What Are They?
Trigger points are what are often thought of as muscle "knots" and can feel like painful, hard lumps located in your muscles. These points can both be painful to touch and refer pain to surrounding areas. It is thought that trigger points form when a portion of muscle contracts abnormally, compressing the blood supply to this area, which in turn causes this part of the muscle to become extra sensitive. Trigger points are a common source of pain around the neck, shoulders, hips and lower back.
What Causes Trigger Points?
Many factors can cause trigger points to develop. Repetitive stress, injuries, overuse and excessive loads are common examples. Inflammation, stress, nutritional deficiencies and prolonged unhealthy postures may also contribute to the formation of these painful areas. Generally speaking, muscular overload, where the demands placed on the muscle mean that the fibres are unable to function optimally, is thought to be the primary cause of trigger points. This is why you might notice trigger points in weaker muscles or after starting a new training program.
Signs and Symptoms
Pain caused by trigger points can often be mistaken for joint or nerve-related pain as it can be felt in a different location to the site of the trigger point. Trigger points feel like hard lumps in the muscles and may cause tightness, heaviness, aching pain and general discomfort. They can cause the length of the affected tissues to shorten, which may be why trigger points can increase the symptoms of arthritis, tennis elbow, tendonitis and bursitis.
How Can Physiotherapy Help?
Your physiotherapist will first assess and diagnose whether trigger points are contributing to your pain. If they feel that treatment will be beneficial, there are a variety of techniques that can help, including dry needling, manual therapy, electrical stimulation, mechanical vibration, stretching and strengthening exercises. While these techniques may be effective in treating trigger points, it is important to address any biomechanical faults that contribute to their development so they don't keep recurring.
Your physiotherapist is able to identify causative factors such as poor training technique, posture and biomechanics and will prescribe an exercise program to address any muscle weaknesses and imbalances. If you have any questions about how trigger points might be affecting you, don’t hesitate to ask your physiotherapist.
Referred pain is one of the most complicated processes in the human body. You may have experienced this if you ever saw a physiotherapist for pain in one part of your body, and they started to treat an entirely different area. The complexity of pain is one of the reason's why physiotherapists conduct such a thorough interview with you and physical examination before being able to determine the exact source of your pain.
Why is pain so complicated?
Unfortunately, we still don't understand everything about the way pain is processed. Usually, when an injury or damage occurs to body tissues, a signal is sent to the brain, which begins to interpret this signal and creates the sensation of pain. Pain is thought to be a warning signal to let you know to avoid danger and pay attention to the injured body part. Occasionally this system goes a little haywire, and pain signals are sent when there is no damage or the location of the pain is misdirected.
Referred pain is the term used when pain is felt at a different location to the source of the problem that is sending the pain signal. There are many kinds of referred pain, and some are easier to explain than others.
What are the different types of referred pain?
In some cases, if it is a nerve that is sending the pain signal, then pain can be felt all along the length of the nerve. This may be described as a sharp burning pain along the skin. One of the most common examples of this is "sciatica", where the large nerve that runs down the back of the leg is irritated around the lower back or buttock. The source of the pain signal is near the spine. However, that pain follows a distinctive pattern down the leg. In other cases, it is the muscles and not the nerves that are referring pain elsewhere. Muscular trigger points are taut bands that develop within muscle tissue that is undergoing abnormal stress. Poor posture, lack of movement, and overuse can cause muscles to develop areas of dysfunction. These trigger points can cause pain that radiates out in distinctive patterns. Trigger points are diagnosed as the source of pain if symptoms are reproduced when a therapist presses on a specific point.
If that wasn't confusing enough, we know that our internal organs can also refer pain. Pain referred by internal organs may be described as a deep ache, and usually not influenced by movements of the limbs or back. Organs often distribute pain in patterns that are very obscure and sometimes don't even create any pain at their own location. For example, kidney pain can feel like lower back pain.
There are many other fascinating aspects to pain and understanding how it works is an important part of managing your symptoms. To understand how referred pain may be affecting you, talk to your physiotherapist who can help with any questions. None of the information in this article is a replacement for proper medical advice. Always see a medical professional for advice on your individual injury.
What is spinal stenosis?
The spinal cord, nerves and arteries are housed by the spine, which acts as a hard casing to support and protect these vulnerable structures. The spine has a hollow column that allows the spinal cord to run from the brain to the rest of the body. At each spinal segment, nerves exit the spine and supply the tissues of the body. There is also an intricate network of small veins and arteries that provide blood to the spinal cord and vertebrae, providing them with the nutrients needed to operate.
Spinal stenosis is characterized by a narrowing of the spaces that house the spinal cord, nerves and blood supply. A variety of factors can cause spinal stenosis, however overwhelmingly it is caused by degenerative changes to the spine as we age. Many people over the age of 60 will have a degree of spinal stenosis, however not all will have pain. Clinically, spinal stenosis is often used to describe the painful symptoms of this condition rather than just the narrowing itself.
What are the symptoms?
Pain with walking or standing that radiates into the hips, thighs and even as far as the feet is the hallmark of spinal stenosis. Usually, this pain will be reduced with rest and forward movements of the spine. Spinal stenosis is a progressive condition and symptoms will gradually increase over time. The pain is often described as a deep ache and can be associated with fatigue, heaviness, weakness and numbness. It can affect just one leg, but often will be felt in both legs. There will often be associated back pain, however leg pain is usually the most severe complaint.
How can physiotherapy help?
There are many conditions that need to be excluded before a diagnosis can be made. Your physiotherapist is able to conduct a thorough examination and accurately diagnose this condition. In some cases, imaging may be requested. As mentioned earlier, many people have stenotic spinal changes without symptoms. Surgery to decompress the restricted nerves and stabilize the spine can be used in very severe cases.
For mild to moderate cases of spinal stenosis, physiotherapy can be extremely beneficial. Your physiotherapist can help you manage your pain through hands-on techniques and by providing a targeted exercise program based on biomechanical assessment. They are also able to help you to understand and manage your day in a way that helps to reduce flare-ups and maintain muscle strength.
Occasionally surgery is the right choice for you, then your physiotherapist is able to guide you through this treatment pathway, helping you to prepare and recover from surgery to get the best overall outcome possible.
Low back pain is one of the most common conditions treated by physiotherapists and if you are unlucky enough to have been a sufferer, you know that severe back pain can take over your life. With improved understanding, health professionals have come to identify some common myths about back pain that are inaccurate, misleading or even counterproductive...
Myth #1 – Discs can ‘slip’ out of place
Sitting between the vertebrae of the spine are soft discs that provide flexibility and shock absorption to the spine. In the past, many health professionals have told patients that these discs had ‘slipped’ as a way of explaining their pain to them. This is not entirely accurate, as these discs are actually very secure and rarely, if ever 'slip' out of place. Discs may bulge slightly or in some cases tear, however more often than not these injuries will heal without any permanent damage and exist in many people without causing any pain at all. Incorrectly thinking that a part of your spine has permanently ‘slipped’ out of place can cause you to move differently, which can create more pain and dysfunction in itself.
Myth #2 – If you have low back pain, you should stay in bed
When back pain strikes, our natural instinct is to rest, avoid movement and wait for the pain to pass. However, studies have shown that being active and performing targeted and gentle exercises can help improve low back pain. In fact, our impulse to stop moving and protect our spines can actually cause abnormal movement patterns and stress, leading to ongoing pain after the original injury has healed. If you are unsure of what kind of exercises you should be doing, your physiotherapist can help guide you with a targeted exercise program.
Myth #3 – Severe pain means severe damage
Pain that is severe, strikes suddenly and without warning can be a very scary experience. If this happens to you, you could be forgiven for assuming you must have sustained a very serious injury. The fact is, however, that the spine, being surrounded by nerves, is a particularly sensitive area of the body and pain in this area can be very strong without significant damage. A small ligament sprain or a muscle spasm can actually cause a large amount of pain, but it is common for intense symptoms to settle down quickly, even disappearing within a few days. In many cases, symptoms that last for longer than 2-3 weeks are caused by changes to your movement patterns in response to this pain and not the original injury itself.
If you are suffering from back pain, the best person to see is your physiotherapist. They can help you to recover without any complications or side effects and help you safely return to your usual activities while also ruling out any serious damage that might need further investigation.