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Is a Stiff Spine really Stiff?

A recent Scientific Report published by Nature looked into perceived stiffness of the spine and actual stiffness of the spine and found that when people feel as though their back is stiff it is a lack of sensory motor integration and not directly due to stiffness in the back. The prediction system of the brain uses multi sensory information to predict the movement parameters of our body. When multiple sensory inputs are not integrating then the parameters can be confining felt as a stiffness in the back. The ability to co-ordinate the sensory information of the body in the brain can result in a stiffness perception that is independent of actual stiffness.

The integration of multiple sensory signals, is what can be confused or muddled that result in back stiffness problems. When integration occurs it means that Sensation A and Sensation B are needed simultaneously to understand the body in the brain map of the body. When Sensation A occurs out of sync with Sensation B then the back can feel stiff but not actually be stiffer.

I like this paper because it may help people to step out beyond the ageing model of back problems, the lingering injury / degeneration models and the useless ‘out of place’ and ‘symmetrical’ models.

When the sensory motor experience of our body goes out of kilter we can become better at feeling changes in force generated by muscles having the knock on effect of heightening protection mechanisms because we are not expecting that much effort to move in a comparatively small way.

Regular (Annual or biannual) checks of your back by a Chiropractor is important whether you are in a sense of stiffness, or not. A Chiropractor can help to re-integrate the sensory motor experience of your body.

Nature Scientific Report 7: 9681 (August 2017)

Abdominal Pressure

Symptoms associated with abdominal pressure dysregulation can include back pain, hip pain flank pain (kidney region), bloating, heartburn, vomiting and diarrhoea. The abdominal musculature should fire in response to lower limb movement. Notably the transverse abdominus muscle, but also the obliques, rectus abdominus and lower multifidus (back muscles) are active, ready for lower limb movement (The core). When the transverse muscle doesn’t work with the multifidi muscles then the quadratus lumborum (QL) tries to take over. The QL (a back muscle) is a notoriously overactive muscle in the experience of acute and chronic back and hip pain. The QL can also be found commonly involved in chronic recurrent lower back and or hip pain. Essentially the QL tells us that our core is not functioning well, in particular the automatic readiness of the transverse, obliques, and multifidus muscles to our normal lower limb movement is dysfunctional.

The QL is the help or aka compensation. Treatment to reduce the tightness of the QL is in fact taking away ‘the help’ the body is providing for itself and thus unhelpful in the long run. However such a strategy may be symptomatically relieving in the short term.

‘Abdominal Pressure Dysregulation’ Symptoms were published in the New York State Journal of Medicine 54:1324-1330, 1954

What can I do, I have back pain…?

The best things to do for a bad back pain episode has challenged people and medical doctors for generations. In the 1980’s bed rest and even a hospital stay was the best option in the USA. In England traction was thought to be the answer to a tight contracted back, that was to gradually stretch it out. Some people had two weeks of traction as the best medical care. Today in England the main medical approach is to provide anti inflammatories and mild over the counter pain killers, with a physiotherapy referral (within a few months). The physiotherapy approach to back pain is to provide reassurance at first. Typically an episode is bad for 3-5 days and can be felt to some degree for 4-6 weeks. People’s episodes are normally over by the time a hands on approach from the NHS is provided. The way the first back pain episode is cared for can have a knock on effect to future pain episodes. If you don’t get fixed at first it just keeps on coming back until you either get fixed or get used to having back pain episodes. 1-3% of back pains will have a sinister aspect eg a red flag such as a collapse fracture

It has been known for 15 years that anti inflammatories are enzyme inhibitors that alter the natural balance between cyclooxygenase (COX) and lipooxygenase (LOX) enzymes. Altering any natural balance creates a drive to re-balance leading to more COX enzyme increasing inflammation after 2 hours. Yes there is a decrease in inflammation in the first 30-60 minutes, then a rebound increase in inflammation begins to develop surpassing previous inflammation levels at about 2 hours after taking the NSAID (Ibuprofen). The marketing of anti inflammatories is highly suggestive having a strong impact on a lot of people.

Recommendations are now recognising that for acute low back pain the best approach is to rest for the first day, then allow yourself to move around as normally as possible, light duties and slow. Consider Chiropractic Care to help (not only this episode but also future episodes – having chiropractic care for your first episode can actually prevent the next episode form occurring).

According to advise from Harvard University medical Doctors, Chiropractic Care is a very good idea. See for yourself at http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heres-something-completely-different-for-low-back-pain-2017070611962

Back Exercise Time

A new Cochrane review of the best exercises for people with chronic back pain has been published this year (Jan 2016). The review is a meta analysis showing that there is no one best exercise for back pain yet it is important to exercise to help yourself. The type of exercise may well come down to your preference or possibly your practitioners experience or preferences.

How long do you continue until you throw in the towel; how long is long enough to know if your current type of exercise is helping? According to the new Cochrane review exercise programmes can last up to 12 weeks.

When I think about forming a habit I see that it takes humans between 29 and 230 days to form a psychological habit. When I see that body tissues can take 3 months to co-ordinate with each other in a new movement pattern I think 12 weeks seems that is only stage one of an exercise programme. When we first kinesthetically understand a movement in our body we are looking at a 12-16 week time frame. 12 weeks cannot include strength (posture), endurance, speed or co-ordination.

The internal arts of exercise such as Tai Chi, which has been shown to help chronic back pain is said to take 1000 hours of practise to become a beginner and 10000 hours to become adept. The internal arts help you to develop an representation of your body in your imagination. We actually have several body maps in our brain e.g in the basal ganglia (brain stem), the cortex, thalamus and cerebellum. This means that our internal perspective of our body can be altered by stimuli that does not originate from the body. This perhaps is why yogis have many different representations of their body; physical body, emotional body, spiritual body etc…

An exercise programme needs to make sense, be worthwhile affordable and accessible. Starting out with fascia first chiropractic to help your body get there quicker and to educate and reassure you that pain is not something to automatically fear; you could be embarking upon a realistic plan of rehabilitation. Walking the fine line of adaptation and neuroplasticity.

How might Back Pain run in families..?

Two recent studies seem to have conjoined in my mind; one is from Zurich University Chiropractic department showing brain activity relative to lumbar spine pressure such as might happen in low back pain syndromes. The other is about training mice to ‘fear’ a smell across their generations controlling for nurture. Answering the long debate of nature versus nurture. Researchers showed that without nurture the cue for a fear response can still be passed on.

The first study carried out in Zurich; showed that back pain is linked to a part (nucleus) of the brain involved in social pain. What if we as humans could pass on in our genes information that affects the life experience of the next generation? You may find yourself as an individual with a back symptom from ‘nowhere’ due to an ancestral social cue. In generations passed going out of favour with the group could have had deadly consequences.

The second study was published in Nature Neuroscience (2014; 17, 89-96) demonstrating a transference of a fear response genetically; without nurture. The mice were shown to pass on a (protective) smell memory to their children and their grandchildren (F2).

If we as a species can have an ancestral cue for a social stress causing back pain passed on from family member to family member and social stress is not considered in your care plan. You could be forgiven for thinking that you have to ‘live’ with pain. Identifying potential cues from your environment ‘stressors’ to your behaviours, thoughts and/or feelings can be methodologically worked through. Whilst you figure out the cues to your stresses consider having body work to help you with accumulation. Accumulation in my opinion can make your condition worse.

I think when human body tissues are abnormally loaded the tissues do not undergo a training effect and instead are strained. Having a genetic fear response in social conditions where I reflexively squeeze my back muscles from an unidentified cue, providing pressure on my vertebrae, would be an abnormal load; like a repetitive strain scenario on the low back tissues of the body. Choose fascia first chiropractic it is more than a ‘quick click’.

Why wasn’t I treated at the site of my pain?

At first learning about the human body can be confusing at best, for the human body is a complex thing to attempt to understand.

In 2007 prominent physiotherapists published a paper on regional interdependence. This is a type of pain that occurs at a distant site to the root cause of pain (nociceptive). E.G that the thoracic spine can be the cause of neck pain, and a not so obvious one that the foot can stop head rotation short. Essentially almost any part of the body can affect any other part as we are well interconnected (hopefully!). The body in fact is bidirectional within itself (Tech bit: in a lower motor neurone way). The knee could cause the painful low back experience of an individual but does not give any pain at the knee. Regional Interdependent pain is different to referred pain as referred pain had been mapped and is known. In a case of interdependent pain the body worker assessing you would have to understand the link in order to help you with your problem. If the site of pain is treated then the problem can be made worse in the case of interdependent pain. Body workers such as chiropractors have ways of identifying areas to treat that are not pain based. Which is why some people have regular care; gaining benefit without the pain involved in a flare up.

Chiropractors are educated intellectually and trained in manual procedures differently to specialist manual physiotherapists, hence why in the case of a person with regional interdependent pain, we find that tacitly the concept is already part of chiropractic care plans to help musculoskeletal pain experiences. In other words: My pain does not always signify the body part that requires treatment. There will be an order of care in your chiropractic care plan that involves you finishing the course of treatment. Chiropractic is more than a quick click.

Understanding Back Pain

The spine has about 24 vertebrae with most having three joints. One joint is a disc and the other two are joints just like your finger joints that are synovial type but called facet joints. When we imbricate our facet joints of the spine as suggested by Horrigan in a condition called facet Arthrosis, pain can be generated just the same as when one stubs their finger or a toe. We all know that stubbing produces more than one type of pain because we have probably experienced it. The spine has 6 different pain mediators. Pain killers affect 2 or sometimes 3 different types of pain mediator. Meaning that pain killers have no effect on some back pain.

Imagine stubbing your finger against a wall over and over 24/7 for about two weeks. This behaviour would cause you to have a reasonably sore finger. You can stop stubbing your finger; probably because someone can point it out to you and unlike the spine you do not have to use it to move around. You have to use your spine when you move. Thus you will have a certain amount of stubbing that continues with regard to the spinal joints.

The spinal joints are surrounded by other tissues that can be pain sensitive and also be part of mixed up motor sensory signals within your nervous system. essentially a healthy joint is moving well in it’s full range of motion with synovial fluid providing nutrients in and waste product removal. A healthy joint is only part of the movement that you perform when you move. Having joint manipulation may be only part of a strategy to get you well, once again.

If you do nothing (called natural history) back pain will likely resolve in about 6 weeks. Pain killers can help to take the edge off of your symptoms during that time and you can get through it without body manipulation. Unfortunately the route of natural history can mean that your nervous system adapts to a new normal (learns to have back pain). This new normal is like updating your operating system on your computer; it is changed from the original. Once installed a new normal could return back pain as back pain is now part of your normal when you get up in the morning (load up your operating system).

Getting bodywork for a back episode helps prevent the accumulation of injuries that can occur when left to natural history. A psychological impact of (natural history) having pain in the body for over three weeks means that you become more sensitive to pain in the same area in the future. Over time you can accumulate many odd patterns of movement in a lifetime that lead you to abnormally load your tissues and send to the brain conflicting sensory motor signals. Conflicting sensory motor signals (subluxation, dysafferentation) can be the problem behind surprising bouts of back pain. The type of episodes that are really severe for a day or two and then symptomatically resolve like there was never a symptom. These conflicting messages are an indication that your sensory system could do with some help. A bodyworker provides sensory information to your brain about your body through the medium of touch (amongst other interventions). Once the right touch ‘language’ is used then your conflicting sensory motor signals conflict no more.

How to get an ideal seated posture

Sitting for long periods doesn’t help people feel good naturally but is this really a problem or are some people moaning?! When we sit we sit on our gluteal muscle group as well as the backs of our legs (Hamstring muscles), possibly sit bones and greater trochanter (hips). Recent findings about the gluts has changed professional opinion about the gluteus maximus in humans. It was thought to be different to monkeys but now is thought to be very similar to that of monkeys with almost identical origin (where the muscles starts) and insertion (where the muscle goes to).

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The gluteal muscles pull along the lines drawn to create a tension around the back of us whilst we squat.

What I can deduce from our current anatomy is that we’d have had a functional element to the gluteus maximus other than a cushion way before even the first chair or log was sat upon. Our anatomy suggests that we have a sling system (roughly) incorporating the tensa fascia latae, gluteals and sacroilliac ligaments; meaning we have the tools within our body to squat down and be supported by a sling of tendon know as the IT Band or Tensa Fascia Latae (TFL).

The ‘natural squat position of a child and that of a monkey are very similar. When we use a chair we do not need to hang supported on our natural sling and thus do not have the muscular co-ordination required to hold the body in the seated shape (within Earth’s gravitational field). Thus the brain will be getting ‘bum(!)’ information and given enough time will not be able to coordinate sit down or stand from sitting efficiently. It is common thought that people who have had more time on the planet cannot sit to stand or stand to sit due to age; this concept I dispute. We simply do not practise or reinforce the co-ordination of movement required to sit down and stand up efficiently and thus we will over time go more and more wrong. When we go wrong we cause wear and tear, pain and tight or slack musculature.

By squatting down we are resembling how monkeys will ‘sit’ and how our anatomy can increase circulation in our hips rather than reduce circulation by sitting on our gluteus maximus. It is a medical norm to expect to see some wear and tear (coxarthrosis) and reduced circulation in a man of only 40 years of age! I think this is a medical norm because medics are looking at the smallest parts of physiology and have not yet begun to understand the machinery (anatomy) of the body.

I believe that when we become uncoordinated it will be the cause of pain in cases where there is no obvious injury 97% of the time. An insidious onset for back pain is presumed to be due to age. Medicine falls so far short in understanding the body mechanics that it would be like going to see a caterer to help you put up a marquee.  There are some overlooked aspects of muscles that can lead to musculo-skeletal dysfunction which are easily explained without having to describe a primary injurious mechanism. People who have had back pain or treat people that have low back pain are often fixated on the cause. This day and age if it isn’t cause and effect then it must be a trick or something sinister! Whilst almost every western person is having to perform sit to stand and stand to sit I suspect that very few are practising how to perform this movement. To condition our body to be strong in a particular way we need to repeat the action in an intensity that is enough to create adaptation but not enough to injure. The best posture to sit in is a squat. How you get to a squat position in my opinion is through the Qi Gong wall squat technique as this enables us to integrate our body from head to toe. Other variations on a squat movement may concentrate force at particular points of the body. Ideally for health one would look to integrate their whole body in a given movement. Through integration we reduce thixotropy and improve proprioception.

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This method concentrates force along the hamstrings

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This method utilises the gluteal muscles

The time it takes you to learn the wall squat techniques can vary from a few weeks to a few years depending upon your current ability. The point of the exercise is to coordinate your whole body within the movement and not to simply reach the lowest point. If you can only squat down a very short distance like many out there will find, then begin with a short distance and with practise within your chosen personal limits increase the distance you can squat. The only thing to improve against is your previous ability. If you are not improving then you are likely getting worse as our dynamic body and brain do not hold static ability. The art of integration of your body is much more important than copying the full movement. If it doesn’t feel right then odds are it isn’t! consult an expert who can help you to reach the goal of always being able to sit to stand and stand to sit in a whole body integrated way so that you are aware of how your body works together through your own internal representation of your body through your mind’s eye. The internal art of movement is something being slowly lost from the human race which will lead to more focus on accumulating stuff and experiencing more pain. Movement and a chiropractor like me is what your body wants …