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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. 

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

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.

Screen Shot 2018 06 03 At 09.21.05

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

Testing, Graded Exposure, And Reassurance For Low Back Pain

 

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at and discussing the clinical guidelines for treating low back pain.

We have covered how important reassuring our patients their tissues are safe is a crucial component in their recovery from pain as well as building our therapeutic relationship with them.

We also discussed how important using graded exposure as part of that reassurance is, along with its importance in getting them moving again. So, this week we’ll cover how you can do some simple and effective graded exposure right in your massage therapy treatment room.

But first, we’ll have a look at the orthopedic test that was commonly recommended throughout those clinical guidelines and how to do it. There is a bit of controversy between papers as to how effective this test is, but it is the one that was most commonly recommended, so we felt it important to review.

Here is how to do an SLR (straight leg raise).

Even though the more common use of an SLR for low back pain is to look for a disc issue if you get a positive it is still important to reassure your patient they are okay. Use terms like “it just shows us the area is sensitized right now, so we just need to calm it down”. Try not to alarm them or instill any fear around there being a damaged disc or tissue.

Quite often when patients with low back pain come in, there will be some movements they are fearful of doing. Commonly forward flexion is the one I’ve seen in practice that most people have an issue with, so we’ll look at how we can do some graded exposure to help with that.

If you have a hydraulic table here are some simple things you can do to not only reassure the patient movement is okay, but also to help build up their trust in you:

If you don’t have a hydraulic table, here’s how you can do the same thing with some of the furniture most of us have in our treatment rooms.

The biggest takeaways:

  • Provide reassurance to the patient that they are not “damaged”.
  • Make them feel safe with the movements.
  • Gradually expose them to an increased range of movement.
  • Encourage, encourage, encourage your patients!

Learn How Movement Will Change Low Back Pain

Last week we posted an article discussing some of the research around the clinical guidelines of low back pain.

There are several modalities commonly used that aren’t recommended like Tens, laser therapy, imaging, and corticosteroids,  but when we look at what is recommended we have an opportunity to make a real difference for those suffering from back pain.

One of the big things recommended is a biopsychosocial approach along with education. In order to start this kind of approach, patient reassurance is critical in order to help the patient feel safe (as we talked about last week).

In addition to reassurance, supervised exercise is also a crucial part of helping patients deal with their back pain. However, these two go hand in hand as it will quite often take a considerable amount of reassurance to convince a patient that it is okay to move.

One way to help is by looking at what the research says for exercise and low back pain, which you can use as a tool to convince (and reassure) patients this is the best course of action.

Exercise For Low Back Pain

Remember the old days when bed rest was the main prescription for low back pain?

Well, now bed rest is actually discouraged unless the pain is too severe, then only two days of bed rest are chosen. In contrast to this, we now understand that staying active has far better outcomes than the way we used to manage this.

And I know many of you might be saying “exercise is out of my scope of practice” and while this may be true, active and passive range of motion probably is within your scope, so there is no reason you can’t incorporate some of this into your treatments. 

I know there is probably some concern over being able to recommend “specific” exercises (or movements) but don’t worry it doesn’t have to be all that complicated…in fact, it shouldn’t be! Supervised movement without the use of expensive equipment is one of the specific recommendations, so you can do this right in your treatment room.

This is especially true in the acute stage, where strengthening, extension, and specific exercises are not recommended. Rather, in this case, we want to use graded exposure to physical activity. Graded exposure is essentially getting a patient to move (gradually) into a feared or painful movement (we’ve had articles about this before which you can read HERE for a more detailed description).

For example, when it comes to acute low back pain, if your patient is scared, or experiencing pain with a certain movement like standing forward flexion, have them change the plane of movement and try flexion again. Try having them sit comfortably in a chair, then lean forward. This is still spinal flexion, it’s just in a more supportive position. When they can move in this position comfortably, point out how capable they are of the movement and reassure them that flexion is safe. You can then gradually work up to standing flexion until this feels safe again.

There are many ways to do this, it just takes a little experimentation on your part.

When it comes to chronic low back pain there is no evidence that one exercise is superior to another.

However, recommendations show that remaining as physically active as possible along with an early return to work is well supported by evidence (probably why some workplaces have a gradual return to work program). While there are no specific exercises highlighted as more effective than others, the exercises that work are simply the ones your patient will do. Find out what’s important to them and encourage them to do it. Whether it is strength training, going for a walk, playing with their kids, or playing hockey, the intent is to build confidence in their bodies as opposed to fixing a problem.

Inevitably the question of dosage comes up and the research shows that too much, or too little exercise with some patients can run the risk of developing persistent pain. This is where it’s important to experiment a little to see what works best for the patient, we don’t want them to overdo it, but also want to avoid not doing enough (one of the reasons bed rest has been eliminated).

Overall since we know a biopsychosocial approach is most effective, encourage things like movement in general, getting back to work, staying connected with the things and the people they enjoy. Just make sure these things are done gradually. If we can address peoples fear of movement by using graded exposure early on, we have a better chance of avoiding prolonged pain and disability. So, don’t stress about ‘specific’ exercises, the overall goal is to get our patients moving and keep them moving. Movement along with some education and reassurance can go a long way in not only improving low back pain but also the patients quality of life.

 

Altered Skin Colour And Circulation, Result Of Massage Or Nervous System?

 

This is one of those topics that inevitably comes up on a regular basis.

The last time I taught our course on pain science and therapeutic exercise, there was some resistance to the idea that massage therapy does not increase circulation and last week there were some big discussions on the topic on one of the massage groups on facebook.

This was a harsh reality for me when I realized we don’t have any effect on circulation and I remember the day in college when I started to question it (I’d love to say it was because I was some sort of forward-thinking genius, but I digress). I was working with a hockey team and one of the players had an episode in the summer which required him to be on blood thinners. I was super worried that if I did any massage I’d have an adverse effect on him, so I approached one of my teachers to ask if massage was contraindicated and what I should do as I was worried about the increase of circulation with his condition.

My teacher simply looked at me and said: “you’re not going to increase his circulation any more than him playing hockey!”

It was like a light bulb of astonishment went off, I wish I had a picture of my face.

Now, surely that story can be taken anecdotally if you choose to, so the question will remain: “what does the research say?”

Heart Rate And The SNS

I remember in college while working in the student clinic, part of each treatment we had to develop three goals prior to treatment to be reviewed by one of the clinic supervisors.

Most of the time my goals would look something like this (they got more specific as school progressed):

  1. Increase circulation.
  2. Decrease SNS firing.
  3. Patient education.

I think the reasoning behind “decreasing the sympathetic nervous system firing” was more to just a way of saying we calmed the patient’s stressors down and essentially helped them relax. As we know the SNS is responsible for our “fight or flight” response, which is essentially used when we are scared because we’re being chased by a bear or something. In order to have a “fight or flight” response, it would require our heart to start pumping hard and feed blood to the necessary parts of our body to get us moving and run from the said bear.

One of the assessment tools we would use to prove whether we actually had an effect on the patients SNS was to check their pulse before and after treatment to see if there was a change. Inevitably their pulse rate would be slower post-treatment than it was prior to treatment, thus justifying how we “relaxed” our patient.

So how in the world did I think I could simultaneously increase circulation, while both decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity? My assessment was literally proving me wrong. The sad part is I only thought of this example last week, at no point during my education did I ever question this, I just habitually put them as goals.

One thing we know for sure (and we’ve written about it before, you can read it here), is that massage therapy can help with hypertension and actually decreasing blood pressure. Some articles argue this entirely depends on the type and depth of massage technique used. One study showed using trigger point therapy and sports massage actually increased BP, however, the article wisely ackn0wledged this was due to the pain caused during a trigger point treatment. In this case, the treatment would be causing a sympathetic nervous system reaction to withdraw from pain, thus temporarily increasing blood pressure.

With everything we know about modern pain science and the knowledge around old theory of trigger point therapy, I hope we aren’t going in and causing pain with our patients anymore, as we know it’s not effective. In turn, it’s also not a technique we should use to fight the argument about an increase in circulation. As far as sports massage causing an increase, we’ll get to that in a bit. 

Sport Massage 

In the sport massage world, there has been a long time practice of using tapotement techniques to help with warm-up and increase blood flow before a competition.

While this can be an effective way of helping an athlete warm-up, there is probably more of a psychological aspect to it than anything about bringing circulation to a specific body part or tissue (this may be part of the reason that a typical warm-up involving exercise is always recommended before seeing a therapist to assist with warmup).

There is also the argument about doing a “leg flush” post-competition to help clear out lactic acid as part of recovery.

While there are several studies showing that blood flow is increased with massage (to help prove the above theories), most of the methods used to try and prove this theory wasn’t very reliable. However, more recent studies have shown that massage has little effect on arterial blood flow.

There were theories that reported a 50% increase in circulation after a vigorous massage, but later studies (which used somewhat unreliable measurement tools) showed not only smaller increases, but some showed no increase at all.

The above-cited study actually did tests post-exercise to see if massage would still have any effect when it comes to circulation. They used one group who would take regular rest post-exercise and one group who would receive massage. There was no significant difference between the two groups on femoral artery blood flow and massage performed on the quadriceps.

So what does this tell us? The only real way to increase blood flow is through movement and exercise. As our friend Alice Sanvito stated in a forum not too long ago: “If we mean there is more blood to an area, we run into another problem. The circulatory system is a closed-loop. There is a relatively fixed amount of blood. If more blood is shunted to one area, then there must be less blood somewhere else.”

The body would not let this happen, so we cannot actually alter circulation to bring more or less to any area of the body, without significant injury, which would result in shock, or blood loss.

Changes In Skin Colour

The question came up, “if we don’t increase circulation why does the skin go red!?”

Great question!, so I had to do some research on that as well.

We have all seen it in our clinic, we work on a specific area of the body and the skin changes color and gets a little bit pink, or maybe even red. Well, there are two possible mechanisms at work here, either the friction created doing, say, an effleurage stroke is irritating the skin, or a change in temperature from touch is the culprit. What about the clients you treat where the skin doesn’t change colour? Does this mean the massage is having less of an effect on them?

Well, studies show that skin friction can increase heating which causes hyperemia in the local massaged area. But the same thing happens when I put a cold pack on my arm and isn’t cold actually supposed to cause vasodilation and a decrease in circulation?

While there is a minor increase in blood flow to the capillaries of the skin, the increase in blood flow has been measured and shows that the amount is so arbitrary, there is no way it is being diverted away from local musculature. So, while this is p0ssibly a minor increase to the skin, we can’t assume we are increasing circulation to the muscle because the skin is changing colour.

As we mentioned before, what about those clients whose skin colour doesn’t change? Does this mean there is something wrong with their circulatory system, and we aren’t influencing circulation to that area? I’d venture to say no, it probably has more to do with skin sensitivity, or it’s a true measure of how minimal the circulation increase actually is.

Our friend Alice Sanvito also made a stellar point about this:

“What were we taught about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? The sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system diverts blood away from the skin and internal organs and towards the muscles. The parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system diverts blood away from the muscles and towards the internal organs and the skin. Since massage tends to relax people, it is probably safe to assume it is downregulating the sympathetic nervous system.”

Like it has been with so many other things in our career, we really have to take a step back sometimes and critically look at the things we were taught. This has been a huge learning curve for me during my career, but there is also a refreshing side to being able to give honest and logical answers to patients. While we may encounter arguments from others on these points, it’s important to keep educating ourselves and others to stay on top of current research and evidence-based practice. We’ve said it before on this blog in regards to circulation, there’s more of an increase happening by your patient walking into your clinic and getting on your table than from anything that happens during the treatment. And you know what? That’s okay because what you are doing for them on the table is FAR more important than worrying about increasing their circulation.