The sacroiliac joint, sciatica, and unexplained lower back pain

I often have patients come in with a “mysterious” chronic lower back pain. Sometimes it’s described as lumbar or hip pain. They’ve been to doctors and chiropractors, but it still persists. As soon as they put their hand on it (low and to the side, where the buttocks meet the back) it’s pretty clear that the problem is the SI – the sacroiliac joint.

Pelvis

The SI joint – where the sacrum meets the ilium – is a long vertical area on the sides of the lower back. Back pain is often centered at the top of the SI joint.

At the bottom of your spine is a triangular bone, the sacrum. Attached to that is your pelvis (made up of the ilium, ischium, and pubis). Your femurs, the long bones of your thighs, settle into a socket on the side of the pelvis. A complex set of ligaments and lots of muscles join all these bones. If one or more of these muscles is tight, weak, or spastic, it can throw the balance of the entire pelvic system off. A few of the major players are Iliopsoas, piriformis, and quadratus lumborum. These muscles keep us upright and help us walk, but when they go bad… I call them the Holy Trinity of Lower Back Pain.

Quadratus Lumborum runs from the lower ribs to the top of the ilium. There are also connections to the spine. This is your "hip hiking" muscle - imagine a "belly dance" sort of motion - but if course it's essential in walking and other daily movements.

Quadratus Lumborum runs from the lower ribs to the top of the ilium. There are also connections to the spine. This is your “hip hiking” muscle – imagine a “belly dance” sort of motion – but if course it’s essential in walking and other daily movements.

Iliopsoas starts at the front of the spine and the ilium, goes through the pelvic cavity, and attaches to the femur. It gets tight on people who sit a lot, particularly if you are tense while sitting (motorcylists and people who hate their jobs).

Iliopsoas starts at the front of the spine and the ilium, goes through the pelvic cavity, and attaches to the femur. It gets tight on people who sit a lot, particularly if you are tense while sitting (motorcylists and people who hate their jobs). When tight, it jams the bones together and creates stress on the joints.

 

Piriformis

This is a back view. The piriformis muscle attaches at the sacrum, and goes across the butt to the femur. The sciatic nerve passes under it or through it, depending on your personal anatomy. When the piriformis gets tight, it squishes the sciatic nerve and can cause electric shocks or pain running down the leg.

With every step you take, the sacrum “nutates” – it tilts back and forth in relation to the ilium. If the bones are jammed together and can’t glide properly, it causes pain. Sitting can also be a painful prospect: If the joint is inflammed, the altered pressure of a seated position can be excruciating. I understand this very well because I developed lower back pain and SI problems along with a L4-L5 disc herniation after my car accident in 2001. I wasn’t able to sit at all for the 6 months before I discovered acupuncture and Osteopathy.

There’s rarely only one muscle involved. Usually a primary dysfuction causes a cascade of compensation with other muscles. Nerves can be pinched by either tight muscles directly or by a bone pulled out of place by a tight muscle (bones don’t move by themselves).  Nerve impingement can lead to pain radiating down the leg or into the genital area. Motor control as well as sensation may be affected. The leg may go weak, or a patient may experience bladder or bowel incontinence (If this happens, get to the ER immediately – they will take steps to relieve pressure on the nerve and prevent permanent damage).

In most cases, the first thing we have to do is reset the tension on the muscles. Acupuncture and medical massage will work wonders here. Once the soft tissue is corrected, I can generally realign the bones with fingertip pressure. They just slide back home with no drama or fuss. Now it’s a matter of allowing the irritated nerve to calm down, which can take 20 minutes to months (or never, in worst-case scenario), depending on the extent of the damage. Whenever you are dealing with entrapped nerves, it’s important to get care immediately. Releasing them quickly gives you the best shot at a full recovery like mine. Getting the pain knocked down allows you to rebuild. Rehabilition exercises and stretches (plus some myofascial release) will make your muscles strong and supple again, so they work properly, which will keep your bones in the right places. I no longer have any back pain, and I’m back in the gym doing heavy workouts including Romanian deadlifts!

Chiropractic, a second look

Many D.C.s are great. If you are seeing a chiropractor and have had good success, fantastic! I am the last person to interfere with something that’s working. But if your “genius” has been “fixing” you for years and you are still the same as when you started… it might be time to rethink chiropractic.

I am NOT a fan of the subset of chiropractors who indiscriminately and overzealously use HVLA adjusting (high-velocity, low amplitude – you know, that violent cracking). Low-force chiropractic like Network, BGI, and activator is absolutely safe, and there are lots of other techniques besides HVLA that are fine. HVLA is appropriate when used to correct an acute injury, like putting a dislocated shoulder back in the socket, but it should not be a frequent therapy. Repetitive stress of supportive ligaments and the resulting inflammation will actually damage the joint.

My information comes from my time at chiropractic school (I completed the first year, including the entire series of cadaver dissection, with nearly straight A’s), my knowledge of functional anatomy as a certified personal trainer and amateur bodybuilder, my 10 year partnership with an Osteopathic medical doctor, my experience seeing patients who have been damaged by repetitive HVLA, and discussions with many physicians of all types. I welcome input from any chiropractor who is interested in a fact-based discussion.

Personally speaking, I suffered a terrible injury when my car was broadsided in the first week of chiropractic school. Their treatments were making me worse, and the more I learned in school, the more I understood why.

1) It doesn’t treat the cause of the problem. Bones don’t move by themselves. If a bone is repetitively out of place, it’s because there’s a tight muscle pulling it that way, or a weak muscle failing to hold the bone in place. Jamming the bones back will cause micro-tears of that tight muscle. It feels good immediately, because you get a nice adrenaline rush along with your temporary fix. An enlightened chiropractic teacher compared HVLA to the shock and rush you get from a shot of vodka. Addicting, but not necessarily good for you. Unfortunately, as soon as the muscle goes back to its usual tight, spasming self, the bone will be pulled back out of alignment. That’s why you need to go back to the chiropractor the next week. Acupuncture and medical massage use the neurological system to retrain those tight muscles, so real healing can begin.

2) Our ligaments and tendons are there for a reason. They provide much-needed joint stability and hold us together. Repetitive HVLA weakens them, and can destroy your joint integrity. We all know that an ankle, having been sprained three times, is pretty much guaranteed to twist again. You do not want that floppiness in your spine. You should not able to crack-crack-crack your back simply by stretching. That’s called hypermobility and it means you can move too much. If you have already been damaged by too much HVLA, you will need to strengthen your back and abdominal muscles to help support those loose ligaments and tendons. Hypermobile backs are more likely to suffer a serious injury if you have an accident (this is what happened to me!).

3) Your reflexes work against HVLA. Quickly yanking on a muscle – even a relaxed one – can cause damage and inflammation. There’s a built in protective reflex that tightens a muscle when it is suddenly lengthened. You can feel this: Fold your friend’s arm at the elbow and put your hand on their bicep. Straighten the arm quickly, and you can feel the bicep twitch under your hand. Now imagine that happening to an already-sore neck muscle being snapped.

4) The pop means nothing. The cracking sound doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been adjusted properly. It’s called cavitation, and it means that nitrogen gas, naturally occurring in your joint fluids, has been released. A similar thing happens when you open a can of soda. The sound means the bones have been rapidly separated (opening the joint space) and then have come back together. They may have come back to the same position, a better one, or a worse one. Misalignments, when corrected gently OMM style, do not make a cracking noise because the joint space is eased into the correct position rather than violently forced.

5) First, do no harm. Some chiropractors don’t bother to diagnose which level is dysfunctional. They just “shotgun” you by cracking all the vertebrae in your spine. Then they flip you over and do the other side. Why cause stress and create inflammation in a joint that’s working? Added bonus: Whenever you have inflammation, scar tissue forms. Trauma (HVLA) every week leads to more and more scar tissue building up. That’s the last thing you need when you’re already hurting.

6) With repetitive strong adjustments, your body becomes dependent on that input. In chiropractic school we joked about “welfare spines.” I had a discussion with an instructor who was brutally blunt about the temporary nature of his treatments. “Of course they have to come back. That’s how you buy your boat.” I found that model of “medicine” distasteful and unethical. I prefer to help the body heal itself. I love acupuncture and OMM because they truly correct how your muscles function.  Combined with proper exercise*, this creates a body that is strong and capable of bouncing back after a minor injury. I don’t want to see you every week for the rest of your life. I’d prefer to get you better and self-sufficient, and then stay in business by fixing all your friends and family. :)

BTW:  “But I can’t help it!” When you are out of alignment, your body will naturally feel compelled to snap itself back in place. After my injury I used to violently crack my neck and back all the time. It never really solved the problem, though… refer to point 1 above! The good news is that the desire to self-adjust melted away when my muscles – and more importantly, the neurons controlling those muscles – were corrected by acupuncture and Osteopathic medical massage.

*Exercise is essential to strengthen weak muscles, remind tight ones how to relax, and get all your muscle fibers integrated and working together. We are built to move! I know firsthand how pain makes you want to curl up on the couch and wait for it to heal, but the hard truth is that it won’t really repair until you put in the work. Get on an anti-inflammatory diet, see me for basic physical therapy-type exercises, and start walking! Better yet, see an expert personal trainer.

 

Ergonomic & Repetitive Stress Injuries

Good ergonomic posture at your desk is important. Even more important - take frequent breaks to walk and stretch.

Good ergonomic posture at your desk is important. Even more important – take frequent breaks to walk and stretch.

Repetitive stress injuries happen when you perform the same movement over and over for an extended period of time. Ergonomic problems are when your position or movement is counter to what your body does naturally. Common examples include carpal tunnel syndrome from using a computer, or a swimmer’s bad shoulder. Sitting itself can cause problems if you do it too much. To avoid injury:

1) Break up the repetitive nature of your motions. Get up and do a lap around the office (or house) every hour or so. Change your routine: Instead of typing on Tuesdays and filing on Wednesdays, do a little of each both days, so you aren’t making the same precise movements for hours. Can you switch to the other side or hand? Even small changes can make a difference. For example, my knitting friends who have trouble will opt for a different size needle (which affects hand position and motion) or even type of project. The more variety the better.

2) Double check your ergonomic situation. It may be helpful to get someone to take a picture of you while you’re working so you can see your own posture. If you use the phone, try a headset. Sitting at your computer, you should be looking straight ahead at the top third of the screen. If you are looking up or down, adjust either your seat height or the monitor. Your elbows should be resting at 90 degrees, and your wrists should be straight. Having them bent down or cocked back for the keyboard increases strain. Your knees should be at hip height or just above. If your chair is too tall, use a footrest. If you have a penny-pinching boss, you should know that OSHA can send out an ergonomic expert (free!) to suggest cheap/free fixes in your office.

When playing sports or working out, consult a coach or professional trainer to be sure you’re using good form. Learn the anatomy relating to your activity. In addition to preventing injury, your performance will improve! I used to be a bodybuilder and certified trainer, so feel free to ask me if you have any questions.

3) Stop as soon as symptoms start. Give your body a chance to heal. Ice and anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen may be helpful here, as will an anti-inflammatory diet. Likewise, get care early. A new problem is always easier to chase away than an entrenched one. Myofascial release will free up adhesions. Osteopathic medical massage can retrain your tight muscles, and acupuncture will reduce inflammation.  Rest. Stretch gently, and do any physical therapy exercises your healthcare professional recommends. Try to avoid that activity for a while.

Frequently re-examine your routine and ergonomics to identify any areas that need improvement. By nipping problems in the bud, you can prevent a long-term aggravation.

The Knee

Let’s talk about the knee joint. It’s not quite as complicated as the shoulder, because it doesn’t move in as many directions. Having that kind of mobility with all of our body weight on top of it… well, that would be a recipe for disaster.  Instead, we have a modified hinge joint. The knee folds, but it also twists a little bit. The trick is keeping this twist under control.

Front view of the knee joint.

Collateral ligaments run along each side, and the cruciate ligaments (named so because they form a cross) inside the joint create stability. Strong quadriceps (a set of 4 muscles on the front of thigh), hamstrings (three muscles in back of thigh), adductors (inside) and abductors (outside) also support the knee. Slick cartilage lines the surfaces where bones meet. The meniscus, a pair of special horseshoe-shaped cartilage structures, help absorb shock and guide the movement of the femur. And there’s a bursa on top of the patella (kneecap) to provide some extra cushioning. Pretty neat design, huh?

Sp-9 treats the knee, and drains Damp (a concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine).

If your gait is off, it can affect your knees and eventually your hips and back. Good shoes are important for knee health. Avoid heels as much as possible. If you have flat feet, use shoes with good arch support. To prevent injury, frequent light workouts are best. If you are a bigger person or have joint issues, try to reduce impact: walking or using an elliptical trainer is better than running, and staying on grass or a rubber track is better than concrete.

 

 
    Did you know that babies are born without kneecaps? They have a cartilage wedge but it doesn’t ossify (turn to bone) until about 3 yrs old. Lucky for them – It makes crawling around on a hard floor much more comfortable.
Acupuncture can reduce inflammation, increase blood flow, relax tight muscles, and speed healing. I can also do Osteopathic medical massage to break up scar tissue, release myofascial adhesions, and retrain the neurological system. This allows chronically tight muscles to return to normal. In most cases, therapeutic exercise is important for complete healing.

Acupressure you can do at home: LV-3

*Please note that I’m simplifying the anatomy quite a bit  for the purposes of this newsletter. If you’re interested in all the marvelous details of our bodies, I highly recommend Netter’s Atlas.