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.
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.
Dry needling involves the application of very fine sterilised acupuncture needles into muscle and surrounding tissues to assist in the release of myofascial trigger points, reduce tightness and spasm, improve muscle function and relieve pain. It is commonly used as an adjunct to physiotherapy and myotherapy techniques to improve treatment outcomes.
There are two types of Dry Needling, the first called Superficial Dry Needling (SDN) works by inserting the needle only 5-10mm under the skin. Secondarily is Deep Dry Needling (DDN) where the needle is inserted to the depth required to penetrate the targeted myofascial trigger point.
How does it work?
Myofascial trigger points are hyper-irritable, taut bands within muscles, which are painful to touch and can contribute to muscle shortening, weakness and pain (both locally and referred). They often develop following muscle, joint or nerve injury and sometimes persist well after the initial tissue injured has healed. This leads to persistent pain and discomfort.
Dry needling releases these trigger points by encouraging local blood flow to the trigger point and by modulating nerve pathways that erroneously cause them to persist. The needling also stimulates your body’s own endorphin system to provide pain relief and help allow the muscle to relax.
Dry needling can be extremely effective in the treatment of:
Needles used in dry needling are much thinner than those you receive when you see your GP for an injection and so usually cause much less discomfort. This does vary depending on what techniques your therapist uses. You may also experience the very satisfying response of the muscle twanging and releasing quickly. A sure sign of a successful trigger point release.
The initial treatment is conservative to determine the patient’s response. This varies from person to person. It is expected that there will be some post treatment soreness during the first 24-48hrs and sometimes minor bruising is experienced.
What sorts of conditions can Dry Needling be beneficial for?
Dry needling can produce excellent results as an adjunct to standard physiotherapy and manual therapy treatment. It can be used in both acute and chronic painful conditions.
Dry needling can be extremely effective in the treatment of:
Back, neck and shoulder pain
Hand and wrist pain
Tendinopathy pathologies i.e. Tennis elbow, Achilles pain
Many other musculoskeletal injuries (You can discuss dry needling with your therapist to see if it may be useful for your condition)
What is the difference between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?
Dry needling revolves around Western Medicine philosophy and involves inserting needles into muscular trigger points palpated by your therapist and consistent with your area of pain.
Acupuncture is based on ancient Eastern Medicine, with needle placement over specific points along meridian lines or ‘energy’ lines which are thought to associate with particular illness and disease.