4 Simple Rehab Program Templates

Single leg opposite arm row, an upper body “pulling” exercise which demands stance leg and trunk stability and control.

[Note: This is an expanded form of an excerpt from the manual from my workshop Introduction to Kettlebells for Rehabilitation, which I developed and teach with exercise sciencist and personal trainer James Ross. As a brief background, we categorised the exercises into either push/pull for the upper/lower/core. The concepts below can be applied however you categorise movement for programming purposes.]

It’s easy to find exercises online.

Whether you search by joint, muscle group, movement pattern, you will find hundreds, if not thousands of examples.

This alone should tell you something: there is no one way to exercise.

In fact, the only two rules for exercise that are anything close to written in concrete are:

  1. On adaptation: start where you are (i.e. your current ability), do what you can (i.e. don’t push too hard too soon) and progress over time (without progress you stop adapting).
  2. On specificity: you have to practice what you want to get better at (i.e. if you want to run faster, you have to practice running faster).

With that said, there are definitely better and worse ways to exercise, regardless of your goals.

Better ways are more efficient, more effective, safer and more enjoyable. Worse ways are the opposite.

When it comes to clinic rehabilitation for musculoskeletal pain, exercise is an important intervention. Increasing evidence is mounting showing that for many orthopaedic/musculoskeletal conditions, a well structured rehabilitation program yields similar outcomes to surgery over the long term.

Please don’t confuse this with me saying exercise is the only intervention required for clinical rehabilitation.

It stands to reason that structuring an exercise program optimally will yield better results.

With that in mind, the following are examples of templates I commonly use when designing exercise rehabilitation programs for clients in practice.

Bare Minimum

This is simply a single movement exercise “program”, which I often utilise when there are many barriers to adherence. It can also serve as a “gateway” to a more comprehensive program in early stage rehab.

I would typically advise 1-3 sets performed to fatigue as a minimal dosage. With a set/rep based approach we can manipulate intensity via the rep range. This can be a good way to develop strength, strength endurance or even speed/power.

Otherwise a time based approach (i.e. try and do as many sets of 5 in 10 minutes as you can). With a time based approach, we are using sub maximal loads and accumulating volume. This can be a good way to develop strength endurance and work capacity.

There are 2 main ways to design this single movement program.

  • Load the painful movement:
    • Pain management via local tissue effects and central inhibitory effects
    • Develop functional capacity in local tissues
    • Enhance physiological buffer zone
  • Load the non-painful movement:
    • Pain management via central inhibitory effects
    • Develop functional capacity systemically
    • Address weakness/limitations
    • Enhance physiological buffer zone

The bare minimum approach can also be used with multiple movements – i.e. one movement each day, performed for the prescribed sets/reps/time. These are then cycled through.

An example of a 3 day cycle might be:

  1. Squat
  2. Push up
  3. Inverted row

Each of which is performed for as many sets of 10 reps as possible in a 10 minute window on consecutive days. After the third day, start the cycle again.

Whichever approach you take, with bare minimum programming, you typically want to use compound movements, as they maximise efficiency. So for lower body, things like squats, lunges, step ups and hip hinge variations reign supreme.

Minimalist

Using two exercises allows as to train the whole body or agonist/antagonist movements across a joint. This is a great compromise between time efficiency and effectiveness.

Again, these can be prescribed for sets/reps or time periods (I wouldn’t go less than 10 minutes for two exercises, as the volume ends up being too low).

Some common ways to pair movements include:

  • Upper/Lower pairing
    • Use either complementary pairing i.e. upper push/lower pull or similar pairing i.e. upper push/lower pull or vice versa
    • Pain management via both local tissue effects and/or central inhibitory effects
    • Develop whole body functional capacity
    • Enhance physiological buffer zone
  • Agonist/Antagonist pairing
    • Upper or lower push/pull (e.g. push up and row or squat and kettlebell swing/leg curl)
    • Ideal when local tissue factors are the dominant clinical feature
    • Pain management via both local tissue effects and/or central inhibitory effects
    • Develops local tissue capacity which can enhance the physiological buffer zone

Whole Body

I use Chad Waterbury’s definition of a whole body workout: each workout consists of at least one lower body exercise, along with an upper body push and pull.

(you can have two or more workouts as part of the program, to ensure you develop a variety of movements)

The benefits of a whole body workout start shifting towards central pain inhibitory mechanisms and developing the physiological buffer zone.

Again, you can program this based on sets/reps or time. With more exercises you have the option to perform straight sets, a combination or straight and alternating sets or a circuit format.

As a general rule, straight sets will bias local tissue factors slightly more, while alternating and circuit formats will bias work capacity/central factors slightly more.

I like whole body rehabilitation programs as they allow for work on both strengths and limitations simultaneously, which is good for compliance. We all like to succeed and do what we are good at.

They are also great options for in-season maintenance for athletes. Training 2-3 times per week allows the use of 6-9 key exercises, while other areas can be prioritised – i.e. tactics, skills, recovery (and work, family, social life etc).

Comprehensive

The comprehensive program, using the principles outlined in this manual [referring to our rehab manual] simply means taking one exercise from each category: upper body push and pull, lower body push and pull and core.

You can perform these in a circuit form, paired sets or straight sets depending on the desired outcomes.

This type of program trends more towards maintenance of capacity and physiological buffer zone, as well as ensuring central pain inhibitory mechanisms continue to function optimally.

Comprehensive programs are fantastic for the following scenarios:

  • End-stage rehabiliation of athletes before the return to play
  • Mid-to-end stage rehabilitation of non-athletes who are not otherwise active
  • Health-promoting effects of older people, who may be suffering from age related sarco and ostepenia, as well as reduced cardiac capacity
  • Simple preventative home exercise programs for sufferers of chronic low back pain
  • A way to engage sufferers of conditions like fibromyalgia in strength training (you can minimise the dosage and spread the loading across the whole body)

Conclusions

Rehabilitation is complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

By having a set of different templates you can draw on for different scenarios, you can make your exercise prescription more systematic and efficient, leaving more time and brain power to think about and discuss the more human variables surrounding rehabilitation.

Things like goals, interests, barriers and facilitators to adherence and everything else that is important in holistic pain management.

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

This blog post was written by Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

How To Build A Strong Back (And Why It’s Important)

Having a strong back helps improve your quality of life.

A strong back allows you to perform daily tasks with relative ease and is protective against injury.

The “back” isn’t an actual body part, but rather a descriptive term. In this article, it means the area from the base of the neck to the top of the pelvis.

Functionally, we can divide the back into two parts:

  • The lower back, which is primarily involved in lifting, carrying and supporting our upright posture
  • The upper back, which provides a foundation for the shoulder girdle and supports our head and neck

In a way, the back also encompasses the “core” and the “shoulder”, which is a good reminder that these are all labels that we give to the body – it functions as a whole, and the separation is only in the way we think about things.

So with that in mind, we can still use these concepts to help us build a strong back.

You don’t need expensive or fancy equipment. Muscles only respond to tension, which can be generated in a number of ways, with or without external weights

Barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, along with pull up bars and suspension trainers to leverage your own body weight are all fantastic ways to develop back strength, and of course, you have specialised machines that can help develop a strong back.

The key is to find an approach that works for your body and your situation.

Top Reasons To Build A Strong Back

  • The act of strength training is protective against back pain (1)
  • Strength training for the upper back was the best intervention for pain in desk bound office workers (2)
  • A strong back helps maintain your optimal posture (more on posture here)
  • The mid back is a common site for osteoporotic fractures – strength training prevents this (3)
  • After the legs, the back muscles are the biggest and strongest in the body, training them expends a lot of energy, helping maintain body composition and blood glucose levels (4)
  • Strong backs look good (don’t underestimate the importance of a positive self image)

Pull, Lift, Carry

There are 3 main actions you can perform with your back muscles:

  • Pulling actions, where you pull yourself towards something, or something towards you. Examples include chin ups, rows and climbing. These movements tend to develop predominantly upper back strength by working on the muscles the move the shoulder blades and arms.
  • Lifting actions, which are those actions where you pick something up (usually from the ground). Examples include deadlifts and power cleans.
  • Once you have picked something up, you can also carry the object for time or distance. Both lifting and carrying exercises develop both lower and upper back strength by working the muscles that stabilise the spine. They usually develop leg strength as well, so are very efficient exercises.

The Best Pulling Exercises

There are a variety of ways to train the pulling movement.

When you consider the freedom of movement the shoulder girdle has, it allows a high number of variations.

The Movements

The shoulder blade (scapula) has a number of ways it can move, but when it comes to pulling, the 3 we are concerned with are:

  1. Retraction: squeezing your shoulder blades together, as in when you perform a rowing action. Examples would be all the row variations in the world!
  2. Depression: pulling your shoulder blades down, as in when you pull yourself up to a bar/ledge. Examples would be chin ups and lat pulldowns.
  3. Upward rotation and elevation: when your shoulder blades turn upwards and raise, as in when you are pulling something in front of your body to your neck. Examples of these are upright rows, shrugs, high pulls, cleans and snatches.

For most people, I like body weight pulling exercises, like chin ups, inverted rows and climbs, though these are often very challenging and hard to scale down for beginners.

Where To Start

In the gym, cable rows and pulldowns, along with barbell and dumbell rows are the go to, with a large number of variation available via hand position, body angle and line of pull through the shoulder.

In practice, a $6 band from Kmart can be a great tool to enable you to perform pulling actions. Loop it around a post and pull it toward you. Loop it around your feet and pull it up. Loop it around a rafter/beam/tree branch and pull it down.

Do More Reps!

As a rule of thumb, pulling exercises are better as volume exercises, not intensity.

That is, perform a higher number of reps per set on average.

You can still load pulling exercises quite highly, but the combination of distraction force through the upper limb and ambiguous end point make it hard to do so as effectively as deadlifts, presses and squats.

Often Overlooked

One class of exercises that are often overlooked in both rehabilitation programs and fitness programs outside of the weightlifting/powerlifting world are shrugs and high pulls.

These train the upward rotation and elevation motion in the shoulder blades (shrugging), which strengthen the trapezius muscle.

A strong trapezius muscle supports healthy shoulder and neck function, but unfortunately, because many people with neck pain report a “tight” trapezius, these exercises were vilified. What was missed is that in these people, their trapezius feels “tight” because it is weak, and strengthening relieves their symptoms.

My Personal Favourites

So while my favourite pulling exercises are:

  • Chin ups (palms facing toward you) and pull ups (palms facing away from you)
  • Inverted rows (elbows high and elbows low)
  • High pull/upright row

In a perfect world, I would help all my clients develop competency and strength in these movements. But because I live and work in an imperfect world, and time, equipment and money are often limiting factors, the exercises I use most in clinical practice are:

  • Band pulldown
  • Band row
  • Band upright row

Deadlifts

The deadlift is a fantastic all-round back strength exercise. It also concurrently helps develop strong legs, particularly the posterior chain muscles, including the hamstrings and gluteals.

It involves picking up a weight implement (barbell, dumbell, kettlebell, etc) from the ground and then lowering it back down again.

There are countless deadlift variations, but my favourite is the barbell deadlift from blocks.

Rogue Metal Deadlift Blocks (https://www.roguecanada.ca/rogue-metal-pulling-blocks)

A close (equal) second is the trap bar deadlift and the kettlebell deadlift.

Why do I favour the barbell deadlift from blocks over other deadlift variations to build a strong back?

  • It allows us to infinitely and incrementally load the pattern, compared to kettlebells, which come in large jumps (usually 4 kg) and only go up to 48 kg in pro-grade style or (very large) 92 kg classic style.
  • We can control the range (rather than lifting based on the height of the weight plates) and ensure the movement is performed within a range that is safe for an individual’s mobility and strength.
  • It is better than a rack pull because the moment arm (from the centre of the bar to the load, not of the load on your spine) is larger (allows better leverage when starting the lift) and as a bonus, protects the bar.
  • Compared to the trap bar, the straight barbell requires a more bent over position, creating a large anterior shear moment on each vetebrae, which the back muscles have to resist, which develops high levels of strength in the spinal stabilisers.

The main downside to the barbell deadlift from blocks is it is more technically challenging/less intuitive than the trap bar or kettlebell deadlift. However, even though these are simpler, and some might argue more “functional” in that they require you to stand between the handle (like a wheelbarrow) or have the load between you (like lifting a heavy bag of fertiliser), I feel like they understimulate the back and posterior chain (relatively).

A second issue is equipment, while most gyms, and many clinics will have a barbell, not many have access to proper lifting blocks. A compromise is to use aerobic steps or weight plates, though they are just that, a compromise.

In reality, you can use a variety of deadlift variations, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you are developing the strength to pick things up from the ground.

Typically, deadlifts can be performed heavy for lower repetitions, or lighter for higher repetitions. They lend themselves well to both applications.

Not Quite Deadlifts

There are a number of exercises that have a similar pattern to the deadlift – the hip hinge movement – that aren’t quite the deadlift.

Think of exercises like:

  • Good mornings
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Back extensions
  • Reverse hypers

These are all great exercises.

They definitely have a place as deadlift alternatives or additions to deadlifts.

The reason I list them as a second tier, is because for most people, I seek maximum training economy, and with that in mind, deadlifts are more than enough stimulation. I would mostly use alternatives when deadlifts are not appropriate:

Loaded Carries

Loaded carries are an under utilised exercise in both performance and rehabilitation.

They are simple movements, but are definitely not simplistic.

Loaded carries can be performed in a few ways:

  • Bilateral loading
  • Unilateral loading

And with the load in different positions

  • By sides (farmer’s walks, suitcase carries)
  • In the rack position (with kettlebells or a barbell)
  • Yoke carries (across the shoulders)
  • Overhead

The most important thing to ensure with loaded carries is to retain postural integrity. The idea is to train dynamic stabilisation under load, not test your limits of how far you can carry a heavy object.

A good guideline is to work with 75% of your bodyweight for farmer’s walks. This might sound light for experienced athletes, but remember, we are trying to build strength, not test it. Building strength can be done with sub-maximal loads, and it allows for faster recovery and better movement patterns.

Conclusions

Pulls, deadlifts and carries are more than enough to build a strong back.

However, there are many other variations of exercises that can be used too.

I’m not in the business of vilifying movements, and given the low activity levels of the majority of Australians, almost any movement is good movement.

Whichever movements you choose, for most people 2-3 times per week is the optimal frequency to develop strength, while the exact amount volume of work you do is individual, the idea is to do more over time.

What I have listed here are the best back exercises for the majority of people, the majority of the time.

While in theory, structured exercise is not essential for health, when it comes to developing a strong back, the simple truth is that the majority of Australians are not physically active enough to develop and maintain adequate strength throughout their lifetime, and so need a structured program to make up for it.

Do you need a stronger back?

If you feel like you could benefit from increased back strength and a holistic exercise program, then contact me to arrange a consultation. This can be done in person or online, depending on your location.

 

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

 

 


 

 

 

References

(1) Exercise for the Prevention of Low Back Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials

(2) Effects of stretching exercise training and ergonomic modifications on musculoskeletal discomforts of office workers: a randomized controlled trial

(3) Heavy resistance training is safe and improves bone, function, and stature in postmenopausal women with low to very low bone mass: novel early findings from the LIFTMOR trial.

(4) Effects of Different Modes of Exercise Training on Glucose Control and Risk Factors for Complications in Type 2 Diabetic Patients

How Specific Do Treatments For Pain Need To Be?

Specific; On TargetPain is what drives people to consult a medical professional more than any other symptom.

The vast majority of pain is benign, somatic (musculoskeletal) in nature, though some somatic pain has a visceral component.

Most of the time, complex examinations and treatment rituals are performed, in order to diagnose and treat said pain.

Patients feel like they are getting good value, practitioners feel like they are providing it.

But is it necessary to go through all these examinations, and aim for all these specific hands on, taping and exercise techniques to help people get better?

I’m going to argue, that no, it isn’t.

Can We Be Specific With Assessment?

A typical assessment of someone in pain consists of the following:

  • History
  • Neurological and orthopaedic testing
  • Active movement
  • Passive movement
  • Palpation/provocation

It can also include

  • Functional/task specific assessment
  • Capacity testing: strength, endurance etc

Based on all of this, a clinician then formulates a diagnosis, which dictates a management plan.

However, and this is a massive “however”, it could very well be that we are wasting our time.

Let’s have a look at each of those components, and see how specific they can be.

History

The clinical history is probably the most important part of an initial consultation. Combined with general information about a patient (age, occupation, family status etc) and how they carry themselves, a clinician can hypothesise a working diagnosis prior to any further assessment, which usually serves to confirm or refute the diagnosis.

For certain presentations, the history is quite diagnostic.

For example, neuropathic pain occurs when there is damage to a nerve, causing it to have what’s called an ectopic discharge. Without going into too much depth, when patients complain of burning, lancinating pain, often that will point us towards a diagnosis of neuropathic pain.

On the flip side, a recent study questioned whether commonly held true concept of clicking in the knee being related to meniscal damage. It was shown that equal numbers of people with and without meniscal injuries experience things like clicking and catching. (1)

Neurological and Orthopaedic Testing

The neurological examination consists of things like a cranial nerve examination, reflex testing, sensory testing and motor/strength testing, along with neurodynamic testing.

Unfortunately, neurodynamic testing often yields false positives (so not that specific).

Strength testing, at least the manual version, is very unreliable, and thus not specific.

Isokinetic strength testing is more reliable, however most clinics do not have this equipment. Some clinics have hand-held dynamometers, which increase reliability of strength testing. (2)

Additionally, strength testing only tells us there may or may not be a weakness, not why. Additionally, strength is not related to pain, though it is important for both injury risk and activities of daily living.

Sensory testing is helpful, while reflexes don’t really tell us much except that reflexes are there or not.

Orthopaedic tests, those which clinicians use to rule in/out certain tissue based injuries are notoriously unreliable. Even those which have demonstrated high sensitivity and specificity are subject to error as a result of neurological changes when we are in pain.

Active Movement

Okay, by now you should be sensing where I’m going with this.

Active movement tests the ability to perform that movement. Yes, certain tissues/structures are involved in certain movements, but that doesn’t mean that movement is a specific test.

For example, raising your arm out to the side as high as you can involves multiple muscles acting at the shoulder joint. If it hurts to do so, it implicates all these muscles involved, as well as the tendons, ligaments, joint, nerves etc.

Is it helpful to know? Most of the time.

Is it specific? No.

Passive Movement

See above.

Yes, passive movement takes muscles out of the picture, at least from a contractile point of view. That doesn’t mean that if active movement hurts, and passive doesn’t, that the problem is with a muscle.

Thus, not specific.

Still valuable, but not specific.

Palpation

Most practitioners, especially osteopaths, believe their palpation skills are reliable means of assessment.

They’re wrong. (3)

Palpation is not reliable, and thus definitely not specific.

Still valuable, but not specific.

Can We Be Specific With Treatment?

The short answer: it depends on the treatment.

Let’s look at my common methods of treating pain:

  • Education
  • Manual therapy
  • Graded exposure
  • Movement therapy/exercise rehab

Can any of them be specific?

Education

Education can address specific themes and topics, but the challenge with education, as is the case with any communication, is that what is heard and understood is not always what is intended. We are at mercy of the interpretation of the receiver. Language is more than words. It is influenced heavily by our social circles and our cultural experiences. (4)

But because teaching people about their pain, how to manage it and how to prevent future flare ups is a hugely important part of practice, this means these are simply challenges to be overcome.

I’ve said before, that education is the only thing that stays with a patient after they finish working with me. The caveat to this is, education that is effective. Saying things is not educating. Helping someone understand is educating.

As important as it is, I think it is a stretch to say it has a specific effect on pain. We can’t measure the effect it has, and say what amount of pain reduction was attributable to what amount and type of education.

Manual Therapy



I’m going to upset a lot of my colleagues by saying you can’t be that specific with manual therapy.

But it’s true.

Think about it, all we can truly touch is the skin. Not muscles, not ligaments or tendons, and not bones. The skin.

We can direct force to deeper lying tissues, like those mentioned previously, but this depends on the magnitude and direction of the force, as well as where the target tissues are situated.

Physics dictate that the only force that can be efficiently transmitted to bone has to be perpendicular to bone. Any horizontal or tangential force is dissipated by the frictionless interface of the skin/fascia. (5)

Another strike against the blow of specificity is the way the body is innervated. No one section is supplied by a single neurological level. Hence, because of convergence of multiple levels, we end up with less specificity.

Finally, when it comes to spinal movement, there is a plethora of research showing that you cannot isolate movement to a single vertebral level. Even neck manipulations, which allow the best contacts compared to thoracic and lumbar manipulations, result in movement of adjacent interverterbal joints.

So strike specificity off the list of things manual therapy is.

Graded Exposure

What about graded exposure? Many people conflate graded exposure with exercise rehabilitation. There are similarities, in that they are both (should be) progressive. However, graded exposure borrows from psychological research, and in theory, addresses psychological factors relating to pain and activities just as much as the physical factors. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it: gradually doing the things that hurt, or that you are worried about hurting makes it easier to do them over time.

Worried about bending over to garden all day? Let’s start with kneeling for a short period of time. Then you can gradually (the graded part) do more (the exposure part) until you are bending over gardening all day

There are two arguments about whether graded exposure is specific:

  1. It works for the specific task/scenario, hence it has a specific effect
  2. The same can be achieved in other means, hence it doesn’t

In my experience, the former holds true more so than the latter.

Here’s an example:

A patient of mine who was very active injured himself playing hockey. The injury came about because he wasn’t physically prepared for the demands of hockey, despite being physically fit and active. That and plain old bad luck – he simply moved in a way that loaded his back too much, which was in part due to the circumstances of the game at that moment.

After history and assessment, I was able to narrow it down to a diagnosis of “acute low back pain, without referred pain” (remember, we can’t really be that specific).

Treatment was manual therapy (didn’t really make a big difference), stay active (kind of hurt, but didn’t make things worse), some gym work for posterior chain (was able to train, but didn’t help pain), time (definitely made a difference) and gradually increasing hockey load (really helped).

Does that mean it (graded exposure) has specific effects that cannot be achieved any other way? I really don’t know. Let’s call this a maybe, at best.

Movement Therapy/Exercise Rehab


Like manual therapy, the fact that so many approaches can work holds the answer: if everything works, then nothing works. 

Or less cynically (and this is my position, because we know this works for many pain presentations), if everything works, the effects are non-specific.

Honestly, aside from the specific adaptations of exercise, which can definitely be important to an individual based on their capacity (power, strength, endurance, mobility etc), or lack thereof, when it comes to pain, the most important thing is to do something, do it appropriately (not too much, not too little) and continue to do it (consistency).

This can shatter the hearts (and wallets) of professionals who espouse a specific approach as “the only approach”. Of course it works. But not because of the reasons you say it works.

Do We Even NEED To Be Specific?

So here is the big question, or rather two questions:

  1. How specific do we need in order to be effective?
  2. Can we be that specific?

We could argue that currently, we are not very effective at treating low back pain, for example. Most of the time we can help people manage it, and the condition takes it’s natural history, which for most, is a resolution over a long enough time-frame.

But could we be more effective if we were able to be more specific?

There is still so much unknown about pain, that it is very difficult to answer.

We do know that pain typically has a blend of biological factors, including local tissue factors and central nervous system factors. We also know that pain consists of psycho-emotional-social components, which play a large role in the nature and course of pain.

We can’t measure the exact contribution of each, and nor can we isolate tissue factors – even evidence of tissue damage on imaging or surgery is at best, correlated with pain. Sacreligious? Perhaps, but, if we go “full academic”, you can’t separate the non-tissue factors from the resolution of pain. For years, surgeons thought sub-acromial impingement improved because of surgical decompression (it didn’t) (6). Same with arthroscopic surgery for arthritic knee pain (7).

Clinically, I have seen people with total and partial knee replacements still experiencing pain, more than 12, and in some cases 24 months post surgery. This doesn’t mean there is no effect of the surgery, but we aren’t 100% sure what it is.

Anyway, I digress.

With most non-specific pain presentations, by nature, we can improve people with non-specific interventions.

Neck pain for no apparent reason? Here’s a scientific valid approach:

  1. Rule out serious pathology.
  2. Rule out tissue injury (via history and assessment).
  3. Rule out complications/comorbid factors.
  4. Educate.
  5. Provide coping strategies
  6. Neuromodulate with chosen intervention, if desired (see above).
  7. Improve function (see above).
  8. Let time and physiology do the rest.

We can apply this concept to nearly all non-specific pain and be evidence based.

In fact, you can apply this to many instances of specific pain too.

Let’s Get Critical

Earlier this year a study on managing lateral hip pain (gluteal tendinopathy/trochanteric bursitis) was published in BMJ:  Education plus exercise versus corticosteroid injection use versus a wait and see approach on global outcome and pain from gluteal tendinopathy: prospective, single blinded, randomised clinical trial (8)

 After critiquing this study, you could easily come to the conclusion that there was a lot of confirmation bias taking place in how much effect these interventions were having, and how much of that effect was due to the specific nature of the intervention (there was no general exercise arm as a comparison).

The methods of intervention were pretty generic:

  1. Education (basically, avoid compression of the tendons by not sitting and moving in certain ways) and exercise (a standardised hip exercise protocol) was one group
  2. Corticosteroid injection was another
  3. Wait and see was the third

Everyone got really excited on social media when this was published, because “exercise works!”, and “I do exercise with my patients” so there was lots of back patting and confirmation bias all around.

However, in my opinion, the interventions didn’t result in that much improvement over a wait and see approach in the main outcome measure (Visual Analogue Scale or VAS, a numerical pain scale). In fact, average pain intensity (score out of 10) changed from 5 to 3 in the wait and see group, while the intervention groups (education + exercise or corticosteroid injection) improved from 5 to 2 on average (there was only a minor difference between the two groups).

Consider the cost for that 10% improvement over wait and see:

  • The education + exercise was 14 sessions, which, if we take an average of $80 per consult, is $1120.
  • A corticosteroid injection under ultrasound guidance, ranges from between $150 and $300 on average.

So was all that effort of exercise, expense of education and injections worth it? Yes, in the short term, there was a big difference at 8 weeks over wait and see. However, if you told someone they had to spend $1000 over 8 weeks to end up 10% better than doing nothing at a year, how many people would still take that option?

Now let’s look at the other main outcome measure, the Global Rating of Change or GROC. The GROC is a single-item instrument that asks each patient to indicate whether and to what extent they perceive change has occurred, typically relative to the date of the initiation of care. The GROC uses a Likert scale to indicate the direction of change (ie, worsening or improvement) and the extent of change (ie, “tiny” to “very great”).  (9)

However, there is contention that the GROC doesn’t reflect functional changes (9), as it is a subjective assessment, but unlike the VAS it isn’t assessing pain, which is subjective, but the participants perception that something has changed. The problem with this, is the recency illusion and the availability heuristic inherently skew the results.

So when we look at the GROC scores: we see that at 8 weeks there is a big difference between the education + exercise and wait/see group, which makes sense, because the education/exercise program was 8 weeks long. But over time that difference was reduced, which is explained as follows:

Our data showed that a patient’s current FS exerts a strong bias on perception of change, even for short recall periods (fewer than 30 days), and this effect increased as transition time lengthened. (9)

So where does that leave us? Time to draw some conclusions.

Conclusions

That was really a long winded way of saying, no, we don’t need to be specific, because even when we try, we can’t be.

The constituents of good care are listed above. This much is clear, though some will debate the manual therapy aspect, others debate the exercise aspect, the moderates will say these 4 interventions are all good in various degrees.

What is emerging, is that what you do isn’t as important as how you do it, and who you do it with (the therapeutic alliance is a big predictor of outcomes in pain). It is also important to not do the wrong things – i.e. those that are clearly ineffective, but moreso, those that actively do harm.

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

 

Rehabilitation Is More Than Just Exercise

Exercise is NOT a magical pill – it is great for many things though.

There is a current trend to treat painful problems with exercise, conflating it as rehabilitation.

Before I elaborate, let me make a few things clear:

  • Done correctly, exercise is a good thing, for most people
  • Exercise can be part of the recovery process from pain and injury
  • Exercise has many health benefits
  • I promote exercise actively – if you follow my social media accounts you’d see that

However, exercise is not therapy, nor is exercise rehabilitation.

Yes, exercise can be part of rehabilitation, but it isn’t the same as rehabilitation.

We must keep in mind, however, that motor skill learning and exercise are not synonymous. – Stevans and Hall, 1998

I teach a workshop that talks about using kettlebells for rehab.

In it, I present this argument that performance training and rehab are on the same continuum, with health somewhere to the right of middle.

A slide from my Kettlebells for Rehab Workshop

My point is this:

Performance training is aiming to maximise performance of a particular task.

Rehab is aiming to improve physical performance in one or more aspects.

The principles of stimulus and adaptation still hold.

What doesn’t hold is that you can use performance training to achieve a rehab goal, if the deficit is not performance related.

There is a saying that you can’t put fitness on top of dysfunction.

That’s not completely true, but nor is it true that simply adding load makes things better.

Solely focusing on resolving dysfunction (whatever that means) and solely focusing on building capacity (performance) are both inadequate.

So what happens when rehabilitation is inadequate?

  1. Presenting issue (often pain or injury) is not adequately resolved
  2. Increased risk of future injury
  3. Impaired performance (be it at sport, work or activities of daily living)

Strength Training Is Not Rehabilitation

I have a weak back.

I need to train my core.

My knees aren’t as strong as they were.

Almost every day I hear stories from patients correlating their pain with weakness.

There is a meme floating around about the relationship between strength and pain that is growing in power and becoming really hard to undo.

If there was a direct link between strength and pain, we would not see strong high level athletes suffering from chronic pain.

But we do.

The main reason I suspect we see this link is two fold:

  1. Visually, strong people fill our idea of health and fitness.
  2. Simplicity: it is easier to blame on weakness, teach somebody how to strengthen the so called weaknesses and then use strength as an outcome measure.

Strength training can definitely be part of a rehabilitation program.

But getting strong alone is not the reason we see improvements in pain.

Strength training, done properly, improves movement quality, load tolerance and builds confidence. All these contribute to improving pain in certain conditions.

Stretching Is Not Rehabilitation

The second common issue is “tightness”.

People often feel tight and cite this as a reason they need to stretch.

Therapists then perform an assessment.

They say this feels tight, this is weak. Stretch this. Strengthen that.

If only it were that simple!

Stretching is a valuable technique. I use it as part of my own personal exercise programs, and often prescribe stretching to patients.

Stretching has value beyond lengthening muscles (which it actually doesn’t do*), like improving body awareness (interoception) and relaxing both body and mind. All of this can help people in pain improve.

But alone, stretching is not rehabilitation. In fact, changes to flexibility are not associated with improvements in pain.

Oh and by the way, feeling tight doesn’t actually correlate with being “stiffer”. This has been shown in research. One is a perception of the body, the other is a physical property.

“Cardio” Is Not Rehabilitation

Whether it is going for a run, stationary cycling or walking – all these forms of exercise can have positive effects on health, pain and function.

However, again, is it rehabilitation?

Time again we see improvements with these (and other) cardio activities, which do not correlate to improvements in fitness or endurance.

Again, this isn’t to say cardio exercise has no value in a rehabilitation program, it is simply saying, that cardio in and of itself is not rehabilitation.

What Is Rehabilitation?

Comprehensive rehabilitation should involve restoring optimal function to both the sensory and motor systems, in a manner that builds resilience and enhances adaptability.

Huh? Does that sound complicated? It kind of is. We are talking about the body, which still remains a mystery to us.

We don’t know it all.

But what we do know, is that rehabilitation should be tailored to the individual, and process based.

It should include education and a graded exposure that takes context into account.

It should have objective outcomes that measure improvements in function, but should also focus on resolving the presenting pain or injury as best as possible as well.

Exercise can definitely (and usually should) be part of this process, but I have seen many fit and “dysfunctional” people over the years, along with many people who have “rehabbed” themselves to become stronger and fitter but still suffering from their initial complaints.

There of course, is a balancing act – it’s not always about the pain – and often improving function in spite of pain is the best outcome, but that doesn’t make exercise alone magically turn into rehab.

How Do You Do It?

Educate, Educate, Educate

Without properly educating someone about what they are doing and why they are doing it, rehabilitation lacks meaning. When things lack meaning we don’t give them appropriate focus, which leads to lack of results.

This is why the who treatment encounter should be centred around education from the beginning.

Create the appropriate context, and then each intervention fits into that context.

Sensory Rehabilitation Should Precede Motor Rehabilitation

When somebody has referred pain down their arm or leg, I will test their reflexes.

A reflex tests both the sensory and motor function of the related nerves.

The body has to sense the stimulus (the tap of the reflex hammer on the tendon) and then respond to it.

If you have impaired sensory function, but your motor function is fine, then you won’t demonstrate normal reflexes.

Rehabilitation is similar.

If you have impaired sensory function, your motor function (movement, strength etc) will not be at the level it should be.

Initially, rehabilitation should aim to restore sensory function – this can be achieved in many ways with manual therapy/taping (sensory nerve stimulation), body awareness exercises (enhancing interoception), mobility/flexibility exercises (enhances sensory input), motor control exercises (enhances proprioception).

If someone displays poor sensory awareness, improving this will often develop their motor qualities concurrently, as outputs are a product of inputs and processing.

This is why simply exercising doesn’t always improve things. It’s not just what you do, but how you do it.

Rehabilitation Should Be Contextual

Soldiers in the army face numerous challenges when deployed. An uncertain and continually changing environment, unpredictable tactics from enemies, and the threat of death create extremely high stress situations.

In these high stress situations, our brains go into survival mode – thinking decreases and insinctive behaviour increases – unfortunately, what is instinctive is often dangerous, so these behaviours must be stopped.

As a result, training for soldiers involves as real as possible simulations, to cause an adaptation to the brain.

As the soldiers are exposed to realistic threatening scenarios, they become less and less sensitive – their brains do not enter survival mode as easily – allowing them to think and act intelligently, even under extreme stress.

With pain, our brains are protecting us from a threat, real or perceived. If you experience pain while you are working, and you work in a fast paced financial office, rehabilitation in a calm clinic room only goes so far.

Rehab should progess in context, from safe and secure to challenging and confronting, to allow the brain to adapt its response.

This is one of the most overlooked aspects of rehabilitation, in my opinion. It is why education is so important, and also one of the hardest things to do.

Rehabilitation Shouldn’t Be Based Solely On Sets and Reps

Fixed set/rep schemes work great in theory.

However, given the dynamic nature of the human body, some days we can do more, some days it’s less.

Creating an environment or set of parameters that allows you to “fail forward” is usually more optimal than grinding out movement to achieve a number.

One of the ways this can be achieved is with self-limiting exercises.

Another is with auto-regulation using a “rating of perceived exertion” (RPE) scale. This requires good sensory awareness. See earlier point.

While exercise is often focused on achieving a number, to ensure progression, rehab is slightly different. Numbers can play a role, but shouldn’t be the main focus. Quality and feelings should, at least in the beginning.

Conclusions

Exercise is definitely an important part of the rehabilitation process, but what we have learnt in recent years is that it doesn’t matter as much what you do, but rather that you do something and how you do that something.

When we frame exercise in terms of capacity (load, volume, range of motion etc) without paying attention to the contextual factors involved in someone’s presentation, we are missing a large part of the problem at hand.

And while it is easy to measure strength and endurance gains, it is much harder to measure gains in body awareness, confidence and resilience.

I myself have been guilty of defaulting to the former many times, purely because patients often demand something tangible, and this is what I am familiar with.

The challenge for everyone involved in rehabilitation from pain and injury is to bring the bigger picture into focus, and to really shift the emphasis towards rehabilitating people, not problems.

 

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.