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Why You Need More than a Diagnosis To Get Better

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It has been said that “Treatment without diagnosis is malpractice”.

And it is true that in todays’ practice of modern healthcare, diagnosis provides the over-riding foundation which directs both the type, amount and sequencing of treatment interventions.

Our obsession with diagnosis is evidenced by the explosion of diagnostic tests that are performed every year.

However, not only can the increase in CT and X-ray scans pose a health risk, they can be misleading. Consequently the surge in CT and MRI scans has failed to boost diagnostic rates.

And yet, even if CT, MRI and ultrasound scans did increase the accuracy of your diagnosis, this may not be enough to improve treatment outcomes.

The reason is because while x-rays and scans might tell you what the source of your problem, they do not tell you the cause. In other words, they give you the what, but not the why.

And although it is important to know which structure or tissue is the origin of your pain or problem, it is perhaps more important to know why. Because unless the cause of your ailment is corrected, your problem will always return even if you replace the injured body part.

I spoke about this phenomenon in my blog The Surprising Cause of Pain. In modern healthcare, we strive to name your diagnosis. That by putting a label on your condition, we can somehow better encapsulate, understand and manage your ailment. However, in so doing, we risk becoming blinkered to other possible sources, causes and implications of your injury.

Being given a diagnosis often gives the impression that it is just one tissue, one structure or one body part that is at fault, when in reality, it is often many tissues, structures and body parts that contribute to the cause of your physical problem.

A case in point is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis refers to inflammation and the subsequent breakdown of the surface covering of the bone ends at joints. What perhaps is not so well known is that along with this, the underlying bone begins to breakdown.

Bony projections (called osteophytes) form at the joint margins.

The membrane lining the inner part of the joint (synovial membrane) becomes inflamed and swollen causing excessive fluid to be secreted.

Joints become red and swollen.

The capsule and ligaments that hold joints together may become lax.

Muscles either spasm or become flaccid causing muscle imbalance and joint mal-alignment.

Nerves become hypersensitive and restricted.

Connective tissue (fascia) becomes taut and fibrotic.

Blood flow may be compromised.

The surrounding environment may become acidic.

Even your brain can become stressed, sensitized, reactive and magnifier of your pain.

And so the cycle of chronic pain begins and is perpetuated.

And this is not even to mention the incorrect motion in other parts of the body which may have led to the abnormal or excessive forces that caused the osteoarthritis in the first place.

The same goes for any injury whether it be a muscle strain, a joint sprain, disc injury, tendinopathy, bursitis or other condition.

I had a classic case of this a couple of weeks ago. Ann was suffering with intense inside right knee pain that came on “for no apparent reason” a couple of weeks before. So painful was Ann’s knee that I had to see her at home because she was unable to put weight on her right leg to walk.

Ann reported that she had had an MRI which revealed a burst Baker’s cyst (fluid filled sack behind the knee). This finding didn’t match Ann’s knee pain as a burst cyst would generally lead to pain, tightness and swelling behind the knee and Ann’s pain was on the inside just below the knee joint.

On examination, Ann’s right knee was indeed red, swollen and exquisitely tender on the inside of the knee just below the joint line. This corresponded to a different inflamed bursa (fluid filled sack called the Pes Anserine Bursa).

After applying cold packs and teaching Ann how to use crutches so that she didn’t weight bear on her right leg, Ann left to have another MRI for confirmation. This MRI revealed that she had a torn inside cartilage and this was the diagnosis that was given to Ann as a cause of her pain.

So Ann then underwent an arthroscope to “repair” this inside cartilage. To my surprise however, Ann returned to me two weeks later. Despite having an arthroscope, Ann’s pain hadn’t changed. In effect, the arthroscope may have corrected a condition, but this condition wasn’t the source of Ann’s pain.

On retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised, as again the MRI didn’t match Ann’s signs and symptoms; that of redness, swelling and intense pain just below the joint line on the inside of Ann’s knee over the area of this bursa.

Furthermore, on close questioning, it became clear that Ann’s knee pain was being caused by the way that she was sitting. So Ann was put on intense program to treat the inflamed joint tissues (synovium), fascia (connective tissue) nerves, muscles and bone surfaces. Ann was also shown how to sit and walk without aggravating her knee.

Two weeks later Ann left for overseas with minimal pain.

For the best, fastest, most complete recovery, it is essential that all the implications, complications and contributions to your ailment are adequately addressed, treated and resolved.

This is referred to as the Bio-Psycho-Social Model of Healthcare. It refers to the fact that the best outcomes will be achieved only when all the Biological, Psychological and Social factors have been taken into account and solved.

For optimal healing and recovery you must treat the muscle, the joint, the connective tissue and the nervous system.

You must correct the biomechanics, posture and movement patterns.

You must optimise the psychological and social environment to enhance recovery.

Yes, a diagnosis is important. But even more important is that the “diagnosis” given from an investigation such as an x-ray or scan is confirmed by a comprehensive assessment and professional clinical examination.

It is then critical, that all the information gained is used to devise a treatment strategy or Recovery Action Plan that treats and corrects both the source and cause of your problem.

This is the only way to achieve the best, fastest, most complete recovery possible.

If you would like any help with any aspect of Getting Better, Staying Better and Living Better, please don’t hesitate to call us here at Bodywise Health on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994).

We would love to help you get back to living freely and without pain.

Wishing you the best of health and life.

Michael Hall
Director, Bodywise Health

For more information on how Bodywise Health can help you to overcome your pain, please call Bodywise Health on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994).

Please note:
· Rebates are available through your private insurance extras cover;
· For complex or chronic conditions, you may qualify for the EPC (Enhanced Primary Care Program) allowing you to receive 5 allied health services each calendar year with a referral from your GP. For more information, please call Bodywise Health now on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994).

References available on request


How to Know When to Return to Sport

Self Monitoring 01

It's one of the more challenging judgement calls to make. When to return to sport or pre-injury activities. Unfortunately, like so many things in healthcare, it is not an exact science.

There are so many things that need to be considered; so many variables. Some of these include:
1. The structure or tissues injured;
2. The severity of your injury;
3. The type of activities that you might be returning to;
4. Your work, living and or playing environment;
5. Your physiological, physical, psychological and social circumstances.

It is estimated that 12-34% of hamstring injuries 1 and 3-49% of anterior cruciate ligament injuries 2 re-occur as a result of incomplete rehabilitation and premature return to sport and their pre-injury activities.

People often severely underestimate the time needed to be able to return to their pre-injury level of performance. Lack of knowledge, lack of experience and lack of perseverance, all play a role.

For example, when a group of runners and dancers were asked to estimate how long it would take for them to return to their activities, the runners replied four weeks and the dancers replied one week. The actual average return was 16 weeks for the runners and 50 weeks for the dancers 3.

For physiotherapists it is a challenge as well. Even if injured tissues should theoretically be healed, trying to determine when they are able to withstand the unpredictable stresses of life and sporting activities is difficult if not impossible.

The Science behind Recovery

The starting point for staging when you can return to pre-injury activities and sport is having an accurate knowledge of the theoretical time-frame that it takes for various tissues to heal. For example, your blood cells turnover every 120 days, your bone building cells every 3 months and your skin cells every 2-4 weeks 4.

The healing time will vary for different tissues and structures but is primarily determined by the blood supply to the area; your age; genes; your general health and nutritional status (e.g. abundance of protein, Vitamin C) and even medication (e.g. Anti-inflammatory medication such as Ibuprofen is known to delay healing).

Soft Tissue Healing as a Guide to Your Treatment
Following trauma and injury, your body will always go through the same phases of healing, the length of each varies depending on the type of tissue damaged, the severity of the injury and the intervening treatment. Healing can be divided into four broad phases which overlap considerably. These phases include:
1. The Bleeding Phase
2. The Inflammatory Phase
3. The Proliferation Phase
4. The Remodelling Phase

The Bleeding Phase
This phase occurs immediately following injury and can last anywhere from 6 to 24 hours depending on the type of tissue injured. In the bleeding phase substances are released which enable the adhesion of various cells. The complication of this phase is excessive bleeding and swelling. This excessive "clot" along with the damaged tissue needs to be removed, thus delaying the laying down of new tissue.

Excessive swelling also delays healing as excessive fluid pressure effectively prevents oxygen from being delivered to the injured cells, leading to increased cellular death and even more debris which has to be removed.

Consequently, it is critical that IMMEDIATELY following trauma or injury, treatment is begun to prevent excessive bleeding and swelling. Treatment such as compression, immobilization, lymphodema massage (massage that removes swelling) and unloading damaged tissue (e.g. crutches), if implemented in the first 24 hours by a competent physiotherapist, CAN SAVE YOU WEEKS IF NOT MONTHS OF TREATMENT.

The Inflammatory Phase
Likewise, the Inflammatory Phase is critical for healing. Inflammation has the classic characteristics of heat, redness, swelling, and pain (which is often constant, throbbing and can wake you at night).

Inflammation escalates rapidly a couple of hours following injury, increases to a maximal reaction at 1-3 days before gradually resolving over the next couple of weeks. Essentially during the Inflammatory Phase, the role of the body's immune system is to act like a demolition company, clearing the 'construction site' of debris and damaged tissue.

The complication of this phase, is that the inflammatory process gets out of control leading to an acidic environment, excessive protein breakdown and further cellular death. Consequently, treatment should include all the same modalities as in the Bleeding Phase with more emphasis on cold packs (15 minutes at least 6 times a day with emphasis on hourly cold packs at the end of the day), compression as well as optimal loading reduce swelling and decrease the activity of the inflammatory cells.

The Proliferation Phase
The Proliferation Phase involves the formation of repair material, which in the case of musculoskeletal injuries is mostly scar (collagen) material. At about day 5, the collagen is weak and easily broken with any chemical and physical stress. From day 6 to day 14, this scar tissue gradually becomes more durable to the point that the fibres have knitted and the defect has been bridged.

Consequently, treatment must be geared towards increasing and optimizing the activity of the cells laying down the repair. Warmth and electromagnetic stimulation (which increases cellular activity) along with hands on techniques and easy pain-free movements that optimizes tissue tension to enhance the repair.

The proliferation phase peaks at about 2-3 weeks, (less time for more vascular tissues) before winding down over the next 4-6 months.

The Remodeling Phase
The Remodeling Phase results in a quality, organized, functional scar that can behave like the parent tissue that it replacing. New evidence indicates that the Remodeling Phase begins as early as the first week. Initially, collagen fibres are laid down randomly. However, with the expert application of specific tension, these fibres become aligned along the lines of force.

Collagen molecules also have an electric charge and stress on collagen fibres produces a piezo-electric effect which may also help to re-orientate fibres.

Whilst it is unclear however how much tension is necessary or optimal, it seems that working to the point of discomfort but not into pain, may be a good guide as to what might be the most optimal tension for ideal adaptation.

From this point, gradual, controlled, progressive, specific loading has been found to accelerate early return to sport4. For optimal rehabilitation, this specific loading must be integrated into graduated functional strengthening, beginning with low level, safe, static and progressing to more physically demanding, dynamic, reflexive sport or functional specific activities.

These dynamic, reflexive, functional or sport specific activities can then become the tests which help to determine if you are ready to return to sport or your pre-injury activities.

Special Tests for Return to Pre-Injury Activity

For Shoulder Injuries - Throw and Catch
The throw and catch test consists of the throwing of varying weighted balls at different speeds and angles and durations until the action replicates as best as possible the intensity of the sport.

For all leg injuries - Balance standing on injured leg to progressing to hopping and then to running
These tests involve being able to maintain alignment of your hip bone, middle of your knee cap and 2nd toe with progressively more demanding, dynamic activities.

This alignment is consistent with ideal biomechanical forces being placed on our body tissues and structures and requires adequate core and leg muscle strength and control as well as sufficient hip, knee and ankle mobility.

All of these activities can be progressed in various ways for example by increasing the instability of the surface (e.g. duradiscs), increasing the depth of squat; height of the step as well as the distance, angle and speed of hopping and running.

Other special tests include:
1. Single leg hop
2. 6 Metre timed loop
3. Triple hop for distance
4. Cross over hops for distance
5. Running Drills

The Importance of Ongoing Rehab

Even once you have returned to pre-injury activities, you need to continue with an ongoing conditioning exercise program to ensure that your body is able to cope with the daily demands that you place upon it.

This conditioning exercise program must consist of strengthening exercises for the injured area and associated areas as well as balance and core stability activities. This needs to be completed at least twice weekly for at least four weeks following return to full activities.

A Final Word

There is no doubt that most people have large misconceptions about when they think that they are better and able to return to their full pre-injury activities. Understanding the process and timeline for healing is a starting point for staging the healing of tissues. This however must be supplemented by specific, injury related, objective testing and compared with the non-injured side and valid data.

Finally, it is important that you stay positive and remain engaged and connected with others and that you celebrate the milestones on your journey back to full health.

If you are injured or if you know of someone else who has a physical injury, seek or encourage them to seek treatment as soon as possible. It may just save you weeks if not months of pain, frustration and isolation.

If you are injured or in pain and want to get back to doing the things that you love to do, please call Bodywise Health on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994) for a complimentary*, no obligation assessment and Recovery Action Plan from one of our expert physiotherapists.

We look forward to helping you get your life back.

Until next time, Stay Bodywise,

Michael Hall
Physiotherapist, Director
Bodywise Health

Please note:
* Rebates are available through your private insurance extras cover;

* For complex or chronic conditions, you may qualify for the EPC (Enhanced Primary Care Program) allowing you to receive 5 allied health services each calendar year with a referral from your GP. For more information, please call Bodywise Health now on 1 300 BODYWISE (263 994).

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2. Sports Med. 2004;34(10);681-695.
3. Br J Sports Med.2006 June;40:40-44.
5. The Phys Sport Med.2000 Mar;28(3);1-8.
6. Clinical Sports Medicine.2006,Revised Third Edition;Australia;McGraw-Hill.
7. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc.2010 Dec 18(12);1798-1803.
8. Phys Ther.2007 Mar;87(3):337-349.
9. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc 2006 14:778-788.
10. Psych App to Sports Inj Reh.Aspen Press 1997.
11. NZ J Physiother.2003 31;60-66.
12. J Sport Reh. 2012 (21);18-25.
13. J Athletic Train.2003 48(4);512-521.

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