Ok so your shoulder has been hurting for a while and your Physio has diagnosed you with a Rotator Cuff injury. What the hell is a rotator cuff? How do I get rid of this pain!?
Firstly, the rotator cuff is a group of four muscles which help to stabilise the shoulder. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, similar to the hip, however the shoulder has a shallow socket in comparison. What the shoulder lacks in stability it makes up for in mobility, generally speaking, a healthy shoulder has almost 360 degrees of movement so it needs help from the surrounding muscles to maintain stability through movement. There is also another structure inside the shoulder joint called the labrum, which helps to deepen the joint and provide stability.
How does my Rotator Cuff get injured?
Rotator cuff injuries usually occur either acutely (immediate sharp pain) or over time (gradual increasing dull ache). Acute rotator cuff injuries can often involve a tearing of the rotator cuff tendons and leads to pain and weakness of the shoulder. Gradual onset of shoulder pain can be associated with repetitive overhead movements, which can lead to smaller tears in the tendon and inflammation around this area.
One of the main factors which can influence shoulder pain is the position of the shoulder. The further forward the humeral head (the ball) sits in the socket, the more compression of the tendon occurs and leads to injury.
How can I fix it?
Having your shoulder properly assessed by a qualified Physiotherapist is the first step in diagnosing a Rotator Cuff injury. Investigations such as Ultrasound or MRI may be relevant if the Physiotherapist feels there is significant injury. For acute rotator cuff tears, a small period of immobilisation in a sling or in some cases, just with some tape, will help settle the pain. Once pain and inflammation are under control then you need to get the shoulder moving and gradually strengthen the rotator cuff tendons and surrounding muscles.
For the gradual onset type shoulder pain there is usually a biomechanical cause for the loading of the tendons. Thorough assessment by a qualified Physiotherapist is a must to get to the bottom of your shoulder pain. Initially settling down the pain and inflammation around the tendons and encouraging gentle pain free movement is the first step. Then gradually increasing the load in the shoulder until the strength is back to normal
How can I prevent this from happening in the future?
Continuation of the strength and flexibility exercises prescribed by your Physiotherapist will help decrease the likelihood of re-occurrence. Identifying aggravating positions i.e. overhead movements or reaching in awkward positions will also decrease the likelihood of re-injury. If your job is a relatively sedentary and requires hours of sitting at a time, trying to break up your day with standing/walking will help, also an ergonomic assessment to ensure your workspace is properly set up to suit you will help ease the stress on your shoulders/neck.
Our spinal columns are made of twenty four vertebrae stacked one above another on the pelvis. They are joined together at the front by discs and at the back by facet joints. When we bend forward, the vertebra above tilts and slides forward, compressing the disc and stretching the facet joints at the back of the vertebrae. When we bend backward, the disc compression is reduced at the front and the facet joints are compressed at the back. In the upper neck and thoracic areas we tend to have more facet joint strains and in the lower cervical spine and lumbar spine areas, disc injuries are more frequent. This is because our upper spine joints allow us to turn our heads to see, hear and smell, so they need mobility but do not support much weight. Our lumbar spine bears around half our body weight and as we move and sit, there are huge, sustained, compressive loads on our discs.
CAUSES OF BACK PAIN
Disc injuries are the most common cause of low back pain and can range in severity from a mild intermittent ache, to a severe pain where people cannot move. Disc injuries occur mainly during sudden loading such as when lifting, or during repetitive or prolonged bending forces such as when slouching, rowing, hockey and while cycling. They are often aggravated by coughing and running. A flexed posture during slouching, bending or lifting is a frequent cause of disc damage because of the huge leverage and compression forces caused by gravity pulling down on the mass of the upper body.
It is important to understand that damage from small disc injuries is cumulative if discs are damaged at a faster rate than they can heal and the damage will eventually increase until it becomes painful. Pain sensing nerves are only on the outside of the disc, so by the time there is even small pain of disc origin, the disc is already significantly damaged internally where there are no nerve endings to feel pain with.
There may be a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area has become inflamed, perhaps was rested or treated, settled for a while but as the underlying problem was not fixed, the pain has flared up repeatedly since. This type of disc injury responds very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
A marked disc injury causes the outer disc to bulge, stretching the outer disc nerves. In a more serious injury, the central disc gel known as the nucleus, can break through the outer disc and is known as a disc bulge, prolapse or extrusion.
Spinal muscles are often blamed as the cause of spinal pain but this is rarely the cause of the pain. Muscle pain may develop as the muscles contract to prevent further damage as they protect the primary underlying painful structures. This muscle pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will often come back, as the muscles resume their protective bracing. Treatment must improve the structure and function in the tissues which the muscles are trying to protect. The most common sources of primary pain are the discs, facet joints and their ligaments.
There are four facet joints at the back of each verteba, two attaching to the vertebra above and two attaching to the vertebra below. A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain and the joints can be strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged and will then produce pain.
Facet joint sprains can occur during excessive bending but typically occur with backward, lifting or twisting movements. Trauma such as during a car accident or during repetitive or prolonged forces such as when slouching or throwing.
There are many other sources of back pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will examine your back and advise you should further investigation be necessary.
SYMPTOMS OF BACK PAIN
Symptoms of structural back pain are always affected by movement. This is important to understand. Symptoms, usually pain but perhaps tingling and pins and needles, are often intense and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other conditions which can produce back pain such as abdominal problems, ovarian cysts and intestinal issues. If you have symptoms in these areas which are not affected by movement, you must consult with your doctor. If you have chest, jaw or upper limb pain which is unaffected by movement, you must attend your doctor or hospital immediately.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our positions and movements. More minor problems produce central low back pain. With more damage, the pain may spread to both sides and with nerve irritation, the pain may spread down into the thigh or leg. As a general rule, disc pain is worse with bending, lifting and slouching and facet joint strains are worse twisting and bending backward or sideways. A severe disc problem is often worse with coughing or sneezing and on waking in the morning.
DIAGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Diagnosis of back injuries is complex and requires a full understanding of the onset history and a comprehensive physical examination. It is important for your Physiotherapist to establish a specific and accurate diagnosis to direct the choice of treatment. In some cases, the pain may arise from several tissues known as co-existing pathologies and each of these are treated as they are identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or the management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
UPPER BACK AND LOWER BACK PAIN RELIEF
Lower Back pain treatment.
Eighty percent of adults will experience severe spinal pain at some time in their life. Much of this pain is called non-specific low back pain and is treated with generic non-specific treatment. This type of treatment often fails to provide lasting relief. However, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed specific diagnostic skills and specific treatment techniques, targeted to specific structures. We identify the structure and cause of the pain producing damage and develop specific advice and strategies to prevent further damage and promote healing.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education. As normal tissue structure and function returns, there is a reduction in the inflammation and the pain will subside.
When normal movement has been achieved, the inflammation has settled and the structures have healed, your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the problem recurring. We use this specific approach to reduce or stop chronic pain.
While we have the choice to manipulate, adjust or click joints, patients with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeating these techniques. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost, as the elastic tissues tighten and shorten again. Adjustments of this type have little long term benefit and often lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safer and more appropriate treatment for you.
Figures suggest that around 80% of people experience back pain at some time in their lives. Back and neck pain can be very debilitating so how a physiotherapist manages back pain treatment is essential to secure a positive result. Back pain can be localised in and around the spine, but can also be experienced as sciatic pain. Headaches and migraines are also commonly caused by neck issues.
Exercise is important
Exercise is gaining recognition as playing a vital role in the long term recovery and in preventing many musculoskeletal injuries, including back and neck pain. Exercise compliments physiotherapy treatment management and achieve long term results when trying to prevent and rehabilitate pain and injury by correcting the underlying causes, not just seeking to stop the pain.
The underlying biomechanics that cause back and neck pain
Most back pain is caused by excessive loading placed on muscles, joints, ligaments, spinal discs, etc. due to poor core stability. Core stability is traditionally defined as; an individual’s strength and control of their lower back, pelvic and abdominal muscles in order to maintain optimal postural alignment of the lower back and pelvis.
However it is important to also include the shoulder girdle and rib cage, as the lower back and pelvis do not operate in isolation, and muscles throughout the torso must act in a coordinated manner in order to maintain optimal postural alignment and also to initiate biomechanically efficient upper and lower limb movements.
A good analogy to help understand core stability is to consider how a tent is supported. A tent is held upright by a rigid tent pole. The bones of your spine act like a tent pole, however your spine is not rigid, so it relies on the support of ligaments and deep stabilising muscles to hold adjacent vertebrae and to help maintain optimal postural alignment i.e. stabilise the spine. If the muscles that stabilise the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulder are weak or are poorly controlled then your spine will tend to collapse, just like a tent pole made from a piece of spaghetti. There are many muscles that attach directly onto the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders. These muscles move our torso and limbs and also assist with stabilising the core, acting in a similar way that guide ropes help to keep the tent pole upright. If a tent had guide ropes that pulled more on one side than on the opposite side then the tent would lean, so too, if the muscles on one side pulled more than the other due to imbalances in strength and/ or flexibility, or these muscles compensate for weak stabiliser muscles then they will pull your body into a poor postural alignment. One very important difference to note is that a tent only requires “static stability” i.e. support to maintain a single stationary position, whereas, the human body must have “dynamic stability” to provide support and maintain optimal alignment of their core and limbs whilst moving in many different ways to participate in sport, work and daily living activities.
How a physiotherapist corrects biomechanical faults
Physiotherapists conduct a comprehensive physical assessment and then use this information to design a personalised exercise program to improve posture/ biomechanics, core stability, flexibility, functional strength, cardiovascular fitness, balance and coordination. Programs focus on achieving long term results by correcting the underlying biomechanics causes of your pain, improving the strength of muscles that support your back and neck and teaching efficient movement for your specific sport, work or daily living activities. Expert supervision by an Physiotherapist ensures that each client completes the exercises with good technique to prevent further injury, to ensure that the exercises are effective, and also to ensure that progressions are made at safe and appropriate times.
If there is one thing worth mastering to avoid injury it is the art of lifting. Setting yourself up correctly before attempting to lift something will keep you injury free. To achieve this it is best to practice the movements as an exercise to train the body so that correct posture and execution become second nature. The suitability of the pick up options below will depend on your physical condition so it is important to pick the right technique for the right situation.
The Golf pickup for lifting
Suitable for light items that can be picked up with one hand only. Saves on the effort of a squat for picking up something small like a pencil. Be sure to use your leg to counter
balance your weight. This technique is great for those who have some degree of stability and flexibility. Using a prop such as a chair, wall or table to stabilise yourself is also a good idea.
The Squat for lifting
A squat is something we often do without paying much notice to how well it is being performed. For those who lift items as part of their job, the squat is an integral part of manual handling duties.
As an exercise it is particularly good for your legs and one of the best to develop leg strength, working the kinetic link from the ankles all the way up to the hip. Stronger legs also offer greater support for the back, as performing better squat technique helps maintain correct spinal control.
So as well as strengthening our legs the squat exercise is also working our spine. As such the back should stay straight whilst the hips do the bending.
To performing a correct squat it is important to have the correct equal bend though our hip and our knees, making sure that the level of our knees is in line with but behind the level of our toes. Lowering yourself enough to create a ninety degree angle through both hip and knee, sticking the bottom down and back, plus maintaining a neutral position through the back is essential.
The Lunge for lifting
Whereas the squat offers a wide base of support and a higher power output for lifting, the lunge in contrast requires greater balance and is better for lifting smaller items.
The lunge is more like a variation of the squat. It works the same muscles but in a different way, challenging balance and control with an uneven load. Rather than both legs taking an equal load the front leg is working a lot harder to keep the body stable. The same posture principles of a squat apply, so ensure that there is an equal ninety degree bend through the hip and the knee whilst keeping your back straight. Remember when lunging it is important for the front knee not to go past the level of the front foot toes. In order to get down far enough the back heel will need to come up. When completing the lunge be sure to go down as far as is comfortable.
Remember that the co-ordination involved in performing these techniques for lifting and the use of momentum will lessen the need for isolated muscular strength and aid injury prevention. Also by switching on your core stabilising muscles on before doing any of these movements you will have greater control over the movement.
By doing a mixture of squats, lunges and golf lifts you will benefit from working a variety of muscles in different ways. Also if you happen to acquire an injury then having options as to how you pick something up will better enable you to rely on other muscles whilst the injured area recovers.
Incorporating these exercises into a routine and performing them correctly, will ensure that when you do need to use them in a practical manner throughout the day, that you are moving correctly.