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The Pelvis and Sciatic Pain
April 10, 2010

Sciatic pain is almost as ubiquitous as back pain in our culture. As with most chronic pain conditions, I've found sciatic pain to be a problem in people's habits such as sitting or sleeping postures as well as anatomical issues such as tight muscles in the front of the pelvis or weak muscles in the back of the pelvis.

Let's look at the anatomical players first. The sciatic nerve originates in the lumbar spine as nerve roots exiting the spine then coming together to form the sciatic nerve which passes through the back of the pelvis and continues down the leg. Often the pelvis can become tilted forward (anterior pelvic tilt), backward (posterior pelvic tilt), or rotated so that one of the pelvic bones is tilted forward while the other is not. The vast majority of sciatic pain I treat results from either an anteriorly tilted pelvis or one that is rotated.

This happens when the muscles in the front of the pelvis become symmetrically tight as with an anterior pelvic tilt or they can become asymmetrically tight creating a rotated pelvis. Correcting this tightness goes a long way toward correcting sciatic pain.

[caption id="attachment_246" align="alignleft" width="182" caption="Pelvic Asymmetry      Copyright Boone Publishing, LLC. 2009"][/caption]

Usually people with these issues also present with weakened or poorly performing gluteal muscles (the rear-end muscles). These usually turn off as a result of poor standing posture or walking mechanics. Turning these muscles on while walking or running, together with stretching the muscles in the front of the pelvis help restore normal pelvic mechanics which then restores normal spinal mechanics. The spine responds to the pelvis because both are linked so closely together. Fixing the pelvis will help fix the spine.

Let's look at sitting and sleeping postures that relate to sciatic pain now. When sitting, most often I find the knees are resting too low in relationship to the hips or the legs are too close together. This creates an anterior pelvic tilt and consequent spinal extension (arching) which can create sciatic pain. Another problem would be sitting asymmetrically so one leg is loaded more than the other. This can create a rotated pelvis also contributing to asymmetrical stress to the spinal nerve roots.

Standing habits involve locking out the knees and allowing one or both leg bones (femurs) to rotate inward too much. Both of these habits also create varying degrees of anterior pelvic tilt either symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Typically people with sciatic pain sleep on their sides which allows spinal sidebending and rotation to occur. Sleeping presents one of the hardest stresses on the spine because you are in this position for 6-9 hours each night. This can cause damage if care isn't taken to pay attention to your body. Often what I find helpful is folding a bath towel lengthwise and placing it under the waist. This removes sidebending and rotation stresses to the spine regardless of which side you are lying on. Consequently it helps sciatic pain.

These tips and others can be found in my book, Fixing You: Back Pain.

Tennis Elbow Anyone?
April 5, 2010

Tennis and golf season is upon us which means those sleeping injuries re-awaken after a winter of rest. One of the most pervasive and lingering aches is tennis elbow or golfers’ elbow. These are felt in the outer (in the case of tennis elbow) or inner (in the case of golfers’ elbow) elbow joint and affect just about everything you do that requires gripping. The medical terms are lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) or medial epicondylitis (golfers’ elbow) which basically mean that something is irritated on the outer or inner elbow. These terms don’t actually explain what is irritated or why. There are many approaches to dealing with these injuries including forearm cuffs, painful trigger point release, or even surgery. However fixing the underlying roots of the problem resolves pain quickly and permanently.

Know Your Anatomy

The first place to start is the shoulder. Problems here affect how tennis elbow or golfers’ elbow develop. The most common issue is that the shoulder blades sit too low on the trunk and too far out to the side (I've mentioned this in previous posts). This sets up a domino effect whereby the upper arm bone to rotates inward which then causes the forearm to rotate as well. This is when tennis elbow or golfers’ elbow emerges.

This commonly happens in people who spend a lot of time at a computer. But, frankly, I see it in athletes or blue-collar workers as well. The muscles of the shoulder and forearm then adapt to this posture causing deep forearm rotator muscles to become lengthened or weakened while others become shortened (Figure 1.).

[caption id="attachment_239" align="alignleft" width="269" caption="Figure 1. Deep Forearm Rotators        (Copyright Boone Publishing. 2010)"][/caption]

Treatment is usually delivered to the muscles lying on top of these deep rotators. Mostly because it is in these muscles most people feel pain. These superficial muscles are merely reacting to deeper problems in the muscles lying against the elbow bones (pictured). Treatment of the superficial muscles requires multiple visits for painful therapy which delivers marginal results at best. The real problem is that the shoulder blade is not resting or moving correctly which sets up the elbow joint for problems which then leads to tennis elbow or golfers’ elbow.

The Fix

The solution? There’s good and bad news: The good news is that fixing tennis elbow or golfers’ elbow can happen quickly. The bad news is it’s not simple. You must first correct the shoulder blade issue which is feeding the recurring elbow pain. Then address the deep forearm rotators that have altered to accommodate the shoulder and arm position as well. Doing one without other can’t correct the problem for the reasons mentioned above.

However, I’ve made it as simple as possible in my new book, Fixing You: Shoulder & Elbow Pain. In it I present the problem and solution so anyone can understand the roots of their pain and fix them. So, if you’re tired of wearing that forearm strap, endless visits to a therapist for treatment, or icing your elbows after work or a game of tennis or golf, then do yourself a favor and get to the root of the problem. It’s time to fix your elbow pain!

Rick Olderman is a sports and orthopedic physical therapist, personal trainer, Pilates instructor and speaker. He is the author of Fixing You: Back Pain, available at www.FixingYou.net. Email Rick at Rick@FixingYou.net or call 303-477-4212.

Making Back Pain a Habit
March 25, 2010

I recently saw a woman who had a history of sharp stabbing back pain for about 40 years. I performed my evaluation and gave her the exercises to correct the issues I found. She felt relief but still had occasional stabbing pain. I asked her when this happened and she told me it was after sitting in a chair or getting up from bed. So I evaluated her sitting and lying habits and made a few changes. Today she told me her pain was 98% gone--in one week.

To me this highlights the importance of addressing how you do things as much as what you do. She happened to have a hypermobile spine which made it difficult for her to stabilize well. She was out of touch with her body and couldn't connect with her abdominals to stabilize the pelvis or spine. So focusing on habits such as how she stood up, sat down, slept, and worked at her desk was where we were really going to make a difference quickly. She was amazed.

This was deeply satisfying to me because she came to me a couple years ago with back pain and I wasn't able to make a big difference in her pain. Now I know why. I didn't focus on the things she did 99% of the day and instead focused on anatomical problems I found. This was a good lesson for both of us!

Chronic Neck & Shoulder Pain
March 20, 2010

I've had two patients referred to me recently with difficult neck and shoulder pain issues. Their complaints were of the typical pain distribution--from the base of the skull down the neck to the shoulder blade and across the top of the shoulder as well as pain in the front of their shoulders. MRIs and X-Rays were negative for disc or other pathologies. They had been through several specialists and felt no relief other than with steroids and Vicodin.

After examining both women, I found they had very similar problems in that the shoulder blades were sitting too low on the trunk (Figure 1.).

[caption id="attachment_220" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Figure 1. Depressed Right Shoulder Blade  (Copyright Boone Publishing. 2009)"]Figure 1. Depressed Right Shoulder Blade[/caption]

Also the  humeral head was sitting too far forward in the shoulder socket (Figure 2) causing pain in the front of the shoulder. I taped both the humeral head and the shoulder blades in a corrected position and their pain was eliminated--until the tape was taken off a few days later. This told me my diagnosis was correct. But how could I get them to hold these corrected positions on their own? Our attempts at specific corrective strengthening only met with irritation of their pain.

[caption id="attachment_210" align="alignright" width="267" caption="Figure 2. Humeral Anterior Glide    (Copyright Boone Publishing. 2010)"]Figure 2. Humeral Anterior Glide[/caption]

Because the shoulder blades' position on the trunk is partially determined by ribcage orientation, I revisited this aspect of their pain and found that by elevating their rib cages, pain was eliminated. This did two things: 1. it reduced the anterior tilting of the shoulder blade and, 2. activated key scapular positioning muscles that were deficient. The other maneuver I discovered to be of great help was asking them to place their painful side's hand on the opposite shoulder. This elevated the painful shoulder blade and posteriorly  glided (pushed back) the humeral head into a corrected position in the shoulder socket. Both felt about 80-99% relief from their symptoms during the following week.

Both are now able to begin their strengthening program without pain. If  irritation does occur, they know exactly how to eliminate it, finally giving them a means to control their own pain.

Both of these women had one more issue in common. They were self-conscious of their breast size and therefore slouched  their shoulders. Over time, I believe this established the environment for these mechanical issues to become painful. Both commented that upon fixing their posture, they felt they were sticking their chests out too much, drawing attention to themselves. They clearly saw the mechanical connection, however, as their pain returned after resuming their slouched postures (Figure 3). Ultimately they needed to come to terms about their personal issues of drawing attention to themselves in order to be better.

[caption id="attachment_207" align="alignleft" width="283" caption="Figure 3. Posture & Shoulder Blade Position (Copyright Boone Publishing. 2010)"]Figure 3. Posture & Shoulder Blade Position[/caption]

This reinforces to me that, although my point of view focuses more on the mechanical causes of chronic pain, there are also significant emotional or psychological causes. I believe often there exists a combination of dietary, musculoskeletal, and psychological issues that contribute to chronic pain. There are probably others as well. Each person's pain is a function of a different combination of these issues. My training is in understanding the musculoskeletal aspects of pain but occasionally I bump into someone with more psychological issues instead.

Rick Olderman Audio Interview About Back Pain
March 17, 2010

I just had a fun interview with Ruhe Fitness who is doing an audio series about back pain.  You can check it out at this link if you're interested.


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