By Dr. Michael Brown, MD, DC

As a spine interventional specialist I am typically referred patients for consultation that have failed usual conservative means. A common complaint that I hear quite frequently is “I tried physical therapy and it made be worse”. Physical therapy is an important cornerstone in the management of low back pain. Many times once I make critical diagnostic conclusions that explain the details of the pathology affecting a specific individual’s spine we can then begin to determine where things went wrong in the initial management steps.

The critical thing about physical therapy is What, When, Where, and Why? What is the precise diagnosis? This is a critical step in determining when we are going to implement physical therapy and rehabilitation exercise and where we will do that. Understanding what is wrong provides a specific indication why we will implement a specific strategy in the overall management scheme. Let’s first understand what are the common reasons why physical therapy fails and why attempts at exercise has made an individual worse.

To understand what causes you so much trouble when a physical therapist requests that you do some specific movement or exercise we must first look at some critically important facts that are at the root of the problem. We have addressed many topics on this website. There are many aspects and categories of problems that are rather complex. Many of these topics will explain why a specific condition may not respond to conservative care and exercise. I have reference to many of these conditions on this website and I refer you to those articles for more detail. This discussion is a general discussion to address the topic of physical therapy and spinal exercise for back pain. One of the great spinal surgeons who I have had a great respect for over the years is Dr. Kirkadly-Willis. He outlined a simple model that we will be referencing throughout this article. He outlined 3 phases of spinal degeneration in his book published in 1983 which has influenced me throughout my professional career.1 He outlined 3 phases of spinal degeneration:

  1. Dysfunction
  2. Instability
  3. Stabilization

In the dysfunction phase one can experience tight muscles, muscle pain, restricted movement of a specific spinal segment such as dysfunction of facet joints or sacroiliac joints and early degenerative changes in the disc. Will spinal exercise and movement help with these problems? Yes if prescribed properly. In my opinion the use of manual medicine techniques and application of specific corrective movements and exercise works very well for this patient population. A physical therapist who is subspecialty trained in manual medicine or a chiropractic practitioner or osteopathic physician who performs manipulative or manual therapy can typically resolve these problems very rapidly with manual medicine principles. As the condition progresses gradual segmental instability can develop which may require a combination of manipulation and exercise. Typically however in the early phase of the degenerative cascade the use of manual medicine can make quick work in resolving the problem. Having practiced as a chiropractic and having studied osteopathic manual medicine before I attended medical school as given me I think a distinct advantage of understanding and an ability to sort out complex spinal problems as a subspecialty trained physician. I have been “preaching” for many years that in the phase of spinal dysfunction manipulation is king. Practitioners who do not understand the basic principles and application of manipulation cannot compete in this type of problem. Do not waste time with physicians and other practitioners who do not understand the complexity of manual medicine. Also it is important not to waste time on a manual therapy practitioner who cannot resolve a problem quickly. A skilled manual therapist can resolve a problem within a few visits. Do not find yourself returning back on countless occasions for the “short term” relief that manipulation provides. If you are stuck in this rut then let go of the sides… and move on.

The instability phase is the most critical concept for this discussion of low back pain. Remember the lumbar spine has a curve shown in the picture to the right. There is a very complex ligament structure that contributes to the stability of these spinal segments during movement.2 Degenerative changes that occur include intervertebral disc (nuclear) degeneration, facet joint osteoarthritis, vertebral body degeneration and ligamentous degeneration and resulting instability.2 Each level of the spine is a three-joint complex consisting of one intervertebral disc and two facet joints, with complex load sharing between the three joints. 3 It is important to understand that most individuals with chronic back pain have their inherent problem typically secondary to some type of instability. Even those who have advanced degeneration and arthritis have a component of instability as the source of pain. I often say in regards to segmental and joint instability that there are those who are “born loose, torn loose, or warn loose.” There are those who were born with excessive mobility in joints. There are those who have injuries, or degeneration or combination of both. This process of developing spinal segmental instability often begins as early degeneration or a simple “tear” in the annulus of the disc.4 This begins to destabilize the spinal segment. Once a tear begins to occur in the disc it has a poor healing potential and begins to perpetuate itself through the disc and cause a gradual disruption inside the disc.5 These changes within the disc drastically effect the stability of the spinal segment.

This early changes in the disc create excessive load on the facet joints and often proceed the early arthritic changes and ligamentous laxity that begins as part of facet joint arthritis.6 Eventually one will begin to see early excessive translational movement of the intravertebral segments which leads to further breakdown in the disc and facet joints. The facet joints and lumbar spinal segments are stabilized by a number of things. They are stabilized by a complex and intricate ligamentous system that attaches to the facet joints and bony prominences of the spine. This creates a complex infrastructure and stabilizes the spinal segment against excessive movement and loads. In addition the spine is also stabilized by and intricate and complex set of muscles. The small intrinsic muscles such as the multifidus muscles noted to the right are just a small sampling of the dozens of small muscles that attach to the spinal segment to refine and stabilize movement. It is these muscles that we often target for spine stabilization exercises.

The stabilization phase is the latter stage of spinal degeneration. When spinal instability ensues the tension on the ligaments and connective tissues attached to bone begin to cause proliferation of bone which can begin to narrow the spinal canal and the nerve passageways through the spine which ultimately can cause compression of the spinal cord, or spinal nerve roots. So, the final stage in progressive degenerative change is ultimately the bodies attempt to try to stabilize spinal instability. It is the reason why I am so fixated on stabilizing spinal segmental instability as I have discussed in some of the articles on this website. Spinal stenosis is a term used for “narrowing” of a spinal passageway. This can either be within the main spinal canal or through the foramen where the nerves exit the spine which we call neural foraminal stenosis. The process of developing spinal degenerative disease and ultimately spinal segmental instability is often only one component in a complex process. An individual who is beginning to develop changes within the disc and spinal segmental instability will often begin in there earlier years to have episodes of back pain that will come and go and eventually progress to become more frequent until one day symptoms persist on a constant basis. In addition to the degenerative changes and breakdown of segmental stability that is happening in your spine we frequently see individuals undergo progressive physical deconditioning, obesity and lifestyle changes that perpetuate the problem. The manner in which your particular back pain progresses and its effect on your ability to tolerate movement and loads is quite unique from person to person. It is this individuality and complex differences from individual to individual that make it difficult to simply prescribe a universal exercise program for all individuals with back pain. Read more. 

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