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Damage to the nervous system may cause movement-related issues
January 14, 2020

Your nervous system is the line of communication between your brain and every bone, muscle, and organ in your body. It is responsible for all actions that take place within the body, from the nerve impulses that make your heartbeat, to the reflex that makes you immediately retract your hand from a hot stove, and everything else in between.

When the nervous system functions normally, you can easily take it for granted and not give much thought to the complex inner-workings that are taking place every second. But as with every other body part and system, problems can occur.

The nervous system is vulnerable to a wide variety of disorders, which can affect either the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) or the peripheral nervous system (everything else), or both. Nerves can be damaged by many possible causes, including trauma, infection, structural issues, degeneration, or autoimmune disorders. And the result of this damage depends entirely on the part or parts of the nervous system affected, which may lead to a range of potential symptoms. These can include problems with movement, speech, or breathing, as well as memory and mood.

A selection of the most common nervous system disorders

Below are some of the most common nervous system issues (also known as neurological disorders) and how each one affects the body.

Peripheral nerve problems are common and often treated in outpatient clinics.

  • Cervical radiculopathy: occurs when one of the nerve roots in the neck is compressed or pinched where it branches away from the spinal cord, which is caused by any condition that injures or irritates these nerves. Symptoms may include a burning pain that starts in the neck and travels down the arm, upper back, and/or shoulders, along with weakness, numbness, and/or tingling in the fingers.
  • Lumbar radiculopathy: occurs when a nerve root in the lower back is compressed or pinched when it branches away from the spinal cord, which is due to injury or irritation of these nerves; symptoms include pain, numbness, weakness, and/or tingling that radiates down the leg and sometimes into the foot
  • Piriformis syndrome: a rare condition that occurs when a muscle in the buttocks (the piriformis) puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, which may be due to a spasm of this muscle; the most symptoms are tenderness in the buttocks and pain that travels down the back of the thigh, calf, and foot (sciatica).
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: a common condition caused by pressure on the median nerve, which runs the length of the arm and through a passage in the wrist called the carpal tunnel; symptoms usually start with a burning or tingling sensation, but eventually pain, weakness and/or numbness develop in the hand and wrist, and then radiate up the arm
  • Other nerve entrapments: a number of other conditions also result when a single nerve is compressed or squeezed, such as cubital tunnel syndrome, Guyon’s canal syndrome, radial nerve compression syndrome, and thoracic outlet syndrome; symptoms vary depending on the diagnosis, but typically include aches and pains, tingling or numbness, weakness, and reduced flexibility

Conditions that Affect the Central Nervous System.

  • Stroke: the fifth leading cause of death and one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S.; it occurs due to bleeding or the obstruction of blood flow in the brain; symptoms include trouble walking, speaking, and understanding, and possibly paralysis or numbness in the face, arm, or leg
    • Ischemic: accounts for the majority of strokes; caused by blockage of an artery (or rarely a vein) in the brain, which affects blood flow to part of the brain
    • Hemorrhagic: only accounts for about 13% of strokes; occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds, which deprives brain cells and tissues of oxygen and nutrients
  • Parkinson’s disease: a progressive disorder (meaning it gets worse over time) caused by the loss of brain cells that make dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps the body perform smooth and coordinated muscle movements; symptoms include tremors, trembling, stiffness or rigidness, and/or slowness of movements
  • Multiple sclerosis: an autoimmune disorder, which means the body attacks its own healthy cells because it accidentally identifies them as foreign invaders; in multiple sclerosis, a substance called myelin (a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects nerves) is destroyed in many areas of the body, which leads to the formation of scar tissue called sclerosis; symptoms range widely but can include muscle weakness, numbness, stiffness, trouble with coordination, and fatigue
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome: a rare autoimmune disorder in which myelin and other parts of the peripheral nervous system are mistakenly attacked, which prevents nerves from being able to properly send messages to and from the brain; the first symptom is usually weakness or a tingling sensation in the legs, which tends to come on rapidly and may spread to the upper body; symptoms may get worse, and may also include fatigue, pain, and loss of reflexes
  • Myasthenia gravis: another autoimmune disorder that affects the communication between nerves and muscles throughout the body; symptoms include weakness in the arms, legs, and neck, difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, blurred or double vision, and drooping of one or both eyelids
  • Traumatic brain injury: sudden damage to the brain caused by a blow or jolt to the head, which can range from a mild concussion to severe brain damage; symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, confusion, thinking, or memory issues, and behavior or mood changes
  • Spinal cord injury: damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal, which can result from car accidents, falls, violence, and sports-related trauma; symptoms include headache, numbness or tingling, an inability to move the arms or legs, difficulty walking, and pain or stiffness in the neck

Damages in nervous system can possibly cause movement-related issues
January 14, 2020

Your nervous system is the line of communication between your brain and every bone, muscle, and organ in your body. It is responsible for all actions that take place within the body, from the nerve impulses that make your heartbeat, to the reflex that makes you immediately retract your hand from a hot stove, and everything else in between.

When the nervous system functions normally, you can easily take it for granted and not give much thought to the complex inner-workings that are taking place every second. But as with every other body part and system, problems can occur.

The nervous system is vulnerable to a wide variety of disorders, which can affect either the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) or the peripheral nervous system (everything else), or both. Nerves can be damaged by many possible causes, including trauma, infection, structural issues, degeneration, or autoimmune disorders. And the result of this damage depends entirely on the part or parts of the nervous system affected, which may lead to a range of potential symptoms. These can include problems with movement, speech, or breathing, as well as memory and mood.

A selection of the most common nervous system disorders

Below are some of the most common nervous system issues (also known as neurological disorders) and how each one affects the body.

Peripheral nerve problems are common and often treated in outpatient clinics.

  • Cervical radiculopathy: occurs when one of the nerve roots in the neck is compressed or pinched where it branches away from the spinal cord, which is caused by any condition that injures or irritates these nerves. Symptoms may include a burning pain that starts in the neck and travels down the arm, upper back, and/or shoulders, along with weakness, numbness, and/or tingling in the fingers.
  • Lumbar radiculopathy: occurs when a nerve root in the lower back is compressed or pinched when it branches away from the spinal cord, which is due to injury or irritation of these nerves; symptoms include pain, numbness, weakness, and/or tingling that radiates down the leg and sometimes into the foot
  • Piriformis syndrome: a rare condition that occurs when a muscle in the buttocks (the piriformis) puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, which may be due to a spasm of this muscle; the most symptoms are tenderness in the buttocks and pain that travels down the back of the thigh, calf, and foot (sciatica).
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: a common condition caused by pressure on the median nerve, which runs the length of the arm and through a passage in the wrist called the carpal tunnel; symptoms usually start with a burning or tingling sensation, but eventually pain, weakness and/or numbness develop in the hand and wrist, and then radiate up the arm
  • Other nerve entrapments: a number of other conditions also result when a single nerve is compressed or squeezed, such as cubital tunnel syndrome, Guyon’s canal syndrome, radial nerve compression syndrome, and thoracic outlet syndrome; symptoms vary depending on the diagnosis, but typically include aches and pains, tingling or numbness, weakness, and reduced flexibility

Conditions that Affect the Central Nervous System.

  • Stroke: the fifth leading cause of death and one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S.; it occurs due to bleeding or the obstruction of blood flow in the brain; symptoms include trouble walking, speaking, and understanding, and possibly paralysis or numbness in the face, arm, or leg
    • Ischemic: accounts for the majority of strokes; caused by blockage of an artery (or rarely a vein) in the brain, which affects blood flow to part of the brain
    • Hemorrhagic: only accounts for about 13% of strokes; occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds, which deprives brain cells and tissues of oxygen and nutrients
  • Parkinson’s disease: a progressive disorder (meaning it gets worse over time) caused by the loss of brain cells that make dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps the body perform smooth and coordinated muscle movements; symptoms include tremors, trembling, stiffness or rigidness, and/or slowness of movements
  • Multiple sclerosis: an autoimmune disorder, which means the body attacks its own healthy cells because it accidentally identifies them as foreign invaders; in multiple sclerosis, a substance called myelin (a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects nerves) is destroyed in many areas of the body, which leads to the formation of scar tissue called sclerosis; symptoms range widely but can include muscle weakness, numbness, stiffness, trouble with coordination, and fatigue
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome: a rare autoimmune disorder in which myelin and other parts of the peripheral nervous system are mistakenly attacked, which prevents nerves from being able to properly send messages to and from the brain; the first symptom is usually weakness or a tingling sensation in the legs, which tends to come on rapidly and may spread to the upper body; symptoms may get worse, and may also include fatigue, pain, and loss of reflexes
  • Myasthenia gravis: another autoimmune disorder that affects the communication between nerves and muscles throughout the body; symptoms include weakness in the arms, legs, and neck, difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, blurred or double vision, and drooping of one or both eyelids
  • Traumatic brain injury: sudden damage to the brain caused by a blow or jolt to the head, which can range from a mild concussion to severe brain damage; symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, confusion, thinking, or memory issues, and behavior or mood changes
  • Spinal cord injury: damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal, which can result from car accidents, falls, violence, and sports-related trauma; symptoms include headache, numbness or tingling, an inability to move the arms or legs, difficulty walking, and pain or stiffness in the neck

Your nerves are responsible for everything your body does
January 7, 2020

Pick any function of the human body, and you can count on your nerves making it happen. Moving your eyes to read these words, the process of sending these images to the brain to be converted into useful information, and breathing while doing so are all made possible by the nerves.

The nervous system is a complex collection of nerves and specialized nerve cells called neurons that form a network reaching every part of the body. Collectively, this network rapidly transmits signals back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body to allow movement and every other bodily function. In essence, the nervous system is the body’s electrical wiring, through which all communication takes place. Neurons are the basic unit of this system, as they send and receive nerve impulses to other cells at an incredibly fast rate. More on this later.

When looking at the structure of the nervous system, it’s easiest to divide it into two main parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

Central nervous system

  • The central command center of the body that integrates and organizes all the information coming in and going out
  • Consists of the brain, spinal cord, and all the supporting nerves and neurons that serve them
  • Brain: controls nearly all functions of the body, including awareness, movement, sensations, speech, and memory
  • Spinal cord: a long tube—like structure that carries messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body; it extends from the brainstem down to the base of the spine and consists of 31 segments, each of which has a pair of spinal nerves that travel out to other regions of the body

Peripheral nervous system

  • All the other nerves and neurons of the nervous system that are not part of the central nervous system; further divided into the somatic and autonomic nervous system
  • Somatic (voluntary) nervous system: controls nearly all voluntary movements in the body; it does this by sending sensory information (from our five senses) to the central nervous system and receiving instructions to carry motor functions elsewhere in the body
  • Autonomic (involuntary) nervous system: responsible for all the involuntary functions of the body, such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, urination, and sexual arousal; it is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
    • Sympathetic nervous system: prepares the body for sudden stressful situations in what’s called the fight—or—flight response, which leads to increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats to supply the body with extra energy
    • Parasympathetic nervous system: responsible for actions that are complimentary to the fight or flight response, such as salivation, digestion, urination, and defecation, which are considered “rest and digest” activities

All of this communication takes place through neurons, which send signals to other cells through thin fibers called axons. These structures cause chemicals known as neurotransmitters to be released into synapses—the gaps between neurons—and are received by another neuron to convey the message. And lastly, the glia are specialized cells that support, protect, and nourish the neurons to help them perform their function properly and safely.

2019 literature review part 4: arthritis, sports injuries, and opioids
December 31, 2019

We distribute newsletters every week to educate you—our patients—on some of the most common injuries and conditions that we treat, and to explain why we always recommend seeing a physical therapist first when dealing with any type of pain. In working towards this goal, we also regularly summarize research studies that show how physical therapy typically leads to the best possible outcomes, and how it helps patients avoid surgery and other costly or unnecessary treatments in the process.

With the end of the year approaching, we’d like to look back at some of our favorite study summaries of 2019 in a four—part newsletter series with each one focusing on a different topic or region of the body. In part 4, we review research on physical therapy for arthritis and sports injuries, and how it compares to opioids for pain.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a term used to describe over 100 conditions involving inflammation of one or more joints, leading to pain and stiffness in those regions. It represents one of the most common causes of disability nationwide, as about 54 million Americans—or 23% of the population—currently have some type of arthritis. The majority of these individuals have osteoarthritis (OA), which occurs when protective cartilage in joints gradually wears away, but other forms of arthritis—like rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile arthritis—must also be recognized.

Level of participation in physical therapy or an internet—based exercise training program: associations with outcomes for patients with knee osteoarthritis (2018)

  • Background: OA frequently affects the knees because they are weight—bearing joints that withstand significant loads from the rest of the body; exercise is generally regarded as one of the most effective treatments for these patients, but it’s not clear if delivering this through supervised physical therapy is necessarily better than self—instructed exercise
  • How the study was conducted: researchers analyzed the results of an original study in which 159 patients with knee OA either completed physical therapy or followed an internet—based exercise training (IBET) program
  • What the results showed: for the physical therapy group, a higher number of treatment sessions was associated with better overall outcomes for up to 12 months, and the greatest improvements were found in those who attended 6—8 sessions; for the IBET group, more frequent use of the website did not lead to any significant improvements for patients
  • Take—home message: there appears to be a much better response to exercise treatments for knee OA when it’s guided by a physical therapist rather than led by online instructions, and more therapy visits leads to improved results; patients with this condition should therefore consult with a physical therapist to initiate an exercise therapy program

Sports injuries

Although the rate varies widely from one sport to the next, all sports carry a certain risk for injury due to their physical toll from contact, collisions, and pushing the body too far. About 8.6 million sports— and recreation—related injuries occur each year, meaning that about 34 injuries occur for every 1,000 individuals participating in sports. Sports injuries are most common between the ages of 5—24, but they can occur in athletes of any age.

Including the Nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: a systematic review and meta—analysis of 8459 athletes (2019)

  • Background: injuries to the hamstrings—a group of three muscles located in the back of the thigh—are extremely common in many sports; the Nordic hamstring exercise strengthens these muscles and may reduce the risk for injury in various sports, but more research is needed to clearly show this
  • How the study was conducted: a systematic review and meta—analysis was conducted, which analyze the results of all available research on a topic; 15 studies were included, which evaluated programs in which the Nordic hamstring exercise was performed to prevent hamstring injuries
  • Results: exercise programs that included the Nordic hamstring exercise significantly reduced the incidence of hamstring injuries by up to 51%, and the reduction was found in athletes participating in multiple sports and at different levels of competition
  • Take—home message: regularly performing a single exercise in addition to movement—based techniques can help individuals avoid a hamstring injury in many sports; therefore, it’s recommended that athletes visit a physical therapist for an injury—prevention program that will help reduce their risk

Opioids

Opioids are powerful pain—relieving medications that come with a high risk for overuse and abuse. Every day, about 130 Americans die from an opioid—related overdose, which is about 45,000 deaths related to opioids in 2017. Physical therapy is a much safer alternative to opioids for pain, and in many cases it can help patients avoid the need for a prescription altogether.

The Effect of Timing of Physical Therapy for Acute Low Back Pain on Health Services Utilization: A Systematic Review (2019)

  • Background: although physical therapy is commonly recommended for low back pain (LBP), many patients either receive after a delay or not at all, and others may be prescribed opioids for their pain instead
  • How the study was conducted: a systematic review was conducted, which is a comprehensive study that interprets the findings from similar research on the same topic; 11 studies were included, all of which assessed the use of healthcare services—like opioids—in LBP patients that either received early physical therapy, physical therapy after a delay, or usual care (which didn’t include any physical therapy)
  • What the results showed: early physical therapy was associated with reduced use of healthcare services compared to delayed physical therapy, as patients spent less on care and had a lower risk for being prescribed opioids, having advanced imaging tests, or visiting the emergency department
  • Take—home message: since starting physical therapy early can help patients with LBP avoid opioids and spend less on their treatments compared to waiting or getting non—physical therapy treatments, individuals with this condition are advised to make an appointment with a physical therapist

2019 literature review part 3: knee, foot, and ankle pain
December 17, 2019

We distribute newsletters every week to educate you—our patients—on some of the most common injuries and conditions that we treat, and to explain why we always recommend seeing a physical therapist first when dealing with any type of pain. In working towards this goal, we also regularly summarize research studies that show how physical therapy typically leads to the best possible outcomes, and how it helps patients avoid surgery and other costly or unnecessary treatments in the process.

With the end of the year approaching, we’d like to look back at some of our favorite study summaries of 2019 in a four—part newsletter series with each one focusing on a different topic or region of the body. In part 3, we review research on physical therapy for knee pain, ankle pain, and foot pain.

Knee

The knee is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body. It’s also incredibly vulnerable to injury, with knee pain ranking behind just back pain as the second most common condition of the muscles and bones. Knee pain is the single greatest cause of disability in individuals who are 65 and older, and knee osteoarthritis is usually responsible in these cases. For more active individuals, injuries like runner’s knee, jumper’s knee, and tears of the ACL and other ligaments are most common.

How do the costs of physical therapy and arthroscopic partial meniscectomy compare? A trial—based economic evaluation of two treatments in patients with meniscal tears alongside the ESCAPE study (2019)

  • Background: tears of the meniscus—a crescent—shaped piece of cartilage in the knee that absorbs shock—are common in athletic populations; many patients with meniscus tears are treated by a surgical procedure called arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, but it’s not clear if surgery is the best approach, and physical therapy represents an alternative
  • How the study was conducted: 321 patients with meniscus tears were randomly assigned to undergo either an eight—week physical therapy treatment program—which featured stretching, strengthening, and balance exercises—or surgery; data on the effects and costs of these treatments was evaluated for up to two years to determine which led to better outcomes
  • What the results showed: there was a relatively high probability that physical therapy was more cost—effective than surgery, and a relatively high probability that it was superior to surgery for both knee function and quality of life
  • Take—home message: based on these findings, it appears that patients with a meniscus tear can experience better outcomes at a lower cost with physical therapy over surgery; these individuals are therefore urged to try a physical therapist program first before contemplating surgery

Foot and ankle pain

The feet and ankles have the tall task of withstanding the weight of the entire body, and as a result, injuries are quite common in this region. Foot and ankle issues are particularly common in active individuals, with ankle sprains being the single most prevalent injury sustained in sports. Other issues—like plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis— typically occur in individuals who frequently do lots of running and/or jumping, but foot or ankle pain can strike anyone at any age.

Exercise, orthoses and splinting for treating Achilles tendinopathy: a systematic review with meta—analysis (2018)

  • Background: Achilles tendinopathy is defined as either tendinitis (inflammation) or tendinosis (micro—tears without inflammation) of the Achilles tendon, and it causes pain, swelling and impaired performance; treatment options for this condition include physical therapy with exercise, splints, and orthoses (shoe inserts)
  • How the study was conducted: a systematic review and meta—analysis was conducted, which collect and analyze research on the same topic; in this case, 22 studies were included, all of which evaluated either exercise, orthoses, or splints for Achilles tendinopathy to determine which is most effective
  • What the results showed: moderate—quality evidence showed treatments that included exercise reduced pain and improved function in patients with Achilles tendinopathy; adding a splint or orthoses to an exercise program did not significantly change these outcomes
  • Take—home message: exercise produced positive outcomes in Achilles tendinopathy, while splints and orthoses did not seem to have any notable impact; patients are therefore encouraged to see a physical therapist, where they can undergo an exercise—based treatment program and are likely to experience similar improvements

Does manual therapy improve pain and function in patients with plantar fasciitis? A systematic review (2018)

  • Background: plantar fasciitis is a common injury involving inflammation of the plantar fascia, a strong piece of tissue that supports the arch of the foot; manual therapy is a hands—on technique commonly administered by physical therapists for these patients, but more research is needed to support this intervention
  • How the study was conducted: a systematic review was conducted, which collects and analyzes data from research on the same topic; seven high—quality studies called randomized—controlled trials (RCTs) were included in this review, all of which evaluated manual therapy for plantar fasciitis
  • What the results showed: manual therapy was found to improve patients’ function and threshold for pain more effectively than the other treatments analyzed
  • Take—home message: since manual therapy appears to be a beneficial intervention for plantar fasciitis, patients with this condition should strongly consider seeing a physical therapist for a personalized treatment program that includes these techniques

In our next newsletter, we review our top summaries on studies of opioids for pain relief, sports injuries, and arthritis.

2019 Literature Review part 2: shoulder, wrist, and hand pain
December 10, 2019

We distribute newsletters every week to educate you—our patients—on some of the most common injuries and conditions that we treat, and to explain why we always recommend seeing a physical therapist first when dealing with any type of pain. In working towards this goal, we also regularly summarize research studies that show how physical therapy typically leads to the best possible outcomes, and how it helps patients avoid surgery and other costly or unnecessary treatments in the process.

With the end of the year approaching, we’d like to look back at some of our favorite study summaries of 2019 in a four—part newsletter series with each one focusing on a different topic or region of the body. In part 2, we review research on physical therapy for wrist pain, hand pain, and shoulder pain.

Wrist and hand pain

Pain in the wrist or hands can result from a number of different causes. Some conditions (like carpal tunnel syndrome) develop from performing the same movements over and over, while others (like rheumatoid arthritis) are based on a more complex process that is largely uncontrollable. Injuries like wrist sprains and broken fingers are also fairly common, especially in athletes and active individuals.

Is manual therapy based on neurodynamic techniques effective in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome? A randomized controlled trial (2019)

  • Background: carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common condition caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist, which usually leads to numbness, tingling and weakness in their affected hand; it can be treated either surgically or non—surgically with interventions like physical and manual (hands—on) therapy
  • How the study was conducted: 103 patients with mild or moderate CTS underwent either a manual therapy program or no treatment (control group) for 10 weeks
  • What the results showed: the manual therapy group experienced significantly greater improvements than the control group in several outcomes, with lower pain scores, reduced symptoms, and better functional status
  • Take—home message: patients with CTS should seek out care from a physical therapist first to receive manual therapy, as it may lead to notable improvements and help them avoid surgery

Hand exercises for patients with rheumatoid arthritis: an extended follow—up of the SARAH randomised controlled trial (2017)

  • Background: rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a debilitating long—term disease that often leads to pain, fatigue, and less mobility, especially in the hands; physical therapy with stretching and strengthening exercises is often suggested as an effective intervention for these patients
  • How the study was conducted: a follow—up analysis was performed on an original study of 490 RA patients that received either a personalized exercise program—consisting of strengthening and stretching exercises—or no treatment (control); the original study identified improvements from this program, and the follow—up was intended to see if these improvements lasted in the long term
  • What the results showed: even though patients gradually performed fewer exercises (which they were instructed to complete regularly), they still showed better hand function scores compared to the control group for up to two years
  • Take—home message: a strengthening and stretching exercise program can lead to long—term improvements in RA, so patients with this condition are advised to visit a physical therapist to begin treatment

Shoulder pain

The shoulder is a complex ball—and—socket made up of two joints. It is extremely mobile and allows the arm to rotate almost 360°, but this comes at a cost, as it’s also one of the most commonly injured areas of the body. Up to 26% of the general population is dealing with shoulder pain at any given point in time, with a higher concentration in those who regularly perform overhead movements (like painters, baseball players, and tennis players). Shoulder pain can come about immediately or develop gradually, with certain conditions being more likely to arise in older age.

EXERCISE THERAPY IN THE NON—OPERATIVE TREATMENT OF FULL—THICKNESS ROTATOR CUFF TEARS: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW (2018)

  • Background: the rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that allows arm motion, and it’s often injured or torn in overhead sports like baseball; it’s not completely clear if surgery or non—surgical treatments like physical therapy and exercise are better for complete—or full—thickness—tears
  • How the study was conducted: a systematic review was performed, which collects and analyzes all related research on a single topic; 35 studies—including nine high—quality studies called randomized—controlled trials (RCTs)—were included in this review, all of which evaluated the effectiveness of exercise for treating full—thickness rotator cuff tears
  • Results: all of the RCTs showed that exercise was effective, as it led to an 86% reduction in pain, an 83% improvement in range of motion, an 89% improvement in strength, and an 85% improvement in function
  • Take—home message: patients with rotator cuff tears should attempt a course of physical therapy first before considering the option of surgery, as an exercise—based intervention can lead to various improvements

In our next newsletter, we review our top summaries on studies that cover knee pain, ankle pain, and foot pain.

2019 Literature Review part 1: neck, back, and jaw pain
December 3, 2019

We distribute newsletters each week to help educate you—our patients—on some of the most common injuries and conditions that we treat, and to explain why we always recommend seeing a physical therapist early when dealing with any type of pain. In working towards this goal, we also regularly summarize research studies that show how physical therapy typically leads to the best possible outcomes, and how it helps patients avoid surgery and other costly or unnecessary treatments in the process.

With the end of the year approaching, we’d like to look back at some of our favorite study summaries of 2019 in a four—part newsletter series, with each one focusing on a different topic or region of the body. In part 1, we review research on physical therapy for neck pain, back pain, and issues with the jaw called temporomandibular disorders.

Neck pain

Of all conditions that cause disability, neck pain ranks fourth. It’s estimated that about 30% of adults experience neck pain each year, and up to 70% will deal with it at least once in their lifetime. A number of conditions can cause neck pain—including strains and sprains, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, a and herniated disc—but the end result is usually a limited ability to function normally.

Timing of physical therapy consultation on 1—year healthcare utilization and costs in patients seeking care for neck pain: a retrospective cohort (2018)

  • Background: physical therapist—led interventions like hands—on (manual) therapy and stretching and strengthening exercises are commonly recommended for neck pain, and research suggests that the timing of when a patient starts treatment will affect their costs and use of other healthcare services
  • How the study was conducted: 308 patients with neck pain who underwent physical therapy were placed into one of three groups based on when they first consulted with the therapist; these groups were early consultation (started treatment within 14 days), delayed consultation (within 15—90 days), or late consultation (within 91—364 days)
  • What the results showed: patients who consulted with a physical therapist early saved about $2,172 compared to the late physical therapy group and $1,063 compared to the delayed physical therapy group; the early physical therapy group also showed a lower risk for being prescribed opioids and having injections or imaging tests compared to the late treatment group
  • Take—home message: the timing of physical therapy makes a difference, and patients with neck pain are urged to start sooner rather than later in order to reap the greatest benefits at the lowest costs

Back pain

Back pain—especially low back pain (LBP)—is even more common than neck pain. LBP actually ranks as the most common painful condition and the number one cause of disability in the U.S. Recent statistics have shown that about 25% of the population has been affected by LBP for at least one full day within the past three months, about 80% of people will experience it at some point. While most cases of LBP will improve after some time, some patients are affected by persistent—or chronic—pain that lasts for several months or longer.

Immediate Physical Therapy Initiation in Patients With Acute Low Back Pain Is Associated With a Reduction in Downstream Health Care Utilization and Costs (2018)

  • Background: although physical therapy is recommended for patients with LBP, not all patients start treatment right away, and this delay may affect what other healthcare services (like tests and other treatments) they end up using
  • How the study was conducted: the medical records of 46,914 LBP patients were divided into five groups depending on whether they received physical therapy and when treatment started; these groups were 1) no physical therapy, 2) immediate physical therapy (treatment started within three days), 3) early physical therapy (4—14 days), 4) delayed physical therapy (15—28 days), 5) late physical therapy (29—90 days); the amount of healthcare these patients used and the associated costs were then compared between groups
  • What the results showed: the longer patients waited to begin physical therapy, the more healthcare services they used and the higher the costs of their treatment; seeing a physical therapist immediately or early was associated with the lowest costs and healthcare usage
  • Take—home message: patients with LBP are encouraged to see a physical therapist sooner rather than later, as doing so will likely lead to better outcomes and lower costs

Comprehensive Nonsurgical Treatment Versus Self—directed Care to Improve Walking Ability in Lumbar Spinal Stenosis: A Randomized Trial (2018)

  • Background: lumbar spinal stenosis (LSS) is a common condition in which the space that surrounds the spinal cord narrows, which can cause pain and weakness in the lower back, buttocks and thighs; most patients with LSS are treated with conservative care like physical therapy, but more research is needed on its effectiveness
  • How the study was conducted: 99 patients with LSS were randomly assigned to undergo either a conservative treatment that included exercise, education, and manual (hands—on) therapy, or self—care, which did not include any specific interventions; patients’ walking ability, pain, and function was assessed for up to 12 months
  • What the results showed: patients who completed the conservative treatment program experienced significantly greater improvements than the self—care group in walking ability, pain, and function that lasted into the long term
  • Take—home message: since conservative treatment that includes physical therapy was beneficial, patients who have LSS should strongly consider seeing a physical therapist to reduce their pain levels and improve their functional abilities

Temporomandibular disorders

The temporomandibular joint connects the part of the skull directly in front of the ears (temporal bone) to the lower jaw (mandible). It allows you to move your jaw up and down and from one side to the other, which is necessary for talking and chewing. Temporomandibular disorder—or TMD—is a general term used to describe a variety of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction of this joint, which can lead to problems moving the jaw.

The effectiveness of exercise therapy for temporomandibular dysfunction: a systematic review and meta—analysis (2017)

Background: physical therapy and exercise—based interventions (exercise therapy) are frequently used for TMDs, but the research is mixed as to how effective exercise therapy is for these disorders

How the study was conducted: a systematic review and meta—analysis was performed, which collects and analyzes research on the same topic; six high—quality studies called randomized—controlled trials were included, all of which compared exercise to other treatments or placebo for patients with TMDs

What the results showed: patients who underwent exercise therapy experienced moderate short—term benefits of reduced pain and improved flexibility compared to other treatments; a mixed approach to exercise therapy may be associated with the best outcomes

Take—home message: exercise therapy appears to be effective for TMDs, and patients with these conditions should therefore see a physical therapist to begin this type of treatment program

In our next newsletter, we review our top summaries on studies that cover shoulder pain, wrist pain, and hand pain.

Better results and lower costs by seeing a physical therapist early
November 26, 2019

Evidence on use of physical therapy during an initial episode of low back pain is mixed

Low back pain (LBP) is one of the most common health conditions, as about 65-80% of adults will experience it at some point in their lifetime. Many treatment options are available for LBP, and as a result, there is significant variation in how these patients are managed. Physical therapy has long been regarded as an effective treatment for patients with LBP, but some disagreement exists regarding its benefits, and not all international guidelines recommend it. In addition, evidence on the use of physical therapy for an acute episode of LBP—meaning it’s lasted for less than four weeks—is mixed. For these reasons, a study was conducted to evaluate the relationship between physical therapy and the use of other treatments for patients with back pain. The study particularly focused on the timing of therapy and if seeing a physical therapist sooner rather than later had an impact on their use of other healthcare services.

Patients are categorized into three groups based on when they accessed physical therapy

The researchers looked through a large database to identify the medical records of patients over the age of 66 who received treatment for LBP over a one-year period. This process led to a total of 431,195 patients being included in the analysis. Once these records were collected, patients were primarily grouped based on the amount of time between their first visit with a doctor for LBP and their first physical therapy visit. The acute treatment group consisted of patients who saw a physical therapist within four weeks, the subacute treatment group saw a physical therapist within four weeks to three months, and the chronic treatment group did so in 3-12 months. For each patient, the researchers counted the episodes of surgery, injections, and back-related doctor visits that occurred after the initial doctor visit to determine if there was an effect of the timing of physical therapy.

Low back pain patients should start physical therapy early to avoid other treatments

The results showed that in total, only 16.2% of patients received physical therapy within one year of seeing a doctor for LBP. Of these patients, 52% received physical therapy in the acute period, 18.1% received physical therapy in the subacute period, and 29.9% received physical therapy in the chronic period. Lastly, 11.9% of patients overall received an injection and 3.1% underwent surgery for their pain. Further analysis revealed that there was a significant reduction in the likelihood of having surgery in the acute and subacute groups compared to the chronic group. There was also a lower chance of having an injection, and a reduction in the number of doctor visits for LBP in the acute and subacute groups compared to the chronic group. Lastly, it was found that patients who started physical therapy in the acute period had the lowest risk of receiving these other interventions and frequent doctor visits, followed by those in the subacute group, and then the chronic group.

These findings suggest that patients who start physical therapy within four weeks of seeing a doctor for LBP are likely experiencing improvements, and therefore do not need to continue seeing a doctor or have other treatments like injections or surgery. Although it was not discussed in the study, this can also mean lower costs for patients, as surgery is an expensive intervention that may only lead to similar outcomes when compared to physical therapy. For these reasons, patients with LBP are strongly encouraged to see a physical therapist, preferably as soon as possible. Following this route will increase their chances of experiencing a successful outcome while avoiding other risky and expensive interventions. Patients should also consider seeing a physical therapist now in order to get the most out of their healthcare plan. As the year winds down, it’s recommended that everyone with a health insurance policy reviews it and checks on the current benefit status. For those who have already met their deductible or out-of-pocket maximum for 2019, co-pays will likely be lower or non-existent on physical therapy visits for the rest of the year, before deductibles renew on January 1, 2020.

-As reported in the April ’12 issue of Spine

Seeing a physical therapist first can lead to better results
November 19, 2019

Some patients may put off going to physical therapy for any number of reasons, sometimes for an extended amount of time. Individuals might believe that their condition will improve on its own, that treatment is too expensive for their budget, or they may not be aware that physical therapy is even an option at first. Whatever the reasoning behind it, delaying physical therapy is actually quite common, but those who wait are missing out on unlocking the full potential of its benefits. These examples should make it clear that physical therapy is a great overall choice for injuries and painful conditions, but when you see a physical therapist is another important factor that can affect what happens next.

For any type of pain or physical limitation, consulting a physical therapist first means that patients will be getting started on their path to recovery right away. As a result, these patients have generally been found to have better outcomes and a lower chance of needing other interventions compared to patients who either don’t undergo physical therapy or delay starting it. For patients that initiate physical therapy early these benefits are even greater. What follows is a selection of studies that display how seeing a physical therapist as soon as possible can lead to lower costs and better results in the long run:

The Effect of Timing of Physical Therapy for Acute Low Back Pain on Health Services Utilization: A Systematic Review (2019)

  • How the study was conducted: this study was a systematic review, which collects and analyzes the findings of several studies on the same topic; in this case, 11 studies were evaluated that investigated the association of early physical therapy and the use of healthcare services compared to delayed therapy or usual care
  • What the results showed: early physical therapy was found to improve healthcare efficiency and reduce the overall use of healthcare services and opioids, as well as the overall costs of treatment

The Influence of Patient Choice of First Provider on Costs and Outcomes: Analysis From a Physical Therapy Patient Registry (2018)

  • How the study was conducted: researchers evaluated the medical records of 603 patients with neck and back pain to costs and patient outcomes between those who accessed physical therapy directly and those who were referred by another medical professional
  • What the results showed: all patients improved in pain and disability, but patients who saw a physical therapist directly displayed significantly lower costs than those who were referred through a traditional model of care

Timing of physical therapy consultation on 1-year healthcare utilization and costs in patients seeking care for neck pain: a retrospective cohort (2018)

  • How the study was conducted: researchers divided 308 patients with neck pain into different groups depending on when they consulted a physical therapist, with an early consultation being within 14 days, a delayed consultation being within 15-90 days, and a late consultation being within 91-364 days
  • What the results showed: early physical therapy was also associated with an average savings of $2,172 on healthcare costs over one year compared to late physical therapy, as well as a lower risk for patients being prescribed opioids, having a spinal injection, or undergoing an imaging test

If you’re dealing with any sort of pain and have been thinking about seeing a physical therapist, now is a great time of the year to do so in order to get the most out of your healthcare plan. As the year winds down, we strongly recommend reviewing your health insurance policy and checking on your benefit status. If you’ve already met your deductible or out-of-pocket maximum for 2019, you will likely have a lower co-pay or possibly no co-pay on your physical therapy visits for the rest of the year, before your deductible renews on January 1, 2020.

Opioids can be avoided by seeing a physical therapist first.
November 12, 2019

Visiting a physical therapist for injuries and painful conditions is always a smart choice that can lead to similar—or better—outcomes compared to surgery, and at a lower cost. But this is just one of the numerous benefits that physical therapy can provide. Here, we break down why physical therapy is a far better treatment for pain than addictive opioids, and how it can help patients avoid these drugs when its accessed right from the start.

It’s now a well-known fact that the U.S. is in the midst of an epidemic revolving around over-prescribed pain medications, especially opioids. Although the U.S. represents less than 5% of the world’s population, it consumes more than 80% of the global supply of opioids. The number of prescriptions for opioids increased by 600% from 1997-2007, and there has been a threefold increase in the abuse of these drugs over the past few years.

These figures show just how significant a problem opioid addiction has become. Though many patients do need these medications because they have painful conditions that can’t be treated effectively with other interventions, some doctors prescribe them because they provide instant relief. In other cases, patients are prescribed opioids to help them deal with pain following surgery. Unfortunately, this can have some negative effects, too, as research has shown that patients who continue to use opioids after surgery tend to have worse outcomes than those who don’t.

Physical therapy has a much different profile than opioids, as it offers a wide range of possible benefits that far outweigh any risks involved. Narcotics like opioids are only meant to decrease one’s perception or sensation of pain, and they are not meant to address the actual cause of the pain. This is why these medications are only supposed to be used temporarily, until the pain subsides. Physical therapy, on the other hand, is always focused on identifying the origin of the pain and alleviating it with a carefully designed treatment program. When a patient sees a physical therapist before undergoing any other treatments, studies have shown they are also reducing their chances of an opioid prescription in the future. Below are a few studies that underscore this point:

Relationship of Opioid Prescriptions to Physical Therapy Referral and Participation for Medicaid Patients with New-Onset Low Back Pain (2017)

  • How the study was conducted: the medical records of 454 patients with a new diagnosis of low back pain were analyzed to determine the effect of physical therapy on patients’ access of other healthcare services, including opioids
  • What the results showed: patients who participated in physical therapy had a lower chance of being prescribed opioids in the following year

Association of Early Outpatient Rehabilitation With Health Service Utilization in Managing Medicare Beneficiaries With Nontraumatic Knee Pain: Retrospective Cohort Study (2017)

  • How the study was conducted: the healthcare usage of patients with knee pain was evaluated over 12 months and categorized according to if and when they underwent physical therapy
  • What the results showed: patients who went to a physical therapist early on were found to be 33% less likely to use narcotic analgesics like opioids and 50% less likely to receive non-surgical invasive procedures than patients who did not

Physical Therapy as the First Point of Care to Treat Low Back Pain: An Instrumental Variables Approach to Estimate Impact on Opioid Prescription, Health Care Utilization, and Costs (2018)

  • How the study was conducted: the medical records of nearly 150,000 patients with low back pain were analyzed to better understand the effects of seeing a physical therapist first
  • What the results showed: when patients saw a physical therapist initially, they had a significantly lower chance of receiving an opioid prescription compared to those who did not

We would also like to remind you that now is a great time of year to see a physical therapist to get the most out of your healthcare plan. Deductibles usually renew in the new year, so if you haven’t done so recently, review your health insurance policy and check on your benefit status. If you’ve already met your deductible or out-of-pocket maximum for 2019—or are close to meeting them—you will likely have a lower co-pay or possibly no co-pay on your physical therapy visits for the rest of the year, before your deductible renews on January 1, 2020.