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Tools From My Past, Reflecting On Change

Recognize those objects in the photo? They are pelvic wedges, used by some health professionals for a variety of reasons. Most rationales center around their use to balance the asymmetrical pelvis.

I learned why and how to use them in a myofascial release (MFR) course on the pelvis, somewhere around 1994. The theory was that pelvic asymmetry, or torsions, was due to injury, birth trauma, and other nefarious insults and needed to be corrected for the pain to lessen, gait, and posture to improve, and many more reasons.

I learned a lot in that class, much of it I used for many years. Those pelvic wedges are well-worn, as I balanced the hell out of many pelvises over a long time. And you want to know something? I helped a lot of patients with their back and related pain through the use of those wedges.

Then around 7-8 years ago I noticed that I was using them less often. In the present, they tend to stay unused. Why is that? Don’t I want to help people as I did in the past?

7-8 years ago is when I seriously began questioning all things therapy-related, both from a manual therapy perspective, but also from an exercise/strengthening perspective. I had departed my MFR world in 2006 after being told to conform or leave. (I chose to leave.)

But I stuck with those MFR principles and philosophies for a number of years and applied them in my work, including what I thought was balancing the pelvis. After a few years I began drifting into other worlds; into other ways to describe and define the effects of manual therapy in general, and MFR in specific. At first, I didn’t like what I read and learned, as there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty over just how manual therapy impacts the human being.

As I learned more, I saw the flaws in many of the simplistic explanations therapists use, as well as how the public views and repeats those simple concepts. Exercise, for instance, is often quite helpful, though I now know that those effects had little (if anything) to do with being weak. The common simplistic statement physical therapists tell their patients that being stronger will help you support yourself better, which leads to less pain was simply false. Or, the statement was so weakly true that it made little sense even to say it.

However, patients say things like that all of the time. It was much of what the core stability craze grew from. “Getting strong” is helpful, but the strength itself is not what diminishes pain. It is a complex combination of factors that vary from person to person. Movement is helpful. Motion is lotion.

MFR, and manual therapy in general, suffer from similar simplistic errors. When one reads through some of the latest evidence (Bialosky, 2009, 2010, 2018; Geri, 2019; Kolb, 2020), these papers read very differently from the way I learned MFR. But I can wager that if you underwent advanced training in any of the popular branded modalities in manual therapy, the science that you learned may not align completely with what others see as truth. How do you put all of that together?

Let’s go back to my wedges. As an MFR-based PT, I saw people coming to me for issues of pain in the low back, peels, hip, sacroiliac joint (SIJ), and more. Often, one of the first places I began my evaluation was at their pelvis. “If you don’t balance the pelvis, nothing will stick” was a familiar phrase I was taught in my MFR of training. Along with postural assessment, a pelvic assessment was key to knowing what was at fault and what needed doing (on my part). Pelvis assessment was done by palpating both the ASISs and PSISs (front and back landmarks on either side of the pelvis), as well as looking at possible upslip/downslip of the pelvis, etc. There were some SIJ assessments, to see if one side was stuck, as well as other assessment procedures, mainly postural. After all of this, I would put it all together and tell my patient why they were having pain (what I thought to be the cause) and what needed to be done to correct things. Many times patients simply agreed to what I said was wrong and trusted me to fix them.

That’s when the wedges came in.

I’d place the wedges in precise locations so that when my patient rested on them, with the assistance from my MFR intervention, their pelvis was released back into a better alignment. We might repeat this over the course of a few sessions and I would reach them homework to reinforce the pelvis corrections. And most got better.

Wedges are used by other professions and by other modalities, so we MFR therapists didn’t own the patent. But the way we used them was said to be unique. Other clinicians wasted their time with ineffectual chiropractic adjustments, etc., but none of them had the long-lasting effects as we did. (I spoke like that a lot back then.

So why did I stop using them? Why would I stop using them?

In today’s culture on social media, evidence and research seem to have taken a turn for the dark places.

Many mistrust research, feeling like scientists are always changing their minds and claiming all research is bought and paid for by big industries, etc. Science does self-correct continually, but that is the nature of the scientific method.

During the period when I left my MFR tribe, I began reading studies, many of which seem to refute what I had been taught and what I had witnessed as a clinician. For instance, in 1999 Levangie looked at the relationship between pelvis asymmetry and low back pain. While they found a weak association between the asymmetry of the PSISs and lower back pain, overall, “Pelvic asymmetry was not positively associated with low back pain in any way that seemed clinically meaningful.” One study does not make a believer out of many, and rightly so.

But the more I dove down this and related research rabbit holes, the greater dissonance I found with what I learned and practiced. While I could go on for quite a while on the weakness of the link, suffice to say there is sufficient evidence that made me question just what it was that I WAS doing.

The use of the wedges seemed to correlate in some way to my patient’s lower back pain resolution, but apparently, if I was to believe that dastardly evidence, it wasn’t because I reduced the asymmetry. (And for those of you who fancy yourself as a skilled assessor of pelvic levels, check out this systematic review of the reliability of palpating the PSISs. “Current methods of palpating for PSIS asymmetry do not result in levels of interexaminer reliability supporting clinical utility” (Cooperstein, 2019). Fake news, you say??? Try again. Another study points to the difficulty in accurately assessing pelvic tilts and ASIS/PSIS level due to inherent pelvic variations in pelvic morphology that render each side of the pelvis different from the other side. WE cannot measure what we think we are measuring when the underlying structure is not arranged as we think it is! Link

So what could it have been?

First off, I am not in any way calling anyone who used wedges ineffectual. Not in the least.

But what I am suggesting is that the process of using of wedges with a patient, from introducing the concept that pelvic misalignment may have a good deal to do with pain, to the rituals involved with the measurement of their posture and pelvis symmetry, to the rituals involved both with the precision of wedge placement as well as the exactness in which I proceeded with treatment, is a part of contextual factors that often go underappreciated. Add in neurological input through the patient’s skin/soft tissue which can signal to higher centers that things are happening, leaving the patient able to participate in the process of change (read those initial references I gave you for more on these concepts), as well as potential local reactions from the body, and often the pain is lessened. Does the pelvis change in a meaningful and lasting way? Many insist that it does and they claim to have proof. Maybe they do, but even if the pelvic alignment changes, how can we be certain of the cause? Meaning, was it the wedges? Our input over their skin/tissues, while on the wedges? The nervous system adapting over time to a novel stimulus? Or a wide range of other variables?

Those of you who use and swear by wedge usage, postural deviations as the cause of pain, and other similar narratives, there is a very strong chance you’ve already given up on this story, as there is too much cognitive dissonance occurring for you to remain.

However, as I learned more about how neurological and behavioral influences impact pain and movement quality, I saw that the wedges were simply a tool to access that entire human in front of me. I learned that I could use simpler tools to accomplish the same end, namely conversation and assuring a richly contextual therapeutic relationship, one that my patient played a larger role in creating.

I continue to use manual therapy (I dropped the MFR brand), though coupled with strong suggestions for movement (exercise, strengthening, walking, dancing, etc.) as a means to get them moving. Do I get better results than I did back in my MFR wedging days? That is difficult to accurately and objectively say, as such data is difficult to analyze. My patients seem satisfied, as are the insurance companies that often pay the bill.

Why don’t I use them anymore?

That I cannot completely answer, as I still see them as potentially useful. If other means did not seem to spark the attention of a patient then I may drag them out and put them into action. Should you stop using your wedges? Nope. Just realize, the wedges may have less important that you and I were led to believe. I can tell you in full honesty that it has been many years since I performed a standing postural assessment, pelvic measuring included. It has been that long since I pinned my patient’s pain on their pelvis being out of alignment.

Much of our training is about learning recipes and rituals. We take more training as we believe it will give us more skills, which it might. But additional training allows the educator additional access to your brain, filling it with the jargon and recipes of your modality. By using those recipes you set up a context that seems precise, but in the end, maybe no more helpful than that provided by the next person. I do find irony in the position put out by some modalities, educators, and clinicians who feel that they use no protocols or recipes; every patient is a unique experience. While that should be true, such clinical models often rely on recipes and rituals, such as “find the pain, look elsewhere for the cause (recipe), if you don’t balance the pelvis, nothing will hold (ritual), and many others.

Many argue against what I’ve said thus far by pointing to their experience and successes. Who can argue with all of those satisfied customers? No one, but what I will take issue with what you feel the reason you were able to help. Many modality educators make money off of the uniqueness of their product and love to inflate their outcomes and sense of importance. Surprised? Probably not, after all, one needs a good sales pitch in this world. But why is it that most of use take multiple lines of training and come up with our own unique hybrid approach? We are not following the rules and recipes of each of our mentors, rather, we are making that information our own. That’s life. Wedges are not magic. They are a part of a recipe, one I let go of and still manage to find ways to help my patients, probably just as much as any of you.

Another problem with rituals that involve my so-called skills is the dependency that this can create. If I pin my patient’s pain on their out-of-balance pelvis, restricted fascia, stuck SIJ, or any other tissue or structural-based problem, dependency may be fostered. It is very easy for a patient to sell themselves on needing us, now and if the pain returns, instead of educating them on strategies for them to take ownership. Many manual therapists do foster such independence through self-treatment education, which is better in keeping with what should be ethical standards of care. But how do you come across? Are you selling secret causation to patients? One that no one else knows the truth?

The moral of this story? Use wedges. Or don’t use wedges. Just understand that the experience of treatment is nuanced and multifactorial. Many factors go into why our patient improves, many more than I am listing here, that to reduce it as being caused by the use of wedges, or the use of MFR, or anything else you can think of. Including the things I think are important.

If you enjoyed some of the concepts presented here, or if they left you angry and frustrated, have a listen to a great podcast (not mine!). Dr. Oliver Thomson’s Words Matter podcast is a dive into evidence and approaches to manual therapy, exercise, and a better understanding of the words we use.

Happy wedging. Or not.

In Defence Of The Advice To Remain Active For Back Pain

There has recently been some discussion around a lack of evidence for the advice to remain active during back pain. I personally believe there is a lot of value in the advice to stay active and here is why!

Firstly this HERE is from the folks over at Cochrane.

“Moderate quality evidence shows that patients with acute LBP may experience small improvements in pain relief and ability to perform everyday activities if they receive advice to stay active compared to advice to rest in bed. However, patients with sciatica experience little or no difference between the two approaches”

It is important to highlight the current state of play with regards to the evidence base, that there is MODERATE evidence of a SMALL relief for pain and this pretty much is in line with most other current recommendations/treatments that we have for back pain at this point.

Now I am going to give you a bit of my opinion as well!

Being active, IMO : ),  is NOT a treatment. It’s about being a human being and getting on with your life even though you have this very normal part of the human condition…..back pain.

It’s About Belief

Certainly, we don’t want to demonize the idea of resting or taking it easy if things are too painful, that is not evidence-based either, but we also know that the dominant view of back pain seems to be that we should rest it out and that for quite a few people the belief is that activity can be problematic for back pain.

This is highlighted in the two papers below that look at people’s opinions around what affects pain in the positive AND negative.

Darlow 2014 – Beliefs about back pain: The confluence of client, clinician and community.

Setchell 2019 What decreases low back pain? A qualitative study of patient perspectives

We also have two recent papers that form an interesting pairing when viewed together. Firstly we have a self-reported perspective of what triggers back pain flares from anyone who had had back pain at any previous time point (so maybe more a test of perceptions?). Here they found that physical activities and movements dominated the vast majority of the cited reasons for flare-ups

Costa 2019 – What Triggers an LBP Flare? A Content Analysis of Individuals’ Perspectives

Then we have a paper that looked at the same subject but asked the people to report it in a different way (longitudinally), at 3-7 day intervals over 6 weeks, and they found that physical activities were not so related to flares of back pain.

Suri 2018 – Do Physical Activities Trigger Flare-ups During an Acute Low Back Pain Episode?

The implication might be that when we ask people to remember what triggered their back pain it is a simple ‘go-to’ blame physical activities (especially when other things are not considered), but when the flare-up is more recent, 3-7 days, and presented with different reporting options the association between physical activity and flare-ups seems to decrease.

This highlights for me societal beliefs around the back and its relationships with activity and that we should be counteracting this idea in healthcare as much as possible!

It’s About Positive Messages

Overcoming some of the negative beliefs that we have around the body, pain and physical activity should be a goal of healthcare interactions. There are SO many NEGATIVE messages that we need some positive ones too.

I think the advice to remain active is such a message. Trust your body, get on with things, you will be OK! This is a strong, simple, and important message from my perspective.

There is the very real potential that there is not that much that can be done in the short term for acute back pain with advice and reassurance being pretty much all we have.

But could our short term attitudes impact on the longer term?

Short Vs Longer Term

What we do seem to have some data on is that having low pain self-efficacy, or the ability to go about our lives WITH back pain, does appear to have some relationship with outcomes of back pain in the longer term (this also seems to be apparent in other MSK conditions). In this paper HERE from Foster – 2010, we see that low pain self-efficacy is related to worse disability outcomes at 6 months.

The question is how do our own attitudes, and other people’s attitudes as well, towards our backs influence our behaviours? Food for thought perhaps?

Key Messages From Advice To Remain Active

Hurt does not equal harm – It’s OK to function with some pain, especially if it is not worsening and within tolerable levels. Pain does not give a reliable indicator of what’s happening within our bodies.

Rest is not the best treatment – Resting the back is unlikely to simply make it better and not much is likely to significantly change how the back responds in the short term.

Activity is not bad – Activity is not simply related to pain or damage. In fact limiting activities you enjoy might actually make the impact of back pain on your life worse.

To Predict Chronic Pain, Look to the Brain

Low back pain is extremely common. In fact, if you don’t have at least some back pain every year or so, you’re kind of abnormal. (Not that you’re really missing out on anything.)

Fortunately, if you do get back pain, your chances of getting rid of it in fairly short order are excellent. More than 90% of acute back pain resolves on its own in just a few weeks or months without any specific intervention. But for some people, pain becomes chronic, lasting for years. Why does the course of back pain differ so much between different people?

The answer probably cannot be found by looking solely at the back itself. Experts have tried for years to explain back pain outcomes in reference to the results of physical examinations. But collecting evidence about posture, core strength, or the condition of vertebrae and discs does very little to help you make good predictions. Posture and MRI results correlate poorly with pain, and a single structural/physical cause for back pain is rarely found.

More recently, there has been more emphasis on subjective factors – pain intensity, negative mood, catastrophizing, depression, or job satisfaction. Accounting for these factors will help you predict back pain outcomes quite a bit better than just looking at the physical condition of the back. But a good deal of mystery would remain.

Some recent research from the lab of Vania Apkarian has led some very smart people to wonder whether he has discovered the “Holy Grail” of explaining pain –  the precise factors that cause some people to develop chronic pain and others to recover.

If Apkarian is right, the grail is in the brain. (An important reminder and caveat: even when the brain is a major player in pain, this does not imply that pain is “in your head”, that pain is your fault, that you can just think pain away, or that the body doesn’t matter.)

Following is a collection of quotes from several papers from Apkarian’s lab. (See the bottom of the post for cites. Full text for each is available free online.) These help summarize the results and interpretations of his very interesting research, which mostly involves scanning the brains of people with and without back pain, and at various stages of recovery or chronicity.

The Relationship Between Nociception, Acute Pain, Movement, and Emotion

Pain is a conscious subjective experience that is most commonly driven by nociceptive activity. Baliki 2015.

Conscious acute pain perception is highly malleable … pain perception can reflect moment-to-moment shifts in value judgments. Baliki 2015.

The emotional limbic brain plays a critical role in bridging nociception and pain perception. Baliki 2015.

[N]ociceptors can be active in the absence of pain perception . . .The primary reason I fidget in my chair while writing this article is because nociceptors innervating my skin, muscle, and bone command that my posture needs adjustment. Baliki 2015.

The nociceptive control of behavior routinely occurs in the absence of consciously perceived pain, rendering it “subconscious.” Baliki 2015.

Daily motor movements could easily produce injury and tissue damage if one exceeds their natural range of motion . . . which supports the conclusion that motor behaviors are collectively inhibited by nociceptors. Baliki 2015.

We argue that nociception continuously occurs in the absence of pain perception and it is a fundamental physiological process . . . we presume that behaviors modulated by nociception, in the absence of pain, are contingent on already established habitual repertoires. In contrast, when pain is evoked it gives rise to new peripheral and spinal cord nociceptive learning/ sensitization, as well as emotional learning that is potentiated by the salience and perceived value of the aversive event. Baliki 2015.

The Transition From Acute To Chronic Pain

[O]nly a fraction of subjects who experience an acute painful injury develop chronic pain. Hashmi 2013.

The majority (>90%) of individuals with acute low back pain recover full function in days or weeks with little or no lingering pain. Apkarian 2009.

The 2 critical questions that the field has yet to address regarding chronic pain are 1) Who is vulnerable to developing it? and 2) What underlies this vulnerability?  Hashmi 2013.

Earlier clinical studies have identified a long list of risks for chronic pain, such as demographics, affective states, lifestyle, comorbidities, and others, yet collectively such parameters account for a relatively small amount of variance for chronic pain (10% to 20%). In contrast, the brain’s anatomic and functional properties predict development of chronic pain at 80% to 100% accuracy. Hashmi 2013.

Ample evidence now shows that the anatomy and physiology of the brain in chronic pain is distinct from that of healthy subjects experiencing acute pain. Vachon-Presseau 2016.

An accumulating body of animal and human literature has identified the cortico-limbic system, which is central to reward and motivated behavior, as a modulator for acute pain and as a mediator for chronic pain. Vachon-Presseau 2016.

In a longitudinal brain-imaging study, individuals who developed an intense back pain episode were followed over a 1-year period, during which pain and brain parameters were collected repeatedly. At the time of entry into the study, strength of synchrony between the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens (i.e. functional connectivity) was predictive (>80% accuracy) of individuals who subsequently transition to chronicity 1 year later. Apkarian 2016.

Persistently enhanced functional connectivity between the mPFC and NAc may be interpreted as an increased emotional salience signal. Vachon-Presseau 2016.

There is now good evidence that all components of the corticolimbic system are either affected by or control or amplify persistent pain states. Vachon-Presseau 2016.

Redefining Chronic Pain

The definition of chronic pain remains tautological, as it simply asserts that it is a long-lasting pain, or a pain persisting past the normal healing period. Baliki 2015.

We propose a novel definition of chronic pain. Rather than defining pain by its sensations, we propose a definition that emphasizes the neurobiological mechanisms that control behavioral adaptations, and we hypothesize that persistence of pain is likely mediated through the reorganization of the cortex by corticolimbic learning mechanisms. (Baliki 2015)

Long-term shifts in the threshold mechanisms that gate the conversion from nociception to pain also underlie the transition to chronic pain. We further propose that the threshold shift is dependent on limbic circuitry invoking synaptic learning-based reorganization. Taken together, these ideas can be simplified as a lowered mesolimbic threshold for the conscious perception of pain, which functionally renders the brain addicted to pain. (Baliki 2015)

The Connection Between Chronic Pain and Negative Mood

Just as nociception and pain protect against bodily injury by limiting behavior, negative moods minimize exposure to danger and promote survival by inhibiting behavior as well. (Baliki 2015)

Just as chronic pain conditions are associated with decreased hippocampal volume, a rich parallel literature indicates that depression is associated with hippocampal volume decrease. (Baliki 2015)

It is therefore not surprising that these conditions are often comorbid, and indeed, there is now a small but emerging literature regarding the interaction between negative moods and acute and chronic pain. (Baliki 2015).

Implications and New Questions

How does this research add to what we already know? We have known for a while that chronic pain involves central sensitization and brain changes. But it was still possible that those changes were driven by persistent peripheral input. Apkarian’s research seems to suggest that peripheral nociception is not the central driver of chronic pain.

It should be noted that some of Apkarian’s research needs to be replicated and that others may interpret his findings differently.

Apkarian was a featured speaker at the 2018 San Diego Pain Summit, I spoke there a few years ago and wrote about my experience attending here.

I was sure to ask Apkarian some questions which are basically unanswered in his various papers: if chronic pain is mostly about the brain’s emotional systems, what can we do, as a practical matter, to help treat or prevent it? And for people who do recover from chronic pain (like me and many others), how did their brains change? Did they revert or evolve?

I suspected there are no simple answers that apply to everyone, and that success for any particular person involves somehow changing the way their brain subconsciously connects movement, threat perception, and a sense of value or meaning.

Resources/Citations

Apkarian, A Vania, Marwan N Baliki, and Melissa A Farmer. 2016. “Predicting Transition to Chronic Pain” 26 (4): 360–67. doi:10.1097/WCO.0b013e32836336ad

Hashmi, Javeria A., Marwan N. Baliki, Lejian Huang, Alex T. Baria, Souraya Torbey, Kristina M. Hermann, Thomas J. Schnitzer, and A. Vania Apkarian. 2013. “Shape Shifting Pain: Chronification of Back Pain Shifts Brain Representation from Nociceptive to Emotional Circuits.” Brain 136 (9): 2751–68. doi:10.1093/brain/awt211.

Vachon-Presseau, E, M V Centeno, W Ren, S E Berger, P Tétreault, M Ghantous, A Baria, et al. 2016. “The Emotional Brain as a Predictor and Amplifier of Chronic Pain.” Journal of Dental Research 95 (6). International Association for Dental Research: 605–12. doi:10.1177/0022034516638027.

Baliki, Marwan N, and A Vania Apkarian. 2016. “Nociception, Pain, Negative Moods and Behavior Selection” 87 (3): 474–91. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.06.005.Nociception.

Apkarian, A.V., Balik, M.N., Geha, P.Y. 2009. “Towards a Theory of Chronic Pain.” Progress in Neurobiology 87 (2): 81–97. doi:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2008.09.018.Towards.

Articles of the Week October 18, 2020

There are a lot of really great “go-to’s” in the exercise world. However, some of them become so staple that proper execution becomes  a problem. This article consults with multiple experts on how to correct them.

4 Exercises Most People Butcher (And How To Fix Them) – Shane Mclean

 

We coach our clients in injury prevention every day. Likely, none of these points will really be new, but this article summarizes ten great key takeaways for when we want to prevent pain when training. This is great for problem-solving with your clients or to provide them the entire article altogether!

10 Commandments of Injury Prevention – Dr. John Rusin

 

If you’re here, you love reading research and expanding your toolkit. However, there are some research biases that we need to be aware of in ourselves in order to make sure that we’re not unfairly filtering the wrong information in or out. (Enjoy this two-for-one!)

Top 5 Fridays! 5 Types of Fallacies Part 1  and Part 2 – Cameron Faller

 

Back in June, Greg Lehman wrote about his experiences with pain science regarding his own health. We know these concepts already, but it’s extremely handy to see new examples of them at work.

Pain lessons from my terrifying persistent stomach distress – Greg Lehman

 

Finally, one more older study on a topic that isn’t discussed very often. Researchers, a few years ago, looked into the sensation of “throbbing” pain that is typically related by professionals to circulatory flow. However, it’s shown that this link may not actually exist and that more research into the central nervous system is the key, instead.

Is There a Relationship between Throbbing Pain and Arterial Pulsations? – Mirza et al.

Motor Learning Pitfalls and Autonomic Resilience

Sometimes, I’ve found that teaching a movement cue to a client can backfire.

Coaching a neutral pelvic position or a braced core to do exercise, for instance, are great techniques to perfect a squat and deadlift and train a person to lift a heavy load. However, if a client experiences pain or discomfort out of a regimented exercise setting, are these necessarily the best strategies to focus on?

Very often, I’ve seen individuals become extremely hyperaware of their body mechanics, whether it was due to cues from a clinician or because the assumption is that patterns from high-load fitness routines need to be maintained outside the gym.

My experience is that this can result in a couple of problems.

Pain Science

 

One is a concept that you’re likely familiar with by now; that being catastrophization. If we, as clinicians, don’t mind our language during our movement coaching, often enough, a person can develop a belief that anything outside of these trained movement cues will result in injury.

As you can guess, believing that “losing form” will equate to pain can lead to that belief becoming a reality. This is classic fear-avoidance coping and is why someone can perform a 300lb deadlift and then throw their back out when they finally bend their spine to tie their shoes.

For this reason, it’s important to educate clients about the resilience of the body to perform non-deliberate movement as well as to mix these types of movements into their exercise programming. While it’s important for me to teach many of my clients how to do a proper hip hinge, it’s equally important to recondition them on how to round their spines to pick up a sub max load.

At the same time, it’s also crucial to teach clients that these cues are not meant to be minded for every movement in day-to-day activity. Again, this would enforce these fear patterns and lead to what we discussed above. However, it also enforces a reliance on deliberate thought to perform these movements, which takes us to our second point.

Autonomic Neuroplasticity

 

Once we remember to add in these additional “natural movement” cues to accompany exercise instruction, there might still be a disconnect between the clinic and real-world conditioning.

What we need to consider is that the conscious focus on movement in the clinic or fitness setting (whether it be a traditional exercise or a natural back bend) doesn’t necessarily translate to the nervous system being able to replicate those cues in a safe manner, subconsciously.

This boils down to neuroplastic deficits within the central nervous system itself following an injury, with altered motor patterns becoming the new norm (Grooms, 2016). We can describe this by thinking about the thought processes that lead up to movement. In an “exercise” environment, the signals that precede movement are directly to do with that specific motor pattern; sending the signal to the muscle and joint on what to do and how strongly and fast to do it. Outside of this environment, these thought processes are much more complicated and the movement will need to follow more complicated reactionary signals. For instance, often we will need to simply extend our arm, reactionarily, in order to catch an object rather than having that moment of anticipation to ready the nervous system and compute the necessary speed and force that will be required beforehand.

What this implies is that being able to do a back bend in the clinic when all of your focus is on it only gets us part of the way toward being able to do the same thing at home when relying on autonomic function instead of deliberate action. This is why athletes who have undergone ACL reconstruction and rehab can be, clinically, cleared to return to play yet still be 40 times as likely to reinjure their knee compared to their peers (Wiggins et al., 2016).

Clinical settings commonly revolve around focusing on internal cues when learning movement patterns, such as relaxing one muscle, stiffening another, or bending deeper at this joint. However, external cues, such as “reach for the floor”, “aim for the target”, or “focus on the field” have been observed as being incredibly important in sports settings. These cues help to bring the attention away from the body and to the environment instead, creating a more practical situation by decreasing conscious body control.

With ACL reconstruction, again, being the studied example (Gokeler et al., 2019), it is found that relying solely on internal cues does not provide the best outcomes for when external factors are finally challenged again. Even when rehab conditioning is extremely sport or activity-specific, an ability to do a maximal sprint in a controlled environment might fail someone when they attempt to do the same thing with real-world distractions added. For this reason, a lot of rehabilitation research is actually starting to involve the use of virtual reality (Grooms, 2015) to retrain autonomic capabilities.

Obviously, we don’t expect every clinic to equip itself with a VR headset. So that brings us back to the importance of mixing in external cues with the internal ones as we educate our clients in new motor patterns. The clinical setting can take a lot of great lessons on how to do this from the performance world, with a mixture of the two types of cues, periodization of a program, and an understanding of individual variance being hugely important factors.

Takeaways

 

So from all of this, we can understand that mechanical cues and deliberate exercise patterns are still a step in the rehab process. Throughout, however, we need to reinforce that a client’s well-being is not dependent on these patterns being maintained around the clock or that conscious control does not need to be exerted over their maintenance.

Finally, we also need to remember that the quiet, clinical environment is usually not one that our clients spend the majority of their days in, so we also need to prepare them for the real-life hazards, distractions, and mental states that their normal workplace, sport, and home settings will challenge them with.

A client’s life is individual, and so is the preparation for it that we provide.

Let’s Stop Playing It Small Together

Alright, I have a confession to make.

I came to the realization a week or so ago while listening to a podcast that I’ve…well…I’ve been playing it small.

While I put out a blog post or so a week, teach some continuing education courses on first aid along with pain science and exercise, I’ve still been playing it small.

There are certain things I’m really comfortable with and other things that make me pull back and question myself, my abilities, and my thought processes. So rather than just face, those things head-on I shrink back.

This happens especially on social media.

I see some of the groups where people are asking questions, or making statements, and rather than throw my $0.02 in, I shrink, and it’s usually out of fear.

The fear I’ll get called out, fear I’m not smart enough, fear that my voice or my opinion doesn’t matter (well truly to some I know it doesn’t but that’s not the point here).

So, then a strange thing happened. I was sitting with my buddy Eric Purves telling him this as we started discussing doing a mastermind group. I looked at him and said f@#k it, I’m not playing it small, I’m putting this out there.

I opened the laptop and put it out on Facebook. To my surprise, the post got 83 reactions and 117 comments.

Also to my surprise was the response in the comments. From physio friends asking what they can do to help promote, lots of people wanting to attend, and of course a couple of negative ones. BUT, the positive far outweighed the negative.

As I pondered this I realized I’m not alone. It’s not just me that needs to stop playing it small…so does our profession, and here’s why.

Education

I will forever be a proponent of advancing our education and making it better.

As I talk to other colleagues in different parts of the world (and it happens here too) we sometimes shy away from sharing our opinions or challenging the opinions of other healthcare practitioners because our education was shorter, or not perceived to be as good a quality as theirs.

This was the way I felt for MANY years.

However, a few years ago I came to realize that if you talk to any of those other healthcare practitioners (if they’re worth their salt) they want their education to get an overhaul as well. If any of them are taking any quality continuing education courses, they soon come to realize that many of the things they were taught in college aren’t worth the textbook it was written in.

Now I’m sure there will be some who argue with me on this, but with those other professions, their education isn’t better, it’s just different. Yes, they get more recognition because they have a degree behind their name (and their associations probably lobby a lot harder) however, it’s no more evidence-based than ours (maybe even less in some cases).

In reality, we’re all fighting the same uphill battle, our entire healthcare system needs an overhaul when it comes to helping people in pain.

So if you’re trying to have a discussion with another manual therapist there’s nothing wrong with challenging their treatment narratives as long as you’re approaching it from an educated standpoint (and obviously done with some sort of decorum).

We can’t challenge and say ” your approach is wrong because I do ‘x’ treatment which works because I do it and I know it works!” However, if we can approach the topic with a statement like: “the newest research shows us that our understanding of ‘x’ isn’t what we thought it was and has since changed to …” will get us much farther into the discussion.

I realize this might be tough because there seems to be a hierarchy within our manual therapy world and for some reason, we are frequently seen as the bottom of this. But, I have to wonder, is this reality, or are we playing it small?

The reality is, our entire healthcare system needs an overhaul in education when it comes to helping people in pain, not just our education.

Time Is On Our Side…Yes, It Is!

This may be our greatest asset.

The more I come to understand the patient perspective on persistent pain (thanks to Keith Meldrum’s help) the more I realize just what a difference time with a patient makes.

I love this quote from Ken Leong from a Facebook thread, and glad I was able to use it with his permission.

Massage therapy is almost tailor-made for [the biopsychosocial] approach. The therapist has much more time than a MD to really get to know their patient or client: where they’re from, their culture, customs, what their family life is like, their history with athletics, sedentary actives, repetitive activities, their stresses, their sleep patterns, their nutrition, their living situations, who they live with and interact with daily and weekly, their commuting stress, their occasional (and therefore dangerous) heavier physical exertions, etc.
The patient or client also has time in treatment to reconnect with their mind and body, to figure out where the aches and pains came from, what are their self-perpetuating patterns are, how they can change them…
It’s like you’re tall and in front of the volleyball net, and someone sets you up for ‘the spike.

We’d be blind NOT to use all this biopsychosocial opportunity!

Ken G. Leong, RMT
If this quote doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside for being a Massage Therapist, I don’t know what will.
Compared to every other manual therapist we have a massive opportunity to help patients simply because of the time we get to spend with them.
If we reel back to the above discussion around talking to other practitioners, how many of them spend the amount of time with their patients that we do? How many truly get to know their patients? How many understand what their patients are going through day to day?
While a few of them might, I’d say as a general rule (yes there are some outliers) they don’t get to in the same way we do.
This whole time thing isn’t just a matter of our interaction with the patient either. I’ve seen some discussions on different platforms where practitioners say things like: “I have a patient who wants a 60-minute treatment, but I only need 45min to get done what they need”.
While there’s nothing really wrong with this (as I hope the practitioner was trying to do effective treatment planning) but think about what that amount of time actually means to a patient.
This could be their time! This could be their break from the typical stresses of life. Maybe that hour is a break from being a parent, boss, caregiver, entrepreneur, or whatever other thing is causing stress in their life. That 60 minutes can make a massive difference in their weekly, or monthly (or however often you are seeing them) routine and life.
And this my friends puts us into a very valuable position in not only helping, but making a difference in our patient’s lives. 

Exercise & Movement

I know, I know, you don’t think this is in your scope. 

Well, in some places it is well within our scope and for others it’s questionable.

So I’d like to somewhat address where this is questionable.

From everything I’ve heard the argument is usually “it’s not in our scope to prescribe exercise, we have to refer out for that”. Every time I hear this I also notice that AROM (active range of motion) and PROM (passive range of motion) are still within scope. So, how is a patient actively moving not an exercise? If we are passively moving a part of the patient’s body while they’re on the table, how is this not exercise? If you can help a patient stretch on the table, how is this not an exercise?

We seem to think that recommending an exercise is always prescribing that you do a certain number of reps for a certain number of sets of ‘x’ movement (bench press, squat, deadlift, etc).

What if recommending exercise was simply recommending:

  • Go for a walk with a friend (one of the best things for low back pain).
  • Get on the floor and play with your kids.
  • Dig your hands into the garden.
  • Pick up your groceries.

Just get them to do something they enjoy!

Half of recommending an exercise for someone can be just giving them permission to do an activity. When they’re on your table if you can do AROM & PROM, then there’s no reason you can’t do isometric, concentric, and eccentric movements and this doesn’t require any fancy machinery or even a set of dumbells, you can simply just resist the movement while the patient performs them.

Doing this can be very effective in not only rehabbing an injury but they can also demonstrate self-efficacy, resiliency, capacity, and really isn’t that what we’re trying to do with any treatment? I hope so.

I think the bottom line here is that we have every opportunity (and probably more so than other healthcare professions) to make a massive difference to help people who are dealing with a painful experience. We need to use everything we have at our disposal to not only help our patients but to help push the profession forward. In no way am I saying everything is fine and we should stick with the status quo, we certainly need to continually push for better education to create evidence-based practice for all of us. So, I implore the profession to stop acting like me and playing it small. Let’s challenge the bad narratives regardless of who is using them and take a firm grip on the benefits we have as a profession to not only help our patients but help each other.

If you’re interested in learning more about these topics, we’ll be launching an online course about pain science and therapeutic movement soon and you can join the waitlist by clicking HERE.