauda Equina

The Cauda Equina is a bundle of nerve roots that angle down in the vertebral canal from the end of the spinal cord, which looks like wisps of hair, giving it its name, meaning “horse’s tail”.

What causes Cauda Equina Syndrome is usually some sort of compression happening at the nerve roots around the lumbar to sacral area. The most common causes are:

  • Lumbar disc herniation, prolapse, or sequestration (one systematic review showed 45% were disc related)
  • Smaller prolapses due to spinal stenosis.

The less common causes are:

  • Epidural Haematoma.
  • Infection.
  • Primary and metastatic neoplasms.
  • Trauma.
  • Post-surgical.
  • Prolapse due to manipulation.
  • Chemonucleolysis.
  • After spinal anesthesia.
  • Patients with Ankylosing Spondylitis.
  • Gunshot wounds.
  • Constipation.

All of these things are important to ask during a patient history if you suspect a possibility of Cauda Equina, but more important is their clinical presentation. It may present as: 

  • Low back pain.
  • Saddle anesthesia.
  • Bilateral sciatica.
  • Weakness of their lower extremities.
  • Paraplegia.
  • Bowel, bladder, or sexual dysfunction.

The most commonly seen are low back pain and radicular leg pain because of tissue irritation around the lumbar spine.

When it comes to assessing patients who could possibly be dealing with this, one review showed they can be placed into three groups: 

  1. CESS (Cauda Equina Syndrome Suspicious or Suspected)
    • Bilateral radiculopathy.
    • Subjective sphincteric problems with no objective evidence of CES.
  2. CESI
    • Subjective symptoms and objective signs, but voluntary control of urination.
  3. CESR (Cauda Equina Syndrome Retention)
    • Neurogenic retention of urine with a paralyzed, insensate bladder along with urinary incontinence.

Now just as we see some “red flags” with low back pain, CES has also been divided into red flags and white flags and are divided into:

  • Definite Red Flags
    • Bilateral Radiculopathy.
    • Progressive neurological deficit in the legs.
  • Possible Red or White Flags
    • Impaired perineal sensation.
    • Impaired anal tone (not that I’m suggesting you should ever try to palpate this).
    • Urinary difficulties that are unspecified.
  • Definite White Flags
    • Urinary retention or incontinence.
    • Fecal incontinence.
    • Perineal anesthesia.

With this outline, we define the “true red flags” as someone who has bilateral radiculopathy, difficulties with urinating, or changes in bladder function, along with the loss of perineal sensation. However, there is nothing that gives a clear diagnosis because so many of the symptoms are objective. It is recommended that MRI is important, not because it can diagnose, but rather it shows which people with red flag symptoms have significant compression of the nerve roots, which may result in treatment before the development of the white flags which are more severe.

White flags are a way of saying “defeat or surrender” as the signs are often seen too late and are irreversible. Therefore the review outlining these red and white flags makes the argument that white flags should be removed because treatment at this stage might be too late to recover and avoid long term harm.

Another review even pointed out these different subclasses were too ambiguous as far as signs any symptoms go, so they should be avoided as well.

Then the argument is made that CES diagnosis should revolve around one or more of the following being present:  bladder or bowel dysfunction, reduced sensation in the saddle area, and sexual dysfunction with possible lower limb neurologic deficits.

Clear Communication And Reassurance

As we have talked about before, when it comes to low back pain, patient reassurance is a crucial aspect of helping them deal with these issues.

Much of the evidence shows good outcomes occur when patients have decompressive surgery early before there are incomplete lesions on the nerve. However, it is unclear as to which exact surgery (there are a few different types) works the best and is another factor that could affect patient outcomes.

So the important thing is for us to recognize these symptoms, realize there is an issue, and have our patients get the appropriate help, (which is most likely a trip to the hospital), as early recognition and treatment is key.

We want to ensure when talking to our patients that we are using clear and easily understandable terms, as well as proper descriptive terms when referring to doctors as this is a rare condition and is estimated a doctor may only see this once in their career.

It is crucial that our communication with patients is centered on them, not only in the way we talk, but also in the way we listen, as it has been shown they use very explicit language in their description of symptoms. It is then important for us to use terms they understand. Much of the research uses terms like “micturition” and “incontinence” which came across as very vague and hard to understand for patients. Rather, using terms like “urinating”, or “difficulties using the restroom” would be more appropriate. One patient was told their issue was serious if they were incontinent, yet the patient would be able to “force” themselves to use the toilet, so didn’t understand this was an issue.

So, clear communication is key to the emphasis and seriousness of their condition, as well as the importance of getting to the hospital quickly (better outcomes within 48 hours of recognition and treatment). While these can be difficult conversations to have, they are crucial ones because if this isn’t recognized and dealt with, there can be long term and VERY undesirable consequences, which are quite simply life altering. We can play a major role in this for our patients. While it may be difficult to have conversations (and some would argue we shouldn’t) centered around sexual dysfunction and using the toilet, we owe it to our patients as healthcare professionals to not only be open to,  but willing to talk about this for their better outcome.

A Novel Mobilization for Acute Ankle Inversion Sprains

 

The case in the video was a severe ankle inversion sprain on the left and moderate on the right. The patient is a high-level gymnast who injured herself tumbling during a floor routine.

The video below was taken almost a week after the sprain. She had significantly decreased mobility with pain in all planes. Normally I would try a posterior glide to the lateral malleolus and ankle inversion/plantarflexion, which has worked on her in the past with great results. This time, that was too painful as was lateral malleolus contact.

Instead, I tried slacking the irritated skin and ligaments while gradually moving the forefoot/ankle into dorsiflexion and eversion. This was pain-free and after working my way to end range, her active/passive non-weight bearing range was much better and her gait was nearly pain-free. This got her started with loading and was easily replicated for an hourly home exercise program to modulate pain.

A Novel Mobilization for Acute Ankle Inversion Sprains

The case in the video was a severe ankle inversion sprain on the left and moderate on the right. The patient is a high level gymnast who injured herself tumbling during a floor routine. The video below was taken almost a week after the sprain. She had significantly decreased mobility with pain in all planes. Normally I would try a posterior glide to the lateral malleolus and ankle inversion/plantarflexion, which has worked on her in the past with great results. This time, that was too painful as was lateral malleolus contact. Instead, I tried slacking the irritated skin and ligaments while gradually moving the forefoot/ankle into dorsiflexion and eversion. This was pain free and after working my way to end range, her active/passive NWB range was much better and her gait was nearly pain free. This got her started with loading and was easily replicated for an hourly home exercise program to modulate pain.

Posted by Modern Manual Therapy on Monday, January 22, 2018

Models Of Pain And Movement

 

There are various models used to understand pain: the neuromatrix model, the biopsychosocial model; Louis Gifford’s Mature Organism Model; the Onion skin model, the biomedical model. And for motor learning and physical training, there is the constraints based model, or dynamic system theory, the various Russian sports science models, non-linear pedagogy, etc.

 

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I often see debate as to the relative merit of these models, which is a good thing. But what I think is not such a good thing is when people argue that because a model has a certain flaw or limitation, it is fatally deficient. Or that using this model will always lead to error. Or that existing problems with current models require a complete and radical revolution in our thinking. These arguments are particularly common in regard to models about the brain because let’s face it, the brain is pretty hard to model.

The way I look at it, all models are necessarily wrong, at least to some extent. But some models are still useful. We need to be aware of how a particular model might lead us astray, but we also need to appreciate how it can provide insight.

Building models is a fundamental part of trying to understand the world in any systematic or organized way. The world has too many details and complexities to be taken in all at once. In order to really understand a particular phenomenon, we need to focus on certain essential details while ignoring others.

For example, to understand the movement of large objects in response to forces, we focus on the mass and velocity of the object and the magnitude and direction of the forces applied to it. But we ignore non-essential but very real details like the color of the object, the shape of the object, or even the effects of friction. The result is a model with simple equations like force equals mass times acceleration.

We can test the accuracy of the model by seeing whether it makes accurate predictions. If it does or leads to better understanding and control over the events we are trying to explain, it is a success. Further progress can be made by noting the limitations of the model, arguing about whether other models are better, making improvements to existing models and so forth.

Although we can improve the accuracy and utility of models, they can never be complete or accurate representations of the world. In order to fully model the world, we would have to build another world! That’s impossible, and it wouldn’t really help anyway. So models are not mirrors of reality, but simplified reflections. They are, therefore, to at least some extent, “wrong.” But again, they can be incredibly useful.

Newtonian mechanics allows us to make amazingly accurate predictions about the movement of large objects like planets. But it fails to describe events accurately when objects are very small or moving near the speed of light. Under these circumstances, we need different models – the theory of general relativity or quantum mechanics. So Newton’s “laws” are not universal, but they remain accurate in the “middle-sized” world that is our usual area of concern.

Here’s a relevant quote from Sean Carroll (a very smart physicist) in his new book The Big Picture:

Our best approach to describing the universe is not a single, unified story but an interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels. Each model has a domain in which it is applicable, and the ideas that appear as essential parts of each story have every right to be thought of as “real.” Our task is to assemble an interlocking set of descriptions, based on some fundamental ideas, that fit together to form a stable planet of belief.. . .

Our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world — useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality — deserve to be called “real.”

 

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” . . . Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world. The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it — telling its story — in different ways.

I agree!

The human body is one of the most complex organizations of matter in the known universe. To understand it, we must build models, use metaphors, and deal in abstractions. This necessarily involves ignoring certain details, creating simplified pictures, and relying on metaphors that have the potential to mislead. But we have no choice! Models and metaphors are indispensable thinking tools for understanding the body. Is the brain a computer? The heart a pump? The kidney a filter? The nerves telephone wires? In some ways, yes, and others no.

Each model is a different perspective from which to see the world, with its own unique insights and blind spots. For example, you can look at movement or pain from the perspective of the musculoskeletal system, the nervous system, the metabolic system, the immune system, or the endocrine system. You can take a microscopic view to consider the behavior of individual cells, or zoom out for a big picture of the relationship between larger systems. Some perspectives might be highly informative for a wide variety of purposes, and generally, foster an accurate perception of the viewed object. These perspectives are great. Others may get you looking in completely the wrong direction. These perspectives suck. But there is no one perspective that can offer a complete understanding of a multi-dimensional phenomenon like pain, movement, or any other event in the human body.

Self-Efficacy A Well Used Term But Well Understood?

Self-efficacy is a term banded around in therapy quite regularly at the moment especially as more active approaches to rehabilitation are being embraced.

So we have to ask exactly what does it mean, why does it matter and how do we improve it?

In fact, my twitter friend/colleague Jerry Durham asked me this question whilst I was in the process of writing this blog, talk about great timing! It also shows that we often don’t have a well-defined definition for a well-used term.

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Let’s Start With What Does It Mean?

It was a term first coined by Bandura in the 70’s, he described it is the ‘belief of an individual on whether they have the ability to perform behaviours relative to a specific activity’. Self-efficacy has also been described as a ‘resilient self-belief system’.

I like to describe it as a sense that ‘I have got this’ or ‘I can do this”.

This could be self-efficacy in relation to pain, such as the perception of the ability to remain functional and perform activities of daily living whilst you have pain, or it could be treatment-related activities such as a specific activity or exercise.

So let’s say that your kind therapist has suggested that you go to for a walk to help out with your back pain, do you think that you will be capable of doing this?

Maybe you don’t feel motivated?

Perhaps you don’t feel confident that you physically can?

Could be that you feel you can’t fit it into your busy life?

Low self-efficacy may result in challenges, such as changes in behaviour, being seen as threats to be avoided rather than things that can be overcome. Bandura identified a number of psychological processes involved with self-efficacy, these being cognitive, motivational and affective (emotional). Having valued goals and activities appears to be associated with these factors as well and self-efficacy and resilience literature points towards valued activities being an important part of this process HERE.

Bandura also identified four main sources of self-efficacy.

Mastery

Previous mastery of an activity or action influences our future perception of capabilities. We are starting to learn that human beings use prediction based on past experiences to navigate the uncertain nature of the world around them. If we have been successful at something in the past then it is likely we will perceive that we can overcome it again. This is also related to the ease of successes.

If our successes have been easy then we may be quickly dissuaded by obstacles. If the successes have been tough then we may also be used to overcoming any obstacles that come our way.

In line with this view, we see that previous adherence and participation in exercise has been shown to be important in future exercise adherence HERE.

Experiences

The world around us also influences our perception of capabilities. If people surround you that you perceive as similar, who are achieving similar things that you are being required to achieve, then you will also be more likely to see these things as attainable. This could be from the media that we consume to the involvement in social activities or our family circle, this underlines the social aspects of pain that appear to be pretty important.

This is a great recent paper on social factors in pain HERE

Persuasion

Now, this can be both positive and negative, and of course, it is easier to be influenced negatively than positively! But those that are persuaded, both verbally and experientially, that they are capable of achieving a task are more likely to be able to do so especially if we see previous success as a key factor.

Negative Emotions

Strong negative feelings towards an activity or the negative perception around an activity also will influence the level of self-efficacy someone has. Self-doubt is often an emotion that influences behavior negatively.

So We Have To Also Ask, Why Is It Important?

It appears that self-efficacy has been linked in multiple papers to worse outcomes across various measures of pain and disability. Now we cannot suggest it is causative or even that improving it will simply improve outcomes at this moment in time. But if I were to go out on a limb I think it probably would : ), especially if we are promoting more active approaches to therapy.

Certainly exercise as a treatment relies on it being performed and evidence-based medicine falls flat on its face if we cannot apply the treatment to the patient.

Foster, in 2010, found that for people with low back pain, low confidence in their ability to perform normal activities, or low self-efficacy, was predictive of a worse outcome in terms of disability at 6 months, in fact, better than fear avoidance, catastrophizing or depression HERE.

Keedy, 2014, found that those without the ability to engage in pain management related behaviours, pain self-efficacy, is related to the outcomes for back pain rehabilitation HERE.

Greater passive behaviour scores were also found to be associated with worse outcomes at a five year follow up for lower back pain by Chen, 2018 HERE. Passive coping strategies rely on external resources for pain control rather than internal resources such as our belief systems HERE that also influence self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy has also shown to be fundamental to the adherence of exercise interventions. These studies found that low self-efficacy was a predictive factor for poor adherence to a home exercise program HERE & HERE. For all the focus on the nuts and bolts of exercise, it is a pretty redundant process if the person does not feel capable of doing it. Time spent in this area rather than a focus on sets and reps may drastically improve adherence and therefore outcomes.

I call this focusing on the hole rather than the donut (the whole!)Slide2

What Can We Do To Alter It?

Success

The first steps may simply be to create a successful experience!

Previous successful adherence and progress have been associated with increased self-efficacy and this ties in with a Bayesian perspective of human function. So perhaps our aim for those that display low self-efficacy should be to set a low threshold for activity that can lead to easy adoption and fast progress. We often aim for a dosage of activity that leads to some kind of physical overload and adaptation. This could potentially lead to a negative experience for some and limit increased participation, without a positive initial experience they may not achieve longer-term sustainable success. So essentially good for psychology but not so much for physiology in the short term but hopefully leading to greater longer-term physiological impact through sustained participation.

It could be that just making an exercise session fun and not boring could be a very beneficial outcome. We often don’t place much importance on these things within medicine though. Why do people play sports? Maybe because they enjoy other aspects beyond just the physical exertion component.

People are often driven by challenge, fun & competition, how often do you incorporate these aspects into your training?

Some questions I often ask to gauge self-efficacy around exercise & activity are:

“Would you describe your self as confident around moving and exercising?”

“Do you feel you are currently capable of increasing your activity levels if required?”

“Would you describe yourself as motivated with regards to activity and exercise?”

Motivation

Motivation also appears to be a key aspect of self-efficacy. Helping people find something that actually motivates them could also be important and this could be through a goal-setting process that identifies valued activities.  We could then break it down into more perceived manageable chunks that create little wins to help motivate the person.

I call this helping them find their ‘why’.

Lots of exercise programs don’t resonate with people, especially if they have not really participated in one before so exercise in itself is not enough of a ‘why’ for them.

We might ask “what would your perfect day look like with regards to activity?” or “what are some things you love to do that you don’t or can’t?”.

Autonomy is another factor associated with successful exercise, HERE, so also giving choices and options rather than a ‘this is the exercise you have to do’ approach.

Planning

Sitting down and planning with people when they might do things and how much might also have an impact on self-efficacy. Being able to do this for themselves might be a limiting factor and the participation in activity may feel like too great a challenge without some guidance.

What days might be best?

What time of day?

What type?

For how long?

What kind of effort level?

Set a reminder on the smartphone?

How to progress?

Alternative options if you do not succeed?

Takeaways

  • Previous experiences with behaviours are involved with future self-efficacy
  • Social environment and support is important
  • Self-efficacy can make or break an active approach to treatment
  • Self-efficacy is involved in outcomes for pain and disability
  • Self-efficacy is important for exercise adherence
  • Create behavioural wins and good experiences
  • Your input in terms of planning and motivation is vital if self-efficacy is low