Breathing from your Core-The Missing Link?

It may sound like a strange question but “do you breathe properly?”  Breathing pattern disorders (BPD) are surprisingly common in the general population.  They remain commonly under-recognized by health care professionals and can contribute to pain, fatigue, and dysfunctions in the lumbopelvic region i.e. your CORE!

Core activation remains a hot topic in physical therapy. The problem is that there is not a universally accepted strategy to achieve optimal stability. A decade ago, we started using the “abdominal hallowing” technique which I have talked about before. The abdominal hallowing was an attempt to isolate a key core muscle called the transversus abdominis in which you would “pull your navel in and hallow out your abdoman”. The original work done by Hodges and colleagues on the transversus abdominis also demonstrated simultaneous activation of the diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm, however, took a back seat and has often been ignored during core training. So how do we correct your BPD and “wake up” your diaphragm?

Your diaphragm is attached to your lower ribcage, thoracic wall, and lumbar vertebrae. When you breathe, the diaphragm contracts and pushes DOWN into the abdominal cavity. This movement causes a pressure change which draws air into the lungs. As a result of the contraction, intra-abdominal pressure increases and lumbar spine stiffness, hence stability, also increases.  The diaphragm acts in coordination with the abdominal muscles, spinal muscles, and pelvic floor to create lumbar stability in all directions.  This is what some refer to as “360 degree of stiffness.” The contraction of the diaphragm creates core stability from the inside-out. When you perform an abdominal hallowing or abdominal bracing you create stability from the outside-in. Professor Kolar and colleages performed two MRI studies of the diaphragm and showed that the diaphragm can perform dual functions of inspiration and stabilization simultaneously! The activation of the diaphragm was shown to vary greatly among individuals. This variability may be the reason why one person can resolve low back pain and another cannot.

Lets take a look at HOW you can activate your diaphragm while breathing and HOW you can enhance the benefit of your core stability exercises. Check out the video below.

SI Joint Pain & Dysfunction. Do U Have It?

The sacroiliac or SI joint is the articulation between the bone at the base of the spine called the sacrum and the bones on both sides of the pelvis called the ilium. Refer to the picture below.

Over 22 years of physical therapy, I have treated many patients with low back and buttock pain who were diagnosed with an SI joint dysfunction. The difficulty with diagnosing an SI joint dysfunction is that the SI joint has no specific distribution pattern of pain.  Pain directly over the SI joint does not necessarily mean that the joint itself is involved. SI joint pain can very often be referred pain from other structures such as the disc, nerve root, or facet joints of the lumbar spine. Many physical therapists or physicians attempt to diagnose an SI joint dysfunction through palpation of bony landmarks as well as assessment of SI joint mobility. There is only a very small amount of motion in the SI joint i.e. 2-3 mm or 2-3° of gliding or rotation thereby making an accurate diagnosis very difficult. In addition, evidence based research refutes the reliability and validity of accurately assessing bony landmarks and SI joint mobility. McGrath et al has published an article, entitled Palpation of the sacroiliac joint: an anatomical and sensory challenge in which the concept of SI joint palpation is scrutinized. Freburger and Riddle performed a literature review looking at our ability to perform SI joint motion testing. They found poor inter-tester reliability, low sensitivity, and low specificity in several commonly performed tests. Inter-rater reliability is essentially the ability for multiple practitioners to come to the same diagnostic conclusion. If you have multiple individuals perform the same test, the results should be the same. Riddle and Freburger in another study noted that the ability to detect positional faults of the SI joint also has poor reliability. At present, the only acceptable method of confirming or excluding a diagnosis of a symptomatic SI joint is a fluoroscope guided intra-articular anesthetic block ie an injection directly into the SI joint. (Laslett et al) So how can I, as your physical therapist, assist in the diagnosis of an SI joint dysfunction?  The answer: SI joint provocation tests!

Two recent studies by Laslett et al and Van der Wurff et al have demonstrated that there isn’t just one key or ideal SI joint provocation test. However, by performing several tests together, you can increase your sensitivity and specificity of detecting an SI joint dysfunction. Both studies reported that the accuracy of detecting SI joint dysfunction is increased if least 3 of the 5 tests are positive. Furthermore, if all 5 tests are negative, you can likely look at structures other that the SI joint. Van der Wurff et al reported that if at least 3/5 of these tests were positive, there was 85% sensitivity and 79% specificity for detecting the SI joint as the source of pain.  Interestingly, another study by Kokmeyer et al agreed with the previous findings, but also noted that the thigh trust test alone was almost as good at detecting SI joint dysfunction as the entire series performed together.

Combining the two studies, there are 5 provocation tests to perform when attempting to diagnose SI joint pain:

  1. Thigh thrust/Femoral Shear test
  2. SI Distraction Test
  3. SI Compression Test
  4. Gaenslen’s Test
  5. FABER / Patrick’s test

The following video will demonstrate these tests. I would like to thank Mike Reinold, PT for his blog information that was used to complete this explanation of SI Joint dysfunction.  Check out the video below!!

CORRECTION:  I would like to clarify the SI distraction test as described in Laslett. I believe that he considers the direct posterior shear of the innominates as a distractive force of the ilium away from the sacrum. I initially interpreted this test as a compression of the SI joint via a distraction of the ASIS’s. I guess it depends on HOW you apply the force to the ASIS’s.  Also, the sidelying “compression” test needs to be performed in a straight, linear fashion as well in order to compress the SI joint. It is important to place a towel roll under the lumbar spine in women in order to prevent sidebending stress t the lumbar spine. In OMT, we use the sidelying position to “distract” the SI joint using more of a rotational force on the lateral edge of the ilium in order to “open up” and distract the SI to get a feel for joint play. As you can see, these tests are not definitive for exactly HOW they stress the joint but they are specific for a stressing maneuver TO the SI joint.


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.


Low Back Pain -Part 1- Common Sense or Evolution?

So why is it that 80% of people at some point will experience low back pain? Is it that we were never meant to evolve from knuckle dragging or is there a better reason? The answer to this question has more to do with common sense than with evolution. What do you think would happen to your car if you didn’t put oil in the engine? Common sense. Right? So why is it difficult for some people to understand the importance that proper posture, body mechanics and exercise play in spinal disorders such as neck and low back pain, herniated discs, and sciatica? Let me explain.
First, let’s think of the discs in between your vertebrae as water balloons. When you squeeze one side of the balloon, the fluid will move in exactly the opposite direction. Right? However, physics tells us that when a pressure is exerted on a closed system, the pressure is equal in all directions . This would be true for a “healthy” system. So, yes, when the disc is healthy and strong, the pressure exerted on the disc is the same in every direction. However, what if one of the “walls” of the system is weaker due to chronic overuse and microtrauma?  Think about the daily sloucher at the computer.


The more we are slumped, or flexed forward, the more stress that occurs to the back part of the disc. Remember, if we pinch the front, the fluid moves toward the back. In this regard, evolution is cruel, because the back part of the disc is the thinnest and the most susceptible to trauma. Bingo! The origins of a bulging disc. Why is it that some people with low back pain have an MRI and it doesn’t show a bulging disc? Oh, and by the way, radiologists use the terms “bulging”, “herniated”, and “protruded” interchangeably. Some even go as far as saying “there is bulging, but no herniation”. Huh? The proper medical terms would be protrusion, extrusion, and sequestration. I hope you’re not totally confused now! So what if the radiologist report says “only mild bulging” of the disc? Does this mean that the disc is definitely not the origin of the pain? Absolutely not! Although there is no clear relationship between the extent of disc protrusion and the degree of clinical symptoms, the periphery or annulus fibrosis of the disc is highly innervated. In fact, Bogduk in 1981 reported that “nerve fibres were found up to a depth equivalent to one third of the total thickness of the anulus fibrosus”. Edgar in 2008 confirmed this deep penetration of sensory nerves into the disc. Therefore, any trauma or even “mild bulging” to the peripheral layers of the disc could elicit pain. Kuslich confirmed that probing and electrical stimulation to the annular fibers could produce local LBP, but not leg pain. However, Ohnmeiss discovered that partial or full thickness anular tears, with or without disc bulging/herniation, can reproduce sciatica symptoms in about 60% of properly screened patients with chronic lower back pain . So then, what is sciatica? It is referred pain down your leg from a pinched or irritated nerve or from a traumatized disc or facet joint. The facet joints are the “winglike” structures in the picture below and, as you can see, the spinal nerves exit the spinal canal right next to the disc. Hersch showed that injection of an “irritant” such as saline into the facet joints of the spine can cause LBP. In addition, McCallwas able to reproduce sciatic symptoms with facet joint injections. It has also been well documented that a protruded disc can cause a “pinched nerve” and associated sciatic symptoms. Ouch!

So what does all this evidence mean for you? It means that the source of your low back pain is not always definitive. It can be multifaceted. In most cases, a thorough physical therapy evaluation will determine your neural sensitivities and functional impairments. Common sense tells us that avoiding postural stresses will place the body in an optimal position to heal. Appropriate manual therapy such as joint & soft tissue mobilization and manual traction as well as evidence-based spinal stabilization exercises should alleviate and prevent reoccurrence of symptoms. These will be the topics of the next two blog posts. So stay tuned!


What happens when your patient returns and his/her heel pain has not improved?  Do you assume that physical therapy didn’t work?  What you CAN conclude is that your patient may not have received the RIGHT physical therapy.

Heel pain is multi-factorial.  What needs to be determined in physical therapy is whether the origin of the pain is local, referred, or both.  As our patients become heavier, more de-conditioned, and more susceptible to concurrent orthopedic dysfunction, the chance of referred symptoms from discogenic involvement and/or peripheral nerve entrapment is greater.  If our patients at OrthoWell/WalkWell are not significantly improving after 4 visits of localized soft tissue treatment, then referring sources of pain need to be considered.  If nerve involvement is suspected, then it is easier to perform manual differentiation testing after the nerve has been sensitized.  Our patients are instructed to return to PT when they are most symptomatic.  Neural tension testing of the sciatic nerve may elicit heel pain or a “doorbell” sign may be elicited along the course of the sciatic or tibial nerve.  See below.

Our patients may be susceptible to the “double-crush” phenomenon due to concurrent areas of nerve entrapment.  Centrally mediated entrapment may arise from a history of disc herniation or multiple lumbar disc sprains.  Common peripheral entrapment sites are the lateral plantar nerve at the medial heel, the tibial nerve under the flexor retinaculum in the tarsal tunnel or as it courses through the tendinous arch of the soleus, and the sciatic nerve at the distal split of the hamstrings, between the biceps femoris and adductor magnus, or under the piriformis muscle.  Active Release Techniques, as performed at OrthoWell/WalkWell Rehab, are very effective in resolving these entrapments.