In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Spine Division Leader Zac Morgan discusses the importance of including lumbar flexion in a robust rehabilitation program. Take a listen or check out the episode transcription below.
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00:00 ZAC MORGAN, PT
Good morning PT on Ice. I am Dr. Zac Morgan. I am with our spine faculty, so I lead the spine division teaching lumbar and cervical spine courses. And this morning’s episode is going to be a little bit on that topic of spine pain and specifically why low backs must flex. So we’ll get to that, but before we do, let me just point you in the direction of a few courses that we have coming across the country over the next few months for both lumbar and cervical. So over in Richmond area, lumbar, the next offering will be September 23rd. We actually have several courses going, lumbar that weekend. So if you’re anywhere in the country and you want to catch lumbar spine, September 23rd is a good one to have marked down. So it will be outside of Richmond, in Baton Rouge, and over in Parker, Colorado, right outside of Denver. So several good offerings spread all around the country. If you’re looking for cervical management, we’ve got a few coming up as well. We’ve got Brookfield, Wisconsin, that’s July 22nd, that weekend. And then August 26th and 27th will be over in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then September 9th over near Atlanta in Roswell, Georgia. So several good open offerings. If you’re looking for one of those spine management courses, we’d love to see you out on the road. We’ll have a bunch more throughout the year. So watch the website, watch the podcast, and you will know when we’re going to be in your area. This idea for this episode came into my head this morning about, or not this morning, this idea came into my head over the last few weeks as I’ve seen more and more posts from, we’ll just say Instagram influencers, people that are in this space of Instagram and perhaps are physical therapists and treating a lot. And I see a lot of vilifying of lumbar flexion, specifically a lot of pointing towards anatomy and the reasons why people shouldn’t flex based on their anatomy. And the most common reason that you’re going to see people vilify flexion in the low back is due to concerns of disc herniation. And we all know that there’s some older studies that have pointed towards lumbar flexion, putting an increased pressure on the posterior annulus of the disc, and thereby making a lot of therapists for a long time very concerned about having their patients move into flexion because of the fear of every flexion weakens the posterior annulus of the disc. And with each flexion, you’re actually weakening that tissue, eventually causing a problem. But I want to push back on that narrative a little bit. Now understand that at ICE, we think of back and neck pain in patterns. So there are some patterns of back pain where I will withhold flexion on my clients. I’ll tell my client, hey, please, I need you to stop flexing. Sometimes I’ll even utilize tape so that that way they’re able to feel when their low back is moving into flexion. But that pattern is fairly obvious. And that one is what you classically think of as more of your lumbar radiculopathy or derangement presentation. And typically in that client’s objective exam, when you ask that person to move into flexion, they’re going to worsen. So each time you have them flex, they’ll either lose range of motion in deflection, meaning their fingertips won’t slide as far down their thighs as they did prior, and or they’ll peripheralize. Their symptoms will exit the low back or maybe intensify in the low back and start to spread down the limb if they have some sort of sciatic related complaints as well. So if you’re seeing a loss of forward flexion and or peripheralization of symptoms, that is the client where I would withhold flexion and not forever. I would tell that client on day one, Bill, right now, when you’ve been forward, your symptoms are getting worse. For the next couple of weeks, I need us to be really judicious and careful with forward bending. But understand that is a normal, healthy movement for your low back to make. And one day we’re going to get back to it. So make sure you always prep them with that because we want that client to know we’re coming back to flexion no matter what. Flexion is a normal part of the range of motion of the lumbar spine. It’s really challenging to move through the world without flexing your low back. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and throw some tape or have one of your coworkers throw some tape on your back and see how often you’re pulling that tape top. Every time you put your shoes and socks on, when you sit on the toilet, putting your pants on, loads of things make your back into reflection. People recognize this when they hurt their back and they’re flexion sensitive. All of a sudden they’re like, wow, I didn’t realize how much I use my back. What they’re usually complaining about is that flexion. I didn’t realize how often I flex my back. So let’s get into it. There’s a time and a place to withhold flexion, but it’s certainly not everybody because for most people they need to be able to move. So one pattern in particular that pops into my head of people that really need to flex is the dysfunction patient. And if you’re McKinsey trained, you’ve probably thought of this in terms of like, if a derangement doesn’t clear up their end range flexion, they will become a dysfunction. But I like to think of that pattern as more all encompassing. Essentially a dysfunction patient is someone with soft tissue extensibility dysfunction across the posterior side of their spine. Meaning they don’t have the elasticity in their muscles, in their paraspinals, and all the structures on the posterior side of their spine. They don’t have the elasticity to move into flexion. And you’ll hear this person say things in the subjective exam like, Zach, it’s so tight. It feels very tight. It feels like I need to stretch. My back is always tight. When I wake up in the morning, my back is tight. If I’ve been standing for a long time, my back will get tight. If I have to sit for a while, my back will get tight. You’ll hear them complain of things like tightness. And one thing that always stands out in this person’s objective exam is you’ll ask them to forward bend and they’ll turn to the side and go to forward bend. And you’ll see that they only access hip flexion. They actually don’t reverse their lumbar curve at all. So you’ll see that low back just stay flat as they move their fingertips down their thighs and their hip flexion will eat up all that motion. Often this person will have adapted pretty decent hip flexion. And sometimes I’ll even see them put their palms on the floor. But if you look at their lumbar spine, there’s no motion coming from them. So when we see that pattern, often flexion is part of the solution. Getting that person’s low back to accept load and deflection can be part of what helps them solve this problem. So I always want to be really careful when it comes to vilifying any motion, because for some people that motion’s the solution. While for other people that motion may really bother their symptoms. And this is the big overarching point is one solution is never going to work for all of back pain. If there was one solution, if the solution was to not flex, or if the solution was to only extend or spinal manipulation or dry needling or anything, we wouldn’t see back and neck pain be this multi tens of billions of dollar problem year over year. If we had it figured out that well, this problem would be much easier to solve. So it seems clear that some people need it and other people’s don’t. And that’s how back pain works. That’s why you listening to this episode as the provider need to be confident in this space and understand that not one prescription works for all of back pain. So let’s talk about why flection works a bit. And some of the things to think about moving forward, just to help push back again on that narrative of vilifying flection. First things first, with a lot of these people, they feel very tight and they feel very compressed. I don’t have perfect proof for this, but if you think about the attachment site of the pair of spinals, I mean, from the base of the skull all the way down to sacrum, those big ropey muscles run parallel to one another on either side of the spine. If that person’s tense, if they truly are tight, if their nervous system is just really heightened in the region, often that tone in those pair of spinals goes up. And what you see is a compressive type feel when they have it in the neck, they’ll feel like somebody’s got their hands on their head, just pushing down in the low back. They just hate sitting or hate compressive load. And one person that tends to do really well with flection based exercise is this one. So often, if you have that person start to put some length into that system by repetitively challenging flection, those muscles will relax a bit and the tone will drop some. And as that tone drops, the person will report a better feeling in their back. Hey, it feels like it’s stretched out. That really feels like a good stretch, Zach. I love moving in that direction. Yeah. Now that I’ve done that, I feel better. Reminder the derangement patient who doesn’t need to flex. They’re going to feel worse each time that they do this. The dysfunction patient may feel bad while they’re flexing, but they feel better after. So that’s one of the key differences. And part of that is cause I think we’re reducing some of the compressive load. That’s just sort of statically sitting on this person’s spine by getting them to move those muscles. So one thing that’s nice is we get a reduction in that compressive load. This kind of goes hand in hand, but that subjective report that your patients give you of, man, my, my back feels so tight. It’s so tight. I need a stretch. This addresses that feeling for whatever reason, their nervous system feels as if they’re tight in that region. Sometimes people are, they truly have muscle extensibility dysfunction. Other times people are just tense and they have a hard time relaxing those muscles. Either way, repetitive flexion in my practice has been a really good way to sort of give those muscles some input or give them some actual stretch that allows them to lengthen out and allows that person to move with more, uh, fearless, thoughtless movement that allows them to kind of move about their day without feeling like a robot quite so much. So often getting rid of some of that tightness feel involves doing some stretching. And I realize I’m kind of going counterculture here because I feel like the pendulum is swung very far away from sweat stretching. But the most common question I get asked in the clinic is, can you show me a stretch for this? And I know a few of you are laughing and thinking, gosh, yes, people always think that’s all we do is show stretches, but people see value in stretching. And if we believe in, in, um, patient expectations, then we should match those expectations to some degree. I’m not saying we’re not going to load as well. We’re off. We’re going to do that. If the patient’s impartial, my preference is certainly eccentric exercise because you get the added benefit of tissue durability alongside lengthening. But if we’re just trying to get the person to buy in, I’m all for stretching and often stretching those pair of spinal makes this person’s back feel way, way better. The next piece is just motion is lotion, right? Like our, our body is built to move. It is not built to be static. It has been adapted over years and years for movement, not for desk sitting, not for being really still. And so part of this is just motion is lotion, right? Like when we get a fluid exchange through those structures of the spine, through those muscles, the person’s back feels significantly better. And there’s no reason to run from that. We want that fluid exchange. We want that person moving around. And then the last piece team that I want to emphasize is why we should flex is that function is huge here. So if we were unable to flex our back, things like putting on our socks are completely a disaster. If you don’t, if you’ve never experienced a derangement, I hope you never do, but spoken from someone who has that morning, you wake up and you can’t flex. Everything’s harder. You’re considering asking your wife to help you get your pants on because it’s so hard for you to move forward. We have to be able to flex. If we can’t flex, all of those activities get way harder. And if we put forward the message that you need to be fearful of flexion because of your disc health, people are going to stop doing it. They’re going to see those videos and they’re going to say, you know what, that person’s an expert. Let’s be really careful with flexion. We don’t want people being careful with flexion. Now I would never coach someone to lift a heavy load, a maximal deadlift with their back flexed. And that’s partially due to, I do think end ranges are probably not the best for lifting, but a lot of it’s performance, like straight lines or strong lines. I love when Mitch Babcock says that when we get the back flat, you can utilize your hips so much better and you can move more load. So from a performance standpoint, it makes sense to me to keep the back flat at heavy loads. When we’re talking about putting our shoes and socks on, when we’re talking about grabbing something off the floor, when we’re talking about even doing things like ski, Yerg, GHD sit-ups, rowing, our backs are going to enter flexion. And if they don’t, that will start to feel like movement dysfunction for the person. And if they try to stay perfectly flat through all of those things, it often drives this dysfunction pattern. So team, I really just kind of wanted to hit the high levels here of why our backs have to flex. And like I said, I see it over and over where there are different influencers who are vilifying lumbar flexion. And I think it’s something that we as a PT community need to stand against. And it’s not that we need to vilify those influencers. They are putting forth great information as well, but I do think it’s a bit of an outdated narrative, outdated narrative for us to stop flexing the low back. Are there people who need to transiently limit their lumbar flexion? Absolutely. I see them all the time in the clinic. It is not rare for me to say, Hey, I need you to hold back on that motion for the short term. That said, do we need to drive a bunch of content towards making people fearful of that motion? No, much like knee flexion. We don’t want people afraid of knee flexion. Same deal with the low back. It’s just like everything else. It’s a bunch of joints with a bunch of muscles surrounding it and a bunch of nerves giving it input and output from that region. That area needs to move. So let’s not vilify it. The next time I’m on here, what I’m going to do is show you on a technique Tuesday. So we’ll bring back technique Tuesday and I want to show you some mobilizations that I love to improve lumbar flexion in this person that we’ve been talking about. So that’s all I’ve got for you today. Hope you have an awesome Tuesday and we will be back tomorrow morning. Same time. Thanks team.
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