Decompression and Traction for the Intervertebral Discs

Decompression Vacuum EffectLife tends to be really hard on the discs between the vertebrae in our spines. Discs are made of a flexible cartilage with a thick fluid and a hard nucleus in the middle. Discs are designed to improve motion and provide shock absorption which makes them the most abused structure in the spine. When we bend forward, the disc bulges backward. This can cause weakness due to wear and tear on the inner posterior aspect of the disc. Likewise, placing too much strain on the top can make the disc bulge all the way around. This is seen when someone is overweight, does a lot of high impact exercises, or loads the body with too much weight like with squats.

Each time a disc bulges farther beyond its normal borders, micro-tearing occurs. Tears heal with scar tissue which is, by its nature, not as pliable and can tear again. It is possible to train scar tissue into flexibility and help it act like regular disc tissue but it takes time and training. Too often the more rigid scar tissue will tear and recreate the original problem. This is where traction or decompression comes in.

I may offend some docs who are big into decompression therapy but to me, it and traction are the same thing. I think they started using the fancier word “decompression” because they developed more sophisticated and expensive equipment and needed a word to match. I must confess, though, as a linguist, decompression does portray a clearer and more concise picture of what we are hoping to accomplish. But, I digress. With decompression or traction (and from here I will use the words interchangeably) the goal is to take away pressure from the disc. When pressure on the disc is lessened, the disc can reshape and heal.

Traction can be accomplished in a number of ways. The method I am asked about most is about home-unit to hang upside down. In this case, one straps their ankles into a clamp and then leans backward to a specified angle. Some units will allow a person to hang completely upside down. I recommend 45 degrees to start. That is usually enough to open the disc space without getting a head rush that will shorten the traction time.

There is a host of other traction devices. Most of them can be found on late night infomercials. All of have some legitimacy but some are definitely better than others. The one I have seen a lot recently has the person lying down with their heels resting on a moveable piece that pulls and moves the legs side to side. I am not sure how much traction is occurring but movement is always good. One of the better ones I have seen in the past looks like a big cushy loop that hangs in a doorway. The person is situated so that their upper back is on the ground and their pelvis and legs are parallel with the doorway. Again, the end result is the same and usually positive.

Some providers have very nice decompression machines that are extremely effective in separating the vertebrae thus decompressing the disc. With severe disc bulges and herniations, these machines can be lifesavers. The only downside is the expense which can be significant. In our office, we have available a more hands-on form of traction called flexion-distraction. The table we use flexes at the lumbar level and is spring loaded. The doctor puts one hand on the spine holding a specific level in place and uses the opposite hand to push the table down. The spine separates then accommodates as the spring pushes the table back up. If the chiropractor knows what they are doing, this a very effective form of traction and can make a big difference in the disc.

All of the forms of traction that I mentioned above address the low back. There are, however, various units for the neck, as well. There are three main types of cervical traction. One way uses a harness around the chin and base of the skull attached to a rope and pulley. These units either have a counter-weight, usually a water bag, or a tension spring. The other devices look like a collar between the shoulders and the chin/skull that expand when pumped full of air. Both are effective and mostly utilized at home. The third combines traction with an attempt to restore curvature. This unit is a wedge whereupon a person lies with their head hanging over the tall side of the wedge. Often times there is an elastic strap or a weight that pulls down from the forehead.

Whatever method you choose or whichever method is the most effective for you, the key to success, as with most things, is to apply it consistently over a significant length of time. I have a cervical traction unit that I use when my neck is hurting and I routinely have Dr. Wagnon adjust me on the flexion-distraction table. Discs, just like people, sometimes just need a break from the pressures of everyday life, traction or decompression is a great way to accomplish this.

Humpty Dumpty and Chiropractic

Recently, I had a patient ask me if I ever got stressed out about trying to put all of the Humpty Dumptys back together again. I joked that I am not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men so it is not my job to put Humpty Dumpty together again. This exchange brings up an interesting point, though. Several times a day people ask me to fix them. I understand what they want and I always do my best to help them, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I am thinking that their expectations are misfocused.

My job is to adjust the joints of the body. In doing so, the nervous system is stimulated which allows the body to communicate better. Better communication leads to better function. Better function leads to proper healing. Contrast helping the body function better with fixing something and you can appreciate why I am reluctant to claim that I fix or heal anything.

Bear with me while my BA in Linguistics drives the bus for a little while. If you take a very literal definition of the word fix, it means to “fasten [something] securely in a particular place or position.” That is the opposite of what I want to do. My aim is to help joints move. Likewise, it would be the height of hubris to think that I heal people. The body heals itself. Again, my job is to help the body function better so that it can heal properly and, hopefully, quicker.

Finally, giving me the burden of “fixing” someone is an impossible task no matter how willing the participants. That is like asking your exercise equipment to get you in shape. Sure the end goal is for you to get in shape but the responsibility is on you not on the equipment. Focus on improving function and not on getting fixed and you will find that not only are your expectations in line with your goals but that your care will also be much more effective and productive.

***Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

The Art of Diagnosis

Full confession, I really do not like the word diagnosis. It is a little too limited, definitive, and stodgy for my tastes. I believe that we would be better served just identifying dysfunctional body parts than knowing fancy words that typically just describe symptoms. That saying, understanding symptoms and how they relate to dysfunctional body parts is extremely beneficial when coming up with treatment options. Understanding anatomy, biomechanics,  and physiology can make diagnosing musculoskeletal injuries so easy it is a wonder why most doctors get it wrong most of the time.

It is important to understand the location and type of symptoms to make a proper diagnosis. Location of symptoms does not necessarily indicate the location of dysfunction. Many dysfunctional body parts refer symptoms to other parts of the body. Luckily, there are patterns which come is handy for those clever enough to recognize those patterns. The type of symptoms tell a good doctor what kind of structure is dysfunctional.

Embryologically speaking, there are three types of structures: bone, consisting of bones, joints, ligaments, discs, and cartilage; muscle, consisting of muscles, tendons, and organs; and nerve, which encompasses tissues of the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, autonomic nerves, nerve roots, and peripheral nerves. Bone symptoms are typically described as a deep dull ache and can refer to other bone-like structures. Muscle is also an ache but feels more like fatigue and soreness. Muscle is more superficial and usually stays within the same structure. Nerve symptoms are more electrical in nature; numbness and tingling, just numbness, burning, shooting, etc. Nerves stay in the network of nerves. Knowing this will get you pretty far.

Consultation is the first step. I ask for the location and have the patient describe the symptoms. I also look for the mechanism of injury knowing that some structures are more likely to fail, depending on the stress placed on them, than others. With a good consultation, I have a fairly solid idea of what the problem is.

The second step is to do an exam. Bone structures cannot move themselves. For these tests, I do the movement on the patient checking for instability, pain, and altered movement. When I isolate joint movements, I can narrow down the location of dysfunction. Instability tests will suggest ligament issues (assuming we are not dumb enough to do a stability test on a complete fracture). X-ray is helpful to see fractures and degenerative changes. MRI is helpful to see disc bulges, ligament tears, and pathology. Repetitive movement works great for determining how to reform a bulged disc.

Muscles and tendons move bones. To test a muscle or tendon, resisting the muscle’s movement is an easy way to determine which muscle is injured. Why most doctors do not do this is baffling. Pain with resistance at the end of the muscle is usually tendon related and anywhere else is usually the muscle itself. If the type of pain is described as muscular but cannot be recreated with resisted movement, it could be an organ referring pain. Here again, repetitively resisting movement can really help determine how to help treat the injured structure.

Nerve symptoms require some specialized tests in the form of reflexes and sensation testing. True neurological injuries are very difficult to diagnose and to treat. In addition, any of the above can cause secondary and tertiary issues in other parts of the body, like muscles spasms or nerve pain due to encroachment with a disc herniation, for example.

Finally, one of the best ways to diagnose an issue is to treat the issue and see if it helps. Obviously, you cannot do this with everything, but as a chiropractor, I can do this for most injuries. Even a surgeon will tell you that nothing is definitive until they open you up and see it in real life. The point being, do not get too caught up with figuring out what something is before trying to treat it. Ruling out conditions is still valuable.

There you have it. Instead of plugging symptoms into WebMD to discover that you have a rare, incurable, terminal illness, just step back and look at the anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics of the body and go from there. Or, see your local chiropractor and let them help you through your issues or point you in the right direction. We spend a tremendous amount of time learning about all aspects of the human body.

**Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

Tennis Elbow? I Do Not Even Play Tennis!

tennis-elbow-pictureIn a world where we have so much access to information, I find that when it comes to diagnoses, there are some overly-simplified patterns. If there is pain in the foot, it is plantar fasciitis, pain down the leg is labeled sciatica, and elbow pain is tennis elbow. Not that these conditions are not common; just not that common. Tennis elbow is particularly over-diagnosed. Pain in the elbow is common. Tennis elbow, however, is specifically pain resulting from injury to the extensor tendons which insert at the lateral epicondyle causing inflammation and dysfunction. Simply put, to be tennis elbow, the pain must be right around the little knob on the outside of the elbow and get worse when trying to extend the wrist with resistance. It is called tennis elbow presumably because repetitive backhand swings in tennis will cause such a condition. Incidentally, pain on the inner knob is known as golfers elbow.

I have found that neither tennis elbow or golfers elbow are more common than just a regular subluxated elbow. As a hinge that rotates and pivots and is made up of three bones and two joints, dysfunction is easy to come by. Often, the radial head will get stuck farther back than it should be. This will cause a strain on the muscles that insert in that area and mimic or create tennis elbow. The good news is that with an adjustment or a few, the condition typically responds quickly. If it is, indeed, tennis elbow, the best thing to do is to make sure the elbow is adjusted and functioning properly, then focus on the tendons with ice, stretching, and myofascial massage or active release. So, the next time somebody complains of tennis elbow, tell them to see their local friendly chiropractor.

 

5 Things To Do When Your Back Goes Out

Have you ever bent over to pick up something only to experience a pain like someone shoved a hot poker into your low back and then started pulling your muscles apart? Yeah, most of us have felt that at some point. Hopefully, it never happens to you, too, but if it does, here is what you do.

  1. Stop and Breathe. You are probably feeling like your life is about to end. Most of what you are experiencing is a muscle spasm. Your back muscles are trying to protect you but they have dramatically overreacted. If you can, stay where you are and do your best to let the muscles settle down. Deep breaths and relaxation will dramatically speed up the process. Have some water and wait it out.
  2. Stretch backward. Typically, when a back goes “out” the disc in between the vertebrae is stuck in a bulging position. Bending backward will help squish that disc back to the center and will also shorten the spasming muscles. Go easy with this. Gently push into a cobra position if you are on the floor. Otherwise, brace yourself with your hands on your backside and carefully arch backward. Do it several times in a row and often thereafter. Here is an old video as a demonstration.
  3. Walk, Lie Down, Do NOT Sit. When the spasm has settled down, walk a bit. Movement will help get the blood moving which helps to settle the muscles and get the disc moving. You do not want to overdo this. Move a bit and then lie down on your back with the knees bent. The firmer the surface, the better. Sitting will be counterproductive. When you sit, you increase the pressure on the disc and stretch the muscles of the lower back.
  4. Ice. Icing helps reduce inflammation. Typically, when a back goes out, there is inflammation. The quicker you can get rid of the inflammation, the better. It is not completely out of the question to use heat. Heat will soften the spasming muscles and allow you to move. However, heat also brings more inflammation. If you decide you cannot move without heat, use it, but then move around for a while and then follow up with ice. Both heat and ice should only be used for a maximum of 20 minutes. For ice, the skin needs to get cold enough to go numb to be successful. Here are the stages of ice, so you know you are doing it right. 
  5. Go See Your Chiropractor. Once the spasms have settled down a bit, the inflammation is under control, and you are able to move, it is time to get the joints working properly and the disc back to a good shape. This is what chiropractors do best. An adjustment will get all of the joints in the area to move correctly which will allow the disc to heal properly. Get in as soon as possible before scar tissue makes that first adjustment a painful one.
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The Cost of Waiting

Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” The same is true for addressing your health concerns. Several times each day I have patients come in who tell me they have been hurting for days, weeks, months, or even years. The story is usually that they just thought it would get better on its own but it never did. Inevitably, they express their remorse at waiting to come in.

The truth is that with any injury, the body starts the healing process immediately. The concern is whether you will heal correctly. The body will compensate in whichever way it can to stabilize. If muscles are tight or ligaments are overstretched, it will alter the proper movement of joints. Such improper movement causes the nervous system to become confused and ultimately desensitized. Consequently, the body will lay down scar tissue that will promote the new and improper movement patterns which leaves the body susceptible to reinjury or to injury of surrounding tissue.

As a chiropractor, if I can help move the joints in a proper manner before inflammation and scar tissue sets in, then the healing process is a much easier ordeal. If you wait until scar tissue repair has set in when you come in to see me, the first step will be for me to tear down most of that process so the healing can start over. As with remodeling kitchens, the demolition can be ugly. The old adage of getting worse before it gets better is often in play and can lead to a few days of discomfort.

Another caveat to waiting is establishing movement patterns that can be difficult to retrain. Old habits are harder to change than simply making new ones in a fresh environment. Chronic conditions can take years to correct for this very reason. Muscles and joints have memory locked in to the nervous system. In my experience, it typically takes around three months of consistent treatment to change that memory.

Finally, with altered movement, the the body will degenerate quicker. At a joint level that means that tissues will dry up and bone spurs will form. Once a bone spur has formed, everything changes. No amount of adjusting, taking supplements, acupuncture, or whatever is going to remove that. Tissues can be rehydrated but they are never as good as they used to be. This is mortality. However, we can help slow down the degenerative process. At the end of the day, if we just improve the function it is worth it.

All conditions will change over time. The body will strive to compensate but that compensation can lead to issues down the road. If you have an injury or if dysfunction has been brewing for too long, get in! Better yet, come consistently and do your best to maintain good health and function.

 

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How Do I Know If My Chiropractic Treatments Are Helping?

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One of the most fulfilling yet difficult aspects of my career is helping people navigate their journey to better health. Healing is a process that can take a lot of time. We tend to think of that process as a straight road from disease or injury to health but that is the exception rather than the rule. Often, things feel worse before they feel better and there are always plateaus and valleys. Helping patients to have faith in the process and continue care inspite of bumps in the road is a worthy challenge.

Everyone comes into the office with disfunction. Not all disfunction is symptomatic but it all has potential to become so. Sometimes people come in with symptoms that are just starting to show but during further examination, I discover that those symptoms are just the tip of a very large disfunctional iceberg. I know that when I start chipping away at the disfuntion below the surface it is going to make those symtoms much more obvious. This can be very alarming. In addition, symptoms can change or move locations. People who are more prone to worry, often need a lot of reassurance to stay the course. There are several signs and symptoms that may cause concern but are actually indicative of progress. Most of these happen in early stages of care.

Pain will often increase with increased movement. Adjustments are designed to move joints that have been stuck or moving improperly for some time. Getting them to move again can cause pain. It is not always pleasant but it is a necessary step. As a rule, the pain should be more of an ache or soreness. Furthermore, pain can centralize and therefore increase in intensity. Centralized pain, or pain that is focalizing on the disfunctional joint, is usually more painful than a broad spread out pain. In this phenomenon, the pain is going back to where it belongs which is a very positive step. The closer your symptoms are to the structure that is actually causing the symptoms, the better the body will be at promoting healing in that area.

Symptoms often change especially when nerves are involved. If a nerve is significantly injured, the worst thing is complete numbness with zero sensation. There is actually no pain. When we lessen the irritation, the sensation is one of pins and needles and achiness. This can be followed by soreness. These symptoms will wax and wane for some time before a complete recovery.

Another change that can happen that will cause a patient mental anguish is when a symptom switches sides. We often see this is disc related injuries. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. It tells me that the disc is not completely stuck in one bulging position and can change or, even better, that it has not degenerated to the point of no return. The ability to change means it can heal.

I find it much better to not focus on symptoms but to look at movement patterns, muscle tone, and inflammation. If range of motion is improving and muscles are calming down, then progress is being made, and it is only a matter of consistency and time before symptoms start to go away for long stretches of time. When people ask if they are getting better, or complain that they are not any better, when I know they are, I usually ask them how they feel after an adjustment. More often than not, they feel significantly better but it just does not last as long as they think it should. As we get better, we also tend to forget how bad the pain was. The contrast of any pain when you have experienced little to no pain promotes the idea that one is not improving. Perspective is the key.

If you feel like chiropractic is not helping you, please take a step back and consider the big picture before you cut your care short, thus nullifying all of the hard work you and your doctor have done to help you become functional again.

 

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If You Are In An Auto Accident That is Not Your Fault, It Should Not Cost You Anything.

Statistically speaking, you will probably be in an auto accident at some point in your life. I believe that injuries happen in most accidents, even the small ones and that you are doing yourself a disservice by not healing correctly after. One of the barriers that keep people from getting the care they need is the potential cost. Let me be very clear, if you are in an auto accident and it is not your fault, your care should be covered 100% either by the responsible person’s insurance company, through your insurance company, or by the responsible person. This article explores the most common ways to have healthcare bills paid.

The simplest way to make sure your bills are covered is to hire an experienced personal injury attorney. I understand that there is a stigma with hiring a personal injury attorney and there are definitely some shady characters out there. However, there are some good guys, too, and they can make life so much easier. A good attorney will make it so you do not have to talk to the insurance company again which means no more harassing phone calls or bullying you into believing you are not really hurt or that you are milking the system. Personal Injury attorneys work on a contingency so they get a percentage of the settlement they get for you. Usually, that is 33%. A good attorney, provided it is a decent case, will usually get a larger settlement which means more money for you in the form of pain and suffering. It can take a while for everyone to get paid using this method but most doctors will treat you on a lien backed by the attorney because they know the attorney will pay them when the case settles. I highly recommend this option for most of my patients.

The next easiest, and frankly the one chiropractors like the best, is to bill your insurance company through med-pay. Med-pay is an extra on your policy and not everyone has it. It usually costs an extra few bucks per month and covers up to around $5,000 in healthcare if you are in an accident regardless if it is your fault or not. Chiropractors like it because they pay as you go so they do not have to wait for a lump sum payment. You can still get an attorney if you have med pay if you would like a settlement for yourself. You can also negotiate a settlement for yourself but you need to be careful that the other insurance company knows that the total settlement includes what your insurance company already paid in med-pay.  Your insurance company can go after the other insurance company for what they paid in med-pay and if you close the case with the other insurance company by taking a settlement, your insurance company might come after you for compensation.

You can negotiate a settlement yourself with the other person’s insurance company. This is the riskiest thing to do, especially for the doctor. In this situation, after all the treatment is done, you take all of your bills and any other expenses and submit it to the claims adjuster. You can also ask for more money for pain and suffering. It has been my experience that this is not as easy as it should be. Claims adjusters will often deny a legitimate claim hoping you do not want to spend your time and energy to fight with them. They can bully you into believing that what you are asking for it too much and way above what is normal and try and pit you against your doctors. They can even take the attitude of “what are you going to do about it?” At this point, it is usually too late to get an attorney which means you are left to figure out a way to file a complaint or sue in small claims court. Both are a pain and may cost you. Most chiropractors will not treat you unless you pay upfront which can get expensive. I will treat in this situation on a lien in hopes that the insurance company will play nice and trusting the patient to pay me when it all settles.

Finally, you can take the insurance company or the other driver to small claims court. The limit of small claims court is around $7,500 in most counties depending on the nature of the claim. It will cost you a filing fee, usually around $75 and you will also have to pay someone to serve the defendant which can be expensive. These cases are simple to win but with all of the upfront expenses, the low reward, and the time you will spend, it is by far the least attractive option. Plus, actually getting money from the person you are suing can be very difficult, at least in California.

I am not a lawyer and I am not giving legal advice. If you are in an accident that is not your fault, please do yourself a favor and educate yourself on how the process works. Doing so will allow you to get the care you need which is the most important thing.

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Even If I Want to, I Cannot Help Everyone. Neither Can Chiropractic.

The great Aristotle once wrote that “The more you know, the more you know you do not know.” For me, the more experience I gain, the more I realize my limitations. People who know me well, know that I do not lack confidence. I try not to be arrogant but I do my best to assure myself that I can be a force for good in this world. That saying, I must confess that no matter how much I may want to make everyone better, there are just some people that I cannot help.

Recently, I had a patient come in that I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. She did not come in for an adjustment. She came in to explain why I couldn’t help her. You see, back then I gave her several adjustments which provided little to no relief and then she started heading south so she discontinued care. As a doctor, that is the most helpless feeling. It is made significantly worse when there is no explanation why. In her case, she was born with a birth defect called a Chiari Malformation where the lower part of the brain drops below the skull. This can lead to a syringomelia, a pocket of fluid in the spinal cord which can be very painful and dangerous. Anyway, this was never mentioned in her MRI report from years earlier. The neuro/spine specialist that she saw some time after seeing me saw it on the MRI. This little bit of information explained everything. I am grateful she came in and shared that with me.

There will always be conditions that are too far advanced for me to help. I don’t like it, but that is the way it is. We do not always know when a condition is beyond help until after we have tried. I have had many patients with serious back pain come in and ask if I can help. As a chiropractor, I know I can adjust them. In most cases, this will help in the healing process. At the very least, it is a conservative start. Most patients get better and we can manage. Others do not. I have recommended MRI’s and surgery when it is beyond my help. For the most part, those patients have seen good results and have come back to me for care after their surgeries.

Finally, there are people who either do not really want to be helped or have unrealistic expectations of how long and what it will take to heal. Healing takes time and effort. One adjustment can make a big difference in how a patient feels but it does not mean that their injury has healed. Consistent care is tentamount to healing properly. Likewise, just because there is still pain, it does not mean that injury is not healing. Pain can be tricky and is not a very good indicator of the level of damage.

In short, I sleep at night knowing that I do my best to help others live healthier lives. There are always challenges and there will be people that despite my knowledge, skills, and determination, I cannot help. For those people, I am sorry. I feel bad for you and hope there is some one out there with the answers and approach to help you in your journey.

It’s a Wonderful Life From This Chiropractor’s Perspective

I love the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I am especially moved by and relate to the main character, George Bailey. George consistently puts the needs of others before his own wants. He is flawed for sure, but when it comes down to it, he does the right thing for others. In the end, we see just how much his generosity and selflessness has affected others and when George is in dire straights, they lift and support him.

I often tell people that I strive to work by the George Bailey Principle where people and community are more important than money and business. I really believe this. I am also thoroughly convinced that when we focus on relationships and helping others, money and business will come.

Why am I sharing this? It kills me that there are people out there who need help but do not seek it because they fear the expense. They suffer because of something as stupid as money. Now, I get that for some it is a priority issue. I try not to know or judge. Honestly, what I care about most is helping people live healthier lives. Because of this, I know that money and success will come. It has come, and will continue. If you need care and finances are a concern, come talk to me and let’s work it out to make it affordable.

The two quotes that impact me the most in the movie are: “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends.”  and “A toast to my big brother, George: the richest man in town.” In my practice, I do not need to have the most money; I just want to help the most people. This will make me the richest man in town.