Dispelling the myths surrounding disc bulges and back pain.

The story.

You’re at home, you reach down to pick up your shoes and “bang” you get this sudden, crippling back pain. You call your physio/chiro/osteo/doctor. They assess you and say that you probably have a slipped disc or a disc bulge and that you need an MRI. You go home, jump on the world wide web and are confronted with all sorts of pictures showing discs pushing on nerves. Every website you read says that you may need surgery and you should be avoiding heavy lifting, bending and twisting. Sound familiar?

There are 3 main problems with the above scenario.

1. Scans rarely add value.

Patients symptoms rarely correlate with what we see on their scans . A systematic review by Brinjiki and colleagues in 2014 looked at all the studies published on asymptomatic people i.e. they had no symptoms or history of symptoms. They found that all the studies regularly reported disc problems in pain free subjects.

30% of all 20yr olds had a disc bulge and no pain. This percentage increased with age, with over 60% of 50yr olds having a disc bulge, and these are people who had no symptoms whatsoever. We also regularly find that patients with acute, crippling low back pain have no evidence of acute tissue damage on MRI.

A study in 2015 (Fritz and colleagues) also found that back pain patients who had an MRI or CT scan spent up to $5,000 more on rehabilitation compared to those who didn’t . The reason for this is multifactorial and mostly is the result of “Pathologisation” (which we will talk about in a later post).

So having an x-ray, MRI or CT scan for your back pain will in most cases be a waste of your time and money. (The only exception to this rule is if you have signs or symptoms suggesting serious pathology like a fracture OR if you have constant pins and needles, numbness and weakness in a dermatomal distribution).

2. Disc bulges are more likely to cause leg symptoms rather than back pain. If you have back pain, and no leg symptoms, it is unlikely that a disc is the cause of your symptoms. The reason is that the disc itself is actually very poorly innervated (Garcia-Cosamalon and colleagues 2010) meaning that the disc itself does not contain a lot of sensory nerve fibres. It will really only start to cause you grief if it starts to contact and compress the nerve root. If it gets to this point, you may have pins and needles, numbness, weakness of the area supplied by the nerve that is affected. Even at this stage we can reliably diagnose it without the use of scans.

Patients with true disc bulge symptoms will most likely present to the clinic complaining of leg symptoms but no back pain.

3. Avoidance of movement can result in poorer outcomes . By all means avoid heavy lifting until your pain settles but there is no reason, nor any evidence, to suggest that avoiding bending or avoiding twisting will help healing or speed recovery. We actually know that stiff spines are painful spines so avoidance of specific movements can result in reduced mobility and reduced strength in the long term . Getting moving early, and recovering your mobility and flexibility early, with the help of a competent clinician, is the most effective treatment.

So if the above story sounds like you, don’t panic! Approximately 95% of patients with acute low back pain who present to a competent physiotherapist recover completely within 4 weeks, most even sooner.

If you’re reading this and have already had an MR or CT scan, remember these findings are normal and most likely are not the cause of your pain. Low back pain is multifactorial, so having it assessed by a competent practitioner is the fastest way to get you moving again.


A Runners Guide to Shin Splints

Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS) or “shin splints” is one of the most commonly reported lower limb injuries by competitive and recreational athletes. Recent research has shown that shin splints affects approximately 20% of the running population, with the majority of sufferer’s partaking in long distance training/competition.

What causes the pain?

Currently, there is two widely accepted theories on the cause of shin splints:

  1. The bony bending/bowing theory
  2. The traction theory

The bony bending theory suggests that during running, the Tibia (shin bone) bends due to the stress placed upon it. This bending causes small amounts of strain in the bone that enables it to adapt and get stronger (a good thing!!). When this strain exceeds the adaption process the shin bone becomes overloaded (a bad thing!), subsequently leading to injury and pain.

The traction theory states that shins splints is caused by the continual contraction of the muscles (Soleus, Flexor Digitorum Longus & Tibialis Posterior) that attach to the inner border of the shin. As these muscles contract during running, they place a traction stress on the shin bone, which results in inflammation at their attachment onto the bone, causing pain.

Am I at risk?

Current research has identified several risk factors leading to an increased likelihood of developing shin splints. These include:

  • A previous history of shin splints

  • Prior orthotic use
  • High Body Mass Index (BMI)

  • Female gender

  • Decreased running experience

  • Decreased running cadence (step rate)

  • Excessive pronation

  • Over striding
  • Crossover running style

  • Increased vertical oscillation (ground clearance)

  • Forefoot running

How do I know if I have shin splints?

To diagnose shin splints accurately, two symptoms must be present:

  1. Exercise induced pain along the distal 2/3 of the medial Tibial border
  2. Recognisable pain produced by pressing the medial Tibial border, which spans a distance of 5cm or more.

If you are experiencing symptoms not typical of shin splints such as cramping, pain spanning less than 5cm, burning pain, numbness or pins and needles, you should seek a thorough assessment by a physiotherapist to properly diagnose and treat your condition.

Treatment – Technique Technique Technique!!!

Arguably one of the biggest contributors to the development of shin splints in a runner is their running technique, particularly their lower limb mechanics. One of the quickest ways to reduce shin splints related pain is to address the technical aspects of running that can contribute to increased stress across the Tibia and associated musculature. What you should focus on is:

  • Cadence – Normal cadence should be between 165-185steps/min. Decreased Cadence causes increased ground contact time resulting in prolonged pronation and excessive tibial torsion stress.
  • Over striding – Excessive stride length results in poor tibia positioning upon heel strike, increasing Soleal traction and reducing force absorption ability.
  • Cross Over Gait Landing across the midline of the body causes excessive tibial torsion and pronation, reducing proper force attenuation.
  • Vertical Oscillation Increased vertical oscillation during running increases Tibial impact forces and often results in a loud foot strike.

How do I improve my technique?

Increase your cadence!! – This is by far the biggest bang for your buck. Increasing your cadence by approximately 10%:

  • Reduces lower limb impact forces by 20%

  • Reduces vertical oscillation
  • Reduces ground contact time

  • Reduces stride length

The best way to achieve an increase in your cadence is by using GPS watches, phone applications or by simply running on a treadmill.

Eliminate a crossover running style – On a track, run straddling a line across 2 lanes or alternatively, try and maintain a space between your knees with every stride.

How to beat shin splints using strength

Strength exercises for shin splints should aim to improve the localised muscular capacity of the calf complex as well as the bone load capacity of the Tibia. This is best addressed with weight bearing functional exercises that mimic running postures.

One of the most important and often forgotten muscles of the calf complex is the Soleus. The soleus muscle is vital for absorbing excessive loads placed on the Tibia during running by minimising excessive pronation as well as resisting the bending forces experienced by the Tibia due to ground impact.

The best Soleus exercise that runners can do is the Bent Knee calf raise (pictured above). To perform the exercise correctly:

  • Bend your knee as far forward as possible, keeping your foot flat on the floor

  • Keeping your knee bent, raise yourself up onto your toes
  • Lower your heel back to the ground

Perform 3 sets of 15 repetitions in a slow and controlled manner.

As always, if you are having problems, please do not hesitate to contact one of our experienced physiotherapists.