How do we treat thrower’s elbow?

In my last post, I highlighted elbow injuries in the throwing athlete. Lets review!

“For many pitchers, the first sign of impending trouble with the UCL(ulnar collateral ligament on inside of the elbow) is pain or stiffness in the flexors of the forearm. The flexors and pronators of the forearm are the active restraints and the UCL is the primary passive restraint to the extreme valgus forces that occur at the elbow during terminal cocking phase and early acceleration. Did you know that when the UCL is tested in isolation during cadaver studies that it only takes 32 newton/meters of force to rupture it? Guess how much valgus stress is on the inside part of the elbow during terminal cocking phase….64 newton/meters!! It has been shown that the UCL takes on 35 newton/meters of that force. Yikes!! So why doesn’t it rupture? It doesn’t rupture because the rest of that stress is controlled by the active restraints…your muscles in the forearm. You can probably guess what happens when you ignore your forearm muscles?”

It is my job as physical therapist to not only emphasize prevention of  an injury but to provide the most effective treatment of an injury. This video demonstrates the use of Active Release Technique, Graston Technique, and a compression flossing technique to treat elbow pain. Check it out!!

 

Baseball Throwing Injuries. Oh no…not me!!!

Throwing a baseball is the fastest known human movement. The speed of the throw from a professional baseball pitcher can be upwards of 7000 degrees per second. Now that’s fast! In addition to that, the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the human body. So what does this mean?

EXCESSIVE SPEED + EXCESSIVE MOBILITY = POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

Baseball Pitcher

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For those of you that “feel a need for speed”, you need to beware of the risks. In an article from the Journal of Sports Medicine, twenty-three professional pitchers were followed over three seasons. Those pitchers who were throwing at the highest maximum velocity suffered the highest incidence of elbow injuries. So how does that effect you? It is vitally important for the throwing athlete to understand the stresses that repetitive throwing places on young as well as mature joints. In the words of baseball trainer phenom Eric Cressey, “injuries occur when you ignore the things that need to be addressed, plain and simple.” In one of my previous blog posts, I talk about how it has been scientifically proven that strength training enhances athletic performance. Shoulders and elbows become problematic not only because of muscular weakness, but also from poor flexibility, poor tissue quality ie scar tissue and, of course, faulty mechanics.
For example, consider the dreaded inverted or upside down “W” exhibited by the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain or the National’s Stephen Strasburg.

Click Here to see a Picture

Guess what happened to them? Yup….Tommy John surgery to fix a torn ligament in their elbows. So then…

EXCESSIVE SPEED + EXCESSIVE MOBILTY + BAD TECHNIQUE = DEFINITE PROBLEMS

Just because a joint is flexible does NOT mean that it is stable. Consider the six phases of throwing and all the potential areas of instability when throwing at maximum velocity. Our objective should be to achieve dynamic stability during ALL phases. Yes, if you are stiff we are going to stretch you and if you are loose we are going to stabilize you…but what about the gray areas? Every major league pitcher suffers from a loss of shoulder internal rotation for at least 3 days after an outing. This is a situation when you do NOT stretch. The resulting loss of motion is due to the micro-trauma of eccentric load during deceleration and needs time to heal. It has been shown that the posterior aspect (the back part) of the shoulder joint capsule actually thins out after repetitive throwing. So let me ask you, should we ever stretch the posterior aspect of the shoulder joint? Or should treatment focus more on the scar tissue that results in the decelerators?

So what are the most common upper extremity baseball throwing injuries? These injuries include the problems associated with overuse or improper training such as:
• Impingement syndrome
• Rotator cuff tendonitis
• Biceps tendonitis
• Medial elbow pain from flexor-pronator tendonitis

These overuse injuries can lead to more serious conditions such as:
• Rotator cuff tears
• Labral tears
• Ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears

We have many manual tests that we can perform in the clinic to differentiate and determine what structures may be involved in YOUR specific case. In the case of impingement syndrome, I have previously posted a BLOG article on the different types of impingement syndrome as well as a VIDEO demonstrating the tests that we use to differentiate rotator cuff versus labral dysfunction. It should be noted that a condition called scapular dyskinesis can lead to impingement syndrome. This condition is characterized by an imbalance of scapular motion relative to shoulder motion. It is the result of weakness in the muscles that stabilize the scapula during the throwing motion. I have also listed some of the best, evidence-based exercises in a previous post for specific shoulder and scapular retraining.

It is very important for your therapist to differentiate between what we call active restraint or passive restraint structures. Active restraint structures are those things that contract and relax like your muscles and tendons. Passive restraint structures are things like ligaments ie UCL, cartilage ie labrum and meniscus, and discs ie intervertebral discs. I would like to highlight the UCL of the elbow as one example of this. For many pitchers, the first sign of impending trouble with the UCL is pain or stiffness in the flexors of the forearm. The flexors and pronators of the forearm are the active restraints and the UCL is the primary passive restraint to the extreme valgus forces that occur at the elbow during terminal cocking phase and early acceleration. Did you know that when the UCL is tested in isolation during cadaver studies that it only takes 32 newton/meters of force to rupture it? Guess how much valgus stress is on the inside part of the elbow during terminal cocking phase….64 newton/meters!! It has been shown that the UCL takes on 35 newton/meters of that force. Yikes!! So why doesn’t it rupture? It doesn’t rupture because the rest of that stress is controlled by the active restraints…your muscles in the forearm. You can probably guess what happens when you ignore your forearm muscles?

As mentioned earlier, imbalances in flexibility, tissue quality, biomechanics, or weakness can lead to stress on both active and passive restraints during the throwing motion. Invariably, the process of repetitive throwing leads to the development of scar tissue. There is a constant state of break-down and build-up that occurs during sport specific activity. I have blogged on problems with scar tissue  and the debate on whether pain arises from tendonitis or not. I have also explained the benefits of the Graston Technique  as a way to ensure that scar tissue does NOT inhibit your ability to throw.

Now, what blog post is complete without a little twist. After listing the most common injuries that we see in the throwing athlete, I would like to share a list of conditions that have been confirmed via MRI in athletes that have NO pain:

* 79% of overhead throwing athletes have labral tears
* 34% of athletes have rotator cuff tears
* 82% of athletes have disc herniations

Does this mean that you may ALREADY have a tear and that you are currently asymptomatic like the athletes in the previous studies? Yes, you may. Does this mean that your future hall of fame career is over? No, it doesn’t. Some practitioners are of the opinion that you may very well need a labral lesion to throw hard in the first place. The biggest challenge with this is ensuring that the throwing athlete develops all the things that we have talked about in this post:

• Dynamic stability
• Proper flexibility
• Maximum strength
• Proper tissue quality
• Proper throwing mechanics

It is ALL these reasons that make it vitally important to be as educated as you can about your shoulder mechanics and to be aware of the important role that training and physical therapy play in keeping you healthy.
Understanding throwing biomechanics in combination with a thorough knowledge of the anatomy and function of the shoulder and elbow is imperative to properly diagnose and treat the throwing athlete. Your prognosis for a healthy return to competition after arthroscopic surgery or ligament reconstruction has dramatically improved especially when you are in the right hands during recovery. My job as a physical therapist is not only to effectively rehabilitate your body after surgery but, more importantly, to help PREVENT the need for surgery in the first place. Of course, this is a two way street. I can only be your coach if you are a willing and motivated player.

Nerve Mobilization Techniques

I would like to highlight one of the unique treatment techniques that we offer at OrthoWell.  As many of you know, we spend a lot of quality time during our biomechanical evaluation trying to “figure things out”. This is the reason that several of our referring physicians call us “THINKERS”.  We pride ourselves in determining your functional diagnosis. This diagnosis is what we use to develop your plan of care and to educate you in how to alleviate your pain or dysfunction. Many of our patients have seen several physicians or therapists before hearing about us. For this reason, we offer specialized evaluation and treatment services that our patients may not have heard of and that may be appropriate to alleviate symptoms that have been unresponsive to prior interventions.  One of these is Nerve Mobilization or NeuroMobilization. So what is it?

What is NeuroMobilization?

NeuroMobilization or Nerve Mobilization is a technique that we utilize to treat nerves that may be adhered, irritated, or compressed.  Many patients that have been unresponsive to other physical therapy and present with a chronic history of referred symptoms like pain, numbness, or tingling into the arms or legs may respond to NeuroMobilization.  Every patient that presents with referred symptoms or pain that has been unresponsive to localized treatment receives a complete neural tension evaluation.  Neural tension testing is a way for your therapist to determine the extent of nerve involvement.  By mobilizing a nerve, we can determine, in combination with manual traction and sensitizing maneuvers, whether your pain is originating from the spine or the periphery.

NeuroMobilization Techniques

We can then perform NeuroMobilization techniques utilizing controlled neural tension maneuvers to mobilize the nerve up and down.  David Butler,PT, has been at the forefront of these techniques for over 20 years.  Although we still do not completely understand the exact mechanism, he proposes that NeuroMobilization (what David Butler calls Neurodynamics) can accelerate nerve healing and quiet down what he calls an “altered impulse generating system (AIGs)”.  These AIGs may respond to the oscillations of NeuroMobilization by enhancing circulatory exchange or ion transfer in and around the nerve.  You can read more about the techniques and science in David Butler’s book The Sensitive Nervous System.

Here is a video that highlights a sciatic nerve tension test and Neuromobilization.

 

PUMP YOU UP!!

So how important is resistance training? I have had the privilege of working with one of my peers, a fellow PT, and strength and conditioning specialist, Mike Stare from Spectrum Fitness in Beverly, both professionally as well as personally. Mike helped to redirect MY fitness program while I was recovering from my knee injuries 1.5 years ago. Mike is on top of his game from a fitness training standpoint. He has devoted a lot of time and resources in developing an evidence-based approach to fitness and weight loss in ALL age groups. You can see this for yourself at his website. It is important for clients in a fitness program as well as our patients in physical therapy at OrthoWell to understand HOW to strengthen muscles.

The physiological principle of “overload” is what makes the difference between strength gains and stagnation. Resistance training is hard work! I tell my patients “If it’s easy, then you’re doing something wrong!” Is it true that people will lose 5-10% of muscle strength in every decade of life after the age of 40? Studies have shown that people can retain 100% of their muscle mass and strength from age 40 through their 80s with exercise! (Wrobelski, A. et al. The Phys and Sports Med, Sept 2011) You can read more on the Anti-Aging movement at Mike’s BLOG as well.

However, during exercise, you need to challenge your muscles physiologically. You need to provide a “load” that goes “over” your muscles comfort zone. In order for a muscle (including the heart) to increase strength, it must be gradually stressed by working against a load greater than it is used to. So how do you do this? There are many books and magazines such as Muscle Fitness that advocate all kinds of strategies for maximizing strength and muscle mass. Strength gains can be accomplished by performing a one-repetition maximum as well as via the typical 10 rep set approach. My approach, with the fine-tuning of Mike, is to instruct my patients in 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions per exercise. The most important factors to consider are the utilization of proper technique in order to isolate the specific muscle as well as to use the idea of the “loss of technical form” as your maximum output point. By the time you reach the 8-12th rep you should be tiring and on the verge of a loss of technical form. You should not work to fatigue as this will compromise your technique and become a safety concern. Regarding the frequency of strengthening exercise, studies show that strength gains are maximized at a frequency of 2-3x per week. The American College of Sport Medicine (ACSM) recommends working out a MINIMUM of 2x per week at an intensity that is equal to 70-85 percent of your one rep maximum (maximum weight you can use for one rep) for 8-10 reps and 1-3 sets. A program that comprises repetitions over 12 is considered endurance training. For cardiovascular benefits, the ASCM recommends exercising for a frequency of 3-5 times per week, at an intensity equal to 60-85 percent of your maximum heart rate for a time of 20-60 minutes. Research has shown that you’ll get the same beneficial results by exercising at 50-60% of your maximum heart rate that you would get exercising at an intensity 80% of your maximum heart rate.

At OrthoWell, as part of your physical therapy, we get you started on a strengthening program that targets your problem area. Finding the right practitioner to design a complete, individualized fitness program can be a very rewarding thing and Spectrum Fitness is definitely one of our choices. As Mike points out, “If there is one thing to do to improve the quality of life as we age, strength training would be it.”

For our athletes and runners, don’t forget that strength training has been PROVEN to enhance athletic performance. Read the following to get the facts!

-A University of Alabama meta-analysis of the endurance training scientific literature revealed that 10 weeks of resistance training in trained distance runners improves running economy by 8-10%.  For the mathematicians in the crowd, that’s about 20-24 minutes off a four-hour marathon – and likely more if you’re not a well-trained endurance athlete in the first place.

-French researchers found that the addition of two weight-training sessions per week for 14 weeks significantly increased maximal strength and running economy while maintaining peak power in triathletes.  Meanwhile, the control group – which only did endurance training – gained no maximal strength or running economy, and their peak power actually decreased (who do you think would win that all-out sprint at the finish line?).  And, interestingly, the combined endurance with resistance training group saw greater increases in VO2max over the course of the intervention.

-Scientists at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland found that replacing 32% of regular endurance training volume with explosive resistance training for nine weeks improved 5km times, running economy, VO2max, maximal 20m speed, and performance on a 5-jump test.  With the exception of VO2max, none of these measures improved in the control group that just did endurance training.  How do you think they felt knowing that a good 1/3 of their entire training volume was largely unnecessary, and would have been better spent on other initiatives?

-University of Illinois researchers found that addition of three resistance training sessions for ten weeks improved short-term endurance performance by 11% and 13% during cycling and running, respectively.  Additionally, the researchers noted that “long-term cycling to exhaustion at 80% VO2max increased from 71 to 85 min after the addition of strength training”

Is your tennis elbow a pain in the neck?

What came first, the chicken or the egg?  The fundamental premise behind this question can be applied to orthopedic physical therapy as well.  What came first, your pinched nerve, your shoulder pain, your elbow pain, or your poor posture?  Let me explain.

We live in a society dominated by “slouching” syndrome.  We prefer to sit in a soft chair with forward flexed posture instead of a firm chair with erect and supported posture.  Draw a line from the middle of your ear to the center of your shoulder to the center of your hip joint and, bio-mechanically speaking, you are lookin’ pretty good

 

We need to maintain a normal inward curve at our necks and low back as well as a normal outward curve in our mid backs.

 

So what is the connection?  Sit or stand with really slouched shoulders and attempt to raise your arm overhead.  Now, sit straight and try it again.  You have much more freedom of motion in your shoulder while sitting straight.  Now, think about how many times you reach during the day with forward flexed posture.  Each and every reach in this forward position will cause a “pinch” or impingement of your rotator cuff tendon in your shoulder. According to Flatow et al in the American Journal of Sports Med, all of us, physiologically, have a certain amount of “normal” impingement in our shoulders.  Compound this “normal” impingement with the exaggerated impingement that occurs with poor posture and you have a recipe for the pain of rotator cuff tendonitis.  Refer to my post on Impingement Syndrome for more details.

 

Do you know of anyone who has chronic tennis elbow (pain on outside of elbow) or golfers elbow (pain on inside of elbow)?  You may want to mention to them the results that were published in an article in the journal Sports Health. The authors evaluated 102 patients with documented cervical radiculopathy ie pinched nerve in the neck and found that more than half of the patients also had medial epicondylitis ie golfers elbow.  The prevalence of tennis elbow and neck involvement has also been documented and Berglund et al article is one example. What this means is that your therapist and YOU need to be aware of this connection and the appropriate steps need to be taken to rule out your neck as the CAUSE of your elbow symptoms.

 

The chicken or the egg?  Maybe you need OUR help.