A New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) study showing that physical therapy is just as effective as surgery in patients with meniscal tears and arthritis of the knee should encourage many health care providers to reconsider their practices in the management of this common injury, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
The study, published March 19, showed no significant differences in functional improvement after 6 months between patients who underwent surgery with postoperative physical therapy and those who received standardized physical therapy alone.
“This study demonstrates what physical therapists have long known,” explained APTA President Paul A. Rockar Jr, PT, DPT, MS. “Surgery may not always be the best first course of action. A physical therapist, in many cases, can help patients avoid the often unnecessary risks and expenses of surgery. This study should help change practice in the management of symptomatic meniscal tears in patients with knee osteoarthritis.”
According to lead physical therapist for the trial and American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) member Clare Safran-Norton, PT, PhD, OCS, “our findings suggest that a course of physical therapy in this patient population may be a good first choice since there were no group differences at 6 months and 12 months in this trial. These findings should help surgeons, physicians, physical therapists, and patients in decision-making regarding their treatment options.”
Researchers at 7 major universities and orthopedic surgery centers around the country studied 351 patients aged 45 years or older who had a meniscal tear and mild-to-moderate osteoarthritis of the knee. Patients were randomly assigned to groups who received either surgery and postoperative physical therapy or standardized physical therapy. Within 6-12 months, patients who had physical therapy alone showed similar improvement in functional status and pain as those who had undergone arthroscopic partial meniscectomy surgery.
Patients who were given standardized physical therapy — individualized treatment and a progressive home exercise program — had the option of “crossing over” to surgery if substantial improvements were not achieved. Thirty percent of patients crossed over to surgery during the first 6 months. At 12 months these patients reported similar outcomes as those who initially had surgery. Seventy percent of patients remained with standardized physical therapy.
According to an accompanying editorial in NEJM,”millions of people are being exposed to potential risks associated with a treatment [surgery] that may or may not offer specific benefit, and the costs are substantial.” Physical therapist and APTA member Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, MS, OCS, MTC, Cert MDT, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University, said, “Physical therapists are experts in improving mobility and restoring motion. The individualized treatment approach is very important in the early phases of rehabilitation in order to achieve desired functional outcomes and avoid setbacks or complications.”
Jeffrey N. Katz, Robert H. Brophy, Christine E. Chaisson, Leigh de Chaves, Brian J. Cole, Diane L. Dahm, Laurel A. Donnell-Fink, Ali Guermazi, Amanda K. Haas, Morgan H. Jones, Bruce A. Levy, Lisa A. Mandl, Scott D. Martin, Robert G. Marx, Anthony Miniaci, Matthew J. Matava, Joseph Palmisano, Emily K. Reinke, Brian E. Richardson, Benjamin N. Rome, Clare E. Safran-Norton, Debra J. Skoniecki, Daniel H. Solomon, Matthew V. Smith, Kurt P. Spindler, Michael J. Stuart, John Wright, Rick W. Wright, Elena Losina. Surgery versus Physical Therapy for a Meniscal Tear and Osteoarthritis. New England Journal of Medicine, 2013; 130318220107009 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1301408
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.
Frozen shoulder, correctly known as Adhesive Capsulitis, presents as a combination of shoulder pain and stiffness causing sleep disturbance and marked disability.
In a frozen shoulder the capsule surrounding the shoulder joint is more thickened than normal and it shrinks, adhering to the humerus (arm bone) and itself – hence the name adhesive capsulitis. It is associated with inflammation, causing pain followed by scarring, causing stiffness.
Clinical features of frozen shoulder
Gradual onset of arm pain.
Unable to lie on affected side.
Restriction of movements, usually into elevation and outward rotation.
Diagnosed by a thorough shoulder examination.
X-rays may rule out other causes of shoulder pain but are unable to diagnose a frozen shoulder.
Runs a distinct course which can be broken into 4 phases or simply “pain-predominant” and “stiffness-predominant”.
Phases of frozen shoulder
Phase 1: Usually pain.
Phase 2: Increasing pain and increasing stiffness but still predominantly pain.
Phase 3: Pain abates, leaving stiffness.
Phase 4: Resolution, usually by 2 years.
Who gets frozen shoulder?
Mostly occurs between ages 40 and 60 years.
More common in women and diabetics.
Often appears for no apparent reason but can stem from an injury to the shoulder or following shoulder surgery.
20% of patients will develop it in the other shoulder in the future but almost never occurs again in the same shoulder.
Common shoulder problems
Unable to: Reach above shoulder height
Throw a ball
Quickly reach for something
Reach behind your back e.g. doing up bra, tucking in shirt
Reach out to the side and behind e.g. reaching for seat belt
Sleep on your side
How can physiotherapy help?
Although a frozen shoulder is generally self-limiting, the aim of physiotherapy is to keep the shoulder joint as pain free and mobile as possible. Physiotherapy may also help reduce the time taken to move through each phase.
Phase 1 & 2- pain relieving techniques such as gentle mobilisation, muscle releases, dry needling, taping.
Phase 3- shoulder joint mobilisation and stretches, muscle release techniques, dry needling and exercises to regain range and strength. Treatment should not be too aggressive.
Phase 4- shoulder mobilisation and stretches followed by strength exercises to control and maintain the returning range of movement.
Headaches are a problem that affects at least 90% of us during our lifetime. There are multiple types of headaches that vary in symptoms and severity, with some of the more common types including tension-type, migraine and cervicogenic headaches. A number of headache types share common contributing factors to their source of pain, including that they often originate or are linked to the neck region. Some of the following signs may indicate that your headache may be neck related:
Pain and tension through the neck
Pain is initiated or increased with neck movement or prolonged neck posture
Neck range of motion is reduced
The pain may be more prominent or localised to one side, or may exist on both sides of the head
Pain may be experienced from the base of the skull and often refer around the skull or behind the eyes
There may be a feeling of dizziness or light headedness
History of acute trauma or repetitive trauma to the neck region
Diagnosis of headache type is critical for effective management and is an area where physiotherapists can utilise their assessment skills to help differentiate which type of headache is present. Physiotherapy invention can be very effective in managing headaches with a cervical spine (neck) related origin. A physiotherapist will assess the joints of your neck, associated muscles and neural structures to identify any abnormalities. Your posture and work ergonomics may also have a significant impact on headache development and persistence, which are areas that physiotherapists have expertise.
Physiotherapy management may include any of the following depending of your specific presentation and symptoms:
Soft tissue mobilisation/massage
Stretching of tight structures
Postural advice and correction
Strengthening of important neck stabilising muscles
Ergonomic assessment/advice for your work place set-up
Stress and tension management
If any of the above physical symptoms are sounding familiar you may find that your pain in the neck was the cause of your headache all along.