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Movement is medicine (when prescribed properly)

I have a confession to make. A few months ago I hurt my own back.

Yes, you read that correctly, the back pain expert injured her own back! I preach this ALL the time to my clients, but one of the reasons I’m so passionate about helping people with back problems is because the treatment is not cookie-cutter. But once we find what works for you, physical therapy is so effective and rewarding.

In my case, I was able to use very specific movements to get rid of my back pain, and then start focusing on strengthening exercises to keep it gone. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments when I wanted to call my doctor and ask him for pain pills, and even the idea of an injection crossed my mind once or twice. But because I keep up with the research, I know that pills and injections really don’t work well for long-term results. Aside from the many potential complications and side effects, quick-fix treatments tend to mask your pain and keep you from doing the real work that is necessary to keep the problem from recurring in the future.

At CJPT & Pilates, long-term solutions are the only thing we are interested in. We believe that movement is medicine.

For all musculoskeletal injuries, including back pain, the research shows that movement and exercise really is the best course of treatment in about 80% of all cases. OK, I know what you’re thinking. If it were that easy, why can’t you just go to the gym, to yoga, or follow an exercise video at home to get rid of your own back or knee pain?

It’s because although movement IS medicine, it only works when prescribed for you properly.

Let me explain.

I’m working with a gentleman right now who’s had back pain for over a year. It started after a car accident. He’s tried regular physical therapy, chiropractic, steroid injections and radiofrequency ablation. None of it worked. He feels good when he exercises and moves around, but the pain always comes back.

When he came to see us, the really interesting thing I noticed about his back was when he put himself in certain positions, he would stand up and literally be crooked. His spine would shift to one side, and become very painful and stiff. In the PT-world we call this a lateral shift, and it’s a sign that indicates he likely has a bulging disc. The great thing about a bulging disc is that they tend to respond very well to corrective movements. Once we know what movement “fixes” you, we can prescribe it to you. This gentleman can now make himself straight and get rid of his back pain in under a minute. Of course the goal is to get him to the point where he no longer needs this corrective movement, but for now, it quite literally is his medicine.

I think the reason more people don’t use this approach is because it requires a little bit of work, and you don’t often see the results immediately. When you get an injection, or even take a pill, the pain is gone in a few hours and it will often stay gone for a period of time without you really needing to do much. With movement, you have to stick with it and do it correctly for it to work. And although you can get an immediate reduction in pain from the correctly prescribed movement, it takes several weeks for it to start to stick and produce long-term relief.

But here’s the best part about using movement as medicine — it’s natural, there are no harmful side-effects, and you can do it completely on your own.

If you’ve been suffering in pain for awhile and tired of using pills or quick fixes to manage your pain, sign up for a FREE Discovery Session with us to find out if movement can be your medicine instead! You can also check out our free back pain guide right here.

The Big Reason why Back Pain Keeps Coming Back

If you’re reading this and you’re over the age of 40, odds are pretty good that you’ve experienced back pain at some point in your life. The odds are also pretty good that you’ve experienced back pain more than once.

Every few months or maybe once per year – your back “acts up”. You get rid of it – but it ALWAYS comes back.

Sound familiar?

Well… you’re not alone. Four out of five people are impacted by back pain, and for many, it’s a constant back-and-forth year after year.

But why? Why does back pain always seem to come back?

There are essentially two main reasons:

  1. Back pain is primarily addressed with “quick-fixes” and passive modalities
  2. You (or your doctor) let MRIs make the decisions about your treatment

Quick fixes and passive modalities…

This is the most common way people tend to address their back pain. And it’s the number one reason why it always comes back.

What is a passive modality? It’s something that is done TO you. It’s where you walk in somewhere, lay on a table, and you receive some kind of treatment. This could be chiropractic care, massage, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, even injections and surgery. You have no active role in the process — it’s completely passive.

Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these treatments. They are GREAT for getting rid or your back pain — and quite often quickly. And they are also great for helping you with other problems, such a stress relief. (I LOVE getting my massage once per month!)

But when your back pain keeps coming back, it’s a big sign something is missing. These treatments are only addressing your symptoms – for example – tight muscles, tension in your nerves, stiff or out of place joints. These things are all the result of your back problem – not the cause. And it’s the number one reason why your back problem keeps coming back – because the root cause – the thing that is causing you to have tight muscles or stiff joints – is never addressed.

When MRI’s make the decision…

Traditionally, the medical community diagnoses your back pain with images. They use X-rays and MRI’s to see what’s going on inside your spine, and from there, they make a determination of what your treatment should be.

This is a big problem, because what shows up in your MRI isn’t always the reason for your pain. For example, your MRI might show a herniated or bulging disc in your spine. Your doctor will immediately blame that for your pain. And depending on how “bad” it looks, they may suggestion injections or surgery. But the truth is, another person could have the exact same visual results as you on their MRI and have no back pain at all.

So why is it that one person can have a bulging disc with no back pain, and another person can have a bulging disc with excruciating back pain?

It’s because the root cause of back pain is more complicated than your anatomy. Research has shown time and time again that 80% of all back pain is primarily influenced by your habits and the way you move, not by what’s going on structurally in your spine.

So you can go in and cut out the disc, but if you don’t identify and correct your poor movement habits that led to that bulging disc in the first place — it’s either going to come back or bulge somewhere else. It’s why surgery only has a 50% success rate for helping people keep back pain away for the long-term.

If you’re confused right now – I don’t blame you.

It’s why so many people suffer from back pain!

It’s also why we offer the opportunity for you to come talk to us for FREE if you’re tired of suffering from back pain with no real answers.

Click here to request a FREE Discovery Session with on of my specialists.

You can also download this FREE GUIDE on how taking care of back pain on your own. It was written especially with the recent quarantine in mind – where so many people have been stuck at home and off their routines.

Either way, you should know that if you want your back pain to stop coming back — it IS possible. You just might have the wrong approach and could benefit from some specialist care to finally get you going in the right direction.

Is Quarantine Turning Into a (Literal) Pain in Your Butt?

We are about 5 weeks into social distancing and doing our best to flatten the curve. Although we are all coming together as a country to do our moral duty and fight the spread of Covid-19, it doesn’t come without consequences.

More screen time and more couch time are wreaking havoc on our bodies.

Most people I speak with are making a concerted effort to be as active as they can during the day. But even the best efforts are not combatting the extra bending and sitting that is happening. It’s almost impossible to avoid it. Due to social distancing and more people working from home than ever before, our primary way of “gathering,” seeing loved ones, and communicating with co-workers is now totally digital.

Whether we like it or not, we are hunched over and leaning forward more than ever — and it’s becoming a pain in the butt, quite literally.

In our last blog post I talked about the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain.” Since then, I’ve spoken to many of you over the phone about your concerns. One of the most common questions that came across this week was about pain in your butt, and not the figurative kind!

Yes, too much sitting can cause pain in your butt, but not for the reasons you might think…

One person I spoke with thought it might be due to the hard kitchen chair he was sitting on. Makes sense, right? But when he added a cushion, and then tried moving to the recliner to do his work and online social gatherings, the pain in his butt got worse.

So he did what most of us do, and went straight to Google.

He thought that maybe he had “piriformis syndrome” and started doing the recommended stretches. The pain in his butt started to subside a little, but then spread to the back of his thigh. He thought the pain in his thigh might be due to the stretches and that it was a good thing. But after about a week of this, he woke up one morning unable to move his back! That is when he called me.

I explained that the pain in his butt was NOT due to piriformis syndrome like “Dr. Google” told him. It was actually coming from his lower back. All the extra sitting was putting pressure on his disc, which was putting pressure on his nerve, and the result was pain in his butt. Without realizing the true cause of his problem, he accidentally started doing stretches that made his problem worse. It’s very common to have a back problem and not experience any back pain. Back problems can manifest in your butt, thigh, or lower leg, and very often get confused with tight muscles that just need to be stretched. If you do the wrong stretches, you will make your problems worse and you WILL end up with back pain – often severe and seemingly out of nowhere.

Luckily, we were able to hop on a Zoom session and give him the correct stretches to do. Within a few weeks, he no longer had pain in his butt, and he knew what to do to keep it from coming back.

If quarantining is giving you a (literal) pain in your butt right now, don’t rely on Google to figure out your pain — talk to us!

We’ve been opening up extra slots on our schedules just to talk to people and help them figure out anything new or strange that might be going on.

All you have to do is fill out this quick form to request a call with one of our specialists.

Research shows MRI’s not reliable for back pain

One of the most popular questions and concerns I get from clients is whether or not they need an MRI for their back or neck problem. When you have persistent pain that won’t go away, or shooting pain or numbness down your arm or leg, it’s scary. It makes sense to get a look inside with an MRI – right?

Not necessarily.

Here’s the problem. 

MRI’s are an amazing technological advancement that will literally show you everything that is going on in your spine.  But what we now know from research is that all those findings on an MRI rarely correlate with what’s actually causing your pain. One notable study was the Lancet series – three published papers that investigated how MRI findings related to the treatment of back pain.  Martin Underwood, MD, co-author of the Lancet series, and professor at Warwick Medical School, is quoted in The Guardian saying: “If you get into the business of treating disc degeneration because it has shown up on an MRI, the likelihood is that, in most of those people, it is not contributing to their back pain.”

Let me explain.

When it comes to neck and back problems, what most people don’t realize is that 70-80% of all spine and musculoskeletal problems are what we call “mechanical” in nature.  That means that your problem has to do with the way you move, bad postural habits learned over the years, or muscular and joint imbalances like weakness and poor flexibility. Many of these mechanical “wear and tear” problems don’t show up until your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s – which coincidentally is also the time that things like disc degeneration show up on an MRI. Disc degeneration and arthritis are normal parts of aging, but they often get blamed for problems they don’t actually cause. The best way to figure out a movement problem is with… well… movement! Not an MRI.

But how do you know that it’s a mechanical problem and not something more serious?

The easiest way to find out is to ask a physical therapist who specializes in the spine, and specifically in mechanical neck and back pain.  But one sign you can easily recognize on your own is to take note of how your pain behaves. Does your pain come and go? Do you have good days and bad days? Can you change positions and influence your pain? When your pain is variable, it’s the best sign that your neck or back problem is “mechanical” in nature and due to a movement dysfunction. And that also means you don’t need surgery or any kind of procedure to fix it! In fact, a procedure or surgery could leave you feeling worse off than before.

So what’s the big deal about getting an MRI?  Isn’t it good just to be extra-cautious?

In theory – yes.  But here’s what actually happens.  MRI’s are super powerful and amazing tools.  Because of this, they see everything – including normal age-related changes like I mentioned just a moment ago. They also pick up things like bulging discs.

Research has also shown that around 60-70% of the population walk around with bulging discs and have no symptoms. Why?

Because a bulging disc only gives you trouble if you are moving or positioning yourself in an unbalanced way.

If an MRI picks this up, the news is often more devastating than it needs to be and the typical advice is to get an injection or surgery.  Neither of these procedures will fix your movement problem. And what typically happens is the bulge comes back, or appears somewhere else. This is why being “extra-cautious”, and over-prescribing MRI’s when it comes to back and neck pain, is not a good idea. The outcome is usually that people end up dealing with invasive procedures and surgeries they didn’t even need.  

If you’ve had a bad accident, fall, or trauma – then an MRI is a good idea.  But if you are dealing with chronic, long-standing aches and pains that have come and gone over the years and have recently gotten worse – there is a 70-80% chance that it is a movement problem that has finally caught up to you.  It’s best to see a movement expert for this. We know how to tell if the issue is something more serious. We can also send you to a doctor right away if necessary. But when you automatically assume that you need an MRI first, you end up spending a lot of money (the average cost of an MRI is $150,000, and you have to pay a portion of this), and the likelihood of getting prescribed an unnecessary surgery or procedure is much higher.

If this story sounds all too familiar, or you’ve been told that you must get an MRI for your neck or back problem – feel free to reach out to us and we can help you sort through fact vs fiction.  You could also come to our next “Ask the PT Night” on October 23rd and ask your questions then!

Three Easy Tips to Keep your Back from “Going Out”

Most people – four out of five to be exact! – will experience a debilitating back pain episode at one point during their lives, and typically we put more effort into caring for our backs during those times than when we’re feeling good. But it’s critical that we take good care of our backs all the time, not just when we’re in pain!

1. Stand Up & Take a Load Off

When we sit for too long, the burden of our weight is placed abnormally on our spine and can cause damage over time. Before long, those small loads add up to real pain. It makes sense when you consider that our bodies were designed to stand, sit, crawl, run, kneel, bend and move through the world in many different ways. It was never designed to sit in one position for prolonged periods, day after day. Sit too long, too often, and it can lead to bulging discs and weak, brittle muscles that are prone to tearing and other damage.

The solution? Limit your sitting to half-hour periods with a few minutes of standing in between, and you’ll reduce the uni-directional forces on your spine. In other words, if you sit for a long time at work or at home, stand up and walk around a little bit every thirty minutes. Aside from participating in regular strengthening exercise, like Pilates, this is the easiest way for the average person to prevent back injury (and heal your back faster if you already have an injury).

2. Watch for Curves

We have natural curves in our spine that help us handle stress and loads.  Whether sitting or standing, it’s important to maintain these curves.  When standing, our spinal curves occur more naturally and are usually easier to maintain.  When we sit, the protective curves in our spine are harder to maintain and often disappear.  And while a healthy core and strong back muscles are important to back health, they won’t protect your back if you sit for long periods, or when the curve in your lumbar area disappears while you’re sitting.

Fortunately, the solution is as simple as rolling up a towel and placing it between your chair or car seat and the small of your back (just above the belt line). Using a purpose-designed lumbar roll is my favorite choice, and what I use for low-back support. You can use a lumbar roll in your office chair, car, and on the plane if you’re flying! If you want to learn where you can get on of your own contact us about them here. Or  see in more detail how to use them in our free e-book!

3. Extend instead of Bend

The human spine (and entire body) craves balance, which means both extension and flexion.  But we spend the majority of our time in flexion, bending over to put shoes and socks on, brushing our teeth, driving, sitting at work and then driving home. At home we bend forward to cook, sit some more as we eat and then curl up on our couch or an easy chair. As long as we’re not gymnasts or circus performers, it’s safe to say we could all use a little more extension in our day.  A really good exercise is to stand and place your hands on your lower back for support and then arch back as far as you can go.  Repeat this 10 times, at least once per day.  This is also a great activity to do when you are interrupting your sitting during the day.  If you’ve never arched you back like this before, it may feel stiff or even hurt a little at first. But, with a gradual increase in frequency, it will feel less stiff and more natural over the course of a few days.  If it doesn’t, or becomes troublesome for you, stop and consult with a qualified physical therapist who specializes in back pain.

If you like these tips and want to learn even more ways to prevent debilitating back episodes, check out our FREE report right here! It reveals five easy ways (plus two bonus tips!) that are PROVEN to help you ease back pain quickly – without pain medication, frequent doctor’s visits, or surgery. And don’t forget to check out our Pilates programs if you’re looking for a way to exercise that will target – and resolve – back pain!