Tag Archives: Low Back Pain

Do we move differently in pain?

For the past few years, my studies in pelvic health have taken me further and further outside of the pelvis.  I have learned and continue to learn how amazingly interconnected our bodies actually are. The pelvis can be influenced by the ankle, the knees—and even the neck! It is amazing and awe-inspiring. This past weekend, my studies took me to the Level 1 Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), where I spent 2 days learning a systematic way to evaluate movement and identify where dysfunctional patterns exist—head to toe! (How awesome is that?!) There are many different systems and programs out there for evaluating someone’s movement, and honestly, I don’t necessarily think one is superior to the other. I liked this one though, as it made sense to me and the initial screen could be completed in 2 minutes :).


So, why is it important to look globally at human movement when a person is experiencing pain anywhere in the body? For lots of reasons, like I said above—but for the purpose of today’s post—because we now know that movement patterns do really change when a person is experiencing pain—and this is helpful initially and important—remember, your brain wants to protect you from experiencing harm! However, dysfunctional movement patterns, although helpful to the body in that moment, can persist and lead to further problems down the road.

Paul Hodges (a favorite researcher of mine!) and Kylie Tucker examined the current theories regarding movement adaptations to pain in a 2011 review published in the International Association for the Study of Pain. They looked at the current research regarding movement variations in pain, and frankly poked holes in the theories where holes needed poking.  They then presented a new theory on the motor adaptations to pain, and that’s what I would like to share with you today.

The theory they presented is based on the premise that movement adaptations occur to reduce pain and protect the painful part. The way in which a person does that actually varies and is flexible. Here are the basics of their theory, simplified, of course. I do encourage you to read the paper if you’re interested—it’s great!

  • Adaptation to pain involves redistribution of activity within and between muscles. Basically, the brain varies which pools of motoneurons fire in a muscle based on the individual and the task requirement. The common goal still is to protect the painful part from pain or injury, but the way the body does this can vary greatly. Interestingly, we know that the motoneurons active before and during pain tend to reduce activity, and the production of force actually seems to be maintained by a new population of units who were previously inactive. Normally, motoneuron units are recruited from smaller to larger pools to allow for a gradual increase in force—but in pain, a person often will have earlier recruitment of larger pools to basically allow for a faster development of force to get away from pain (think fight or flight response!). Also, the new population of active units may be altered to change the direction of the force generated by the muscle (again, aiming to help protect the painful structure). We also can see in some areas, like the trunk, that one muscle may become inhibited (like the transverse abdominis) while other larger muscles become more activated. This again, makes sense with the body’s goal of protection. Quick activation of larger motor units allows for a quick activation of a muscle to help protect and escape pain.
  • Adaptation to pain changes mechanical behavior. Basically, like we just discussed, the redistribution of activity within and between muscles changes the force and output of the muscle. Hodges & Tucker give us a few examples of this. First, they’ve found that when someone has knee pain, the quadriceps muscles fire differently to change the direction of knee extension by a few degrees. They also explain that the changes in muscle firing in the trunk muscles in someone with back pain leads to more stiffness and less control of movements and less anticipatory action. Basically, in each of these cases, the big picture motion stays the same, but there are small changes within how the body accomplishes those tasks.
  • Adaptation to pain leads to protection from pain or injury, or threatened pain or injury. Basically, this redistribution of muscle firing is done to protect against pain—or even the threat of pain. When a person experiences pain, the brain choses a new pattern to move to either splint the injured area, reduce the movement of the area, or alter the force on the area. The interesting piece here is that the body responds this way even when there is a perceived threat of pain! The key with all of this is that the adaptation varies significantly—not one pattern is seen for all types of pain, but the nervous system has a variety of options for protection!
  • Adaptation to pain involves changes at multiple levels of the motor system. So, although we know that the activation of motoneuron pools can change during pain, that alone does not describe the variability we see. We know now that the way the body changes movement can be influenced by structures in the brain, spinal cord or at the local level of the motoneuron. All of this is going to be influenced by the task at hand and the individual (thoughts about the pain, emotions, stressors, and previous experiences)
  • Adaptation to pain has short-term benefit, but with potential long-term consequences. Although the short-term benefit is protection of the painful area and prevention of further pain, this may lead to consequences down the road if the adaptation persists. Of course, we assume in this case that movement in a non-pain state is likely the most efficient and optimal way to move. So, changes over time could produce decreased movement variability, modified joint loading, modifications in walking patterns, joint load and ligamentous stress. Hodges and Tucker state that in order for these long-term consequences to occur, there would likely need to be a gradual maintaining of the compensation, thus that the nervous system did not recognize it being problematic. Basically, the brain slowly adapts to the new pattern and does not recognize the problems it could cause down the road.

Interesting stuff right? The tricky thing is, we don’t really know for certain how these long-term changes can impact the body—but we do know that one of the biggest risks for injury is previous injury. I can’t help but think that movement changes could possibly contribute. But how do we change this in a positive way?  I think the first step is understanding pain, learning what pain is and what pain is, and developing a healthy mindset toward pain—this alone goes a long way! We also have to look closely at our own emotions, our psychological state, our previous experiences, and understand how all of these things can influence how are brain chooses to respond to pain. But then, we need to identify which movements the body has changed, understand how the brain is varying movements to protect against pain, and then slowly provide variability with good force modulation in those movements to help the brain learn optimal, safe and pain-free ways to move again.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!



6 Reasons Why the Diaphragm may be the Coolest Muscle in the Body

I have a small confession to make– I love the study of human anatomy. Always have. It was studying human anatomy and physiology that made me shift my undergraduate degree at Gordon College away from “Biology” and into “Movement Science” (which has now become “Kinesiology”… Who would have known that years later, “Movement Science” would have been the coolest name for a major ever? Am I right fellow PTs?). The human body is fascinating and incredible. So, it should come as no shock to you that I have favorite muscles. In PT school, my favorite muscles were the ones with the most fun names… like the Gemelli brothers (who are small hip external rotators) or Sartorius (a thigh muscle…best, if sung to the tune of “Notorious“). Of course, you know that now the pelvic floor muscle group ranks pretty high on that list…but the diaphragm, well… it just takes the cake. Here are some of the reasons why the diaphragm really is so cool.

1) We can contract our diaphragm voluntarily–but it also will contract without us consciously telling it to. How cool is that? You can activate your diaphragm by taking a long, slow, breath expanding your ribcage 360 degrees and allowing your belly to relax. But, before I brought your attention to your breath, you were using the diaphragm without even thinking about it!

2) The diaphragm helps to mobilize the ribs, lumbar spine and thoracic spine. The diaphragm attaches to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd lumbar vertebrae, the inner part of the lower 6 ribs as well as the back of the sternum at the xiphoid process. The central tendon of the diaphragm then attaches to the 3rd lumbar vertebrae. During inhalation as the diaphragm flattens to allow the lungs to fill with air, the diaphragm will “pull” slightly on each of those attachments, effectively giving you a gentle mobilization. The ribs will also move during inhalation and exhalation to allow space for the lungs to fill.

3) The diaphragm is a key member of a team of muscles which help to create dynamic postural stability. You knew that would be one of my bullets, right? I think I mention this in almost every post…but… the diaphragm works together with the pelvic floor muscles, abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis) and low back muscles (multifidus) to pre-activate and provide support to the body during movement. Together, these muscles make up our “anticipatory core” and are important muscles for healthy pain-free movement patterns. Now, no post on the diaphragm would be complete without an excellent video explanation by Julie Wiebe, PT, who is amazing and has done so much to help advance the understanding of dynamic stability in PT practice.

4)Retraining proper firing of the diaphragm can help to reduce urinary incontinence AND low back pain.  Now, that is pretty cool, right? Excellent research by Paul Hodges and colleagues has shown altered firing patterns of the diaphragm in people with low back pain or urinary incontinence.  Amazingly, when people re-established proper firing of the diaphragm leading to full excursion, both low back pain and bladder problems reduced   This is likely due to the relationship between the pelvic floor and diaphragm in controlling intraabdominal pressure within the abdomen and the pelvis.  Proper breathing helps to restore the optimal pressures needed to control movements and support the pelvic organs. This relationship is so huge that problems with breathing and continence are more correlated with low back pain than obesity and physical activity. 

5) Slow breathing with the diaphragm can calm down the nervous system.  The breath is so connected to the autonomic nervous system. When a person is fearful or anxious, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is activated, and a person will take quick shallow breaths to bring oxygen to the muscles as quickly as possible (think: being chased by a bear)  the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is activated when in a more calm or relaxed state (yes, I am oversimplifying all of this… I know). In that state, a person will take slow calm breaths (think: sipping a cup of tea after a great massage).  The cool thing is that we can use our breath to help us move toward a more relaxed state. Slow breathing will help calm stress, anxiety and promote a person being in a more parasympathetic state. And guess what? There’s an app for that! The Breathe2Relax app for iphone/android allows a person to program in his or her breath and then takes you through a guided breathing exercise.

6) Slow breathing with the diaphragm can reduce pelvic pain. As we discussed previously, the pelvic floor and diaphragm are coordinated and work together to control pressures through the pelvis. As the diaphragm is activated during inhalation, the pelvic floor relaxes to accept the contents of the abdomen/pelvis. As we exhale, the diaphragm returns to its rested position and the pelvic floor activates slightly. Long slow breaths then encourage complete relaxation of the pelvic floor and thus can help decrease pain for people with tender pelvic floor muscles.

So, there you have it! I bet the diaphragm just moved up a few notches on your favorite muscles list (you know you want one!). If you need more reasons, and enjoy “nerding-out” with Anatomy, check out these studies:

What’s YOUR favorite muscle? Did I miss any reasons why the diaphragm is amazing? Let’s chat together in the comments below!

~ Jessica