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Tendinopathy: Changing Treatment and Improving Recovery

Let’s start off with illustrating a scenario that may sound familiar to many of you:

As an athlete or someone who simply enjoys being active, you put in plenty of hours working out, training, practicing and competing.  Whether it’s running, jumping, throwing, swimming, skating, shooting, or swinging, you slowly begin to notice some minor irritation in a joint or muscle. It could be a knee, a shoulder, back, quad muscle, groin, foot, wrist, or your rotator cuff. You sense things don’t feel right, but you convince yourself it’s nothing serious. After all, it may be a little painful during activity and goes away quickly when you are done. Plus, you got an important game, match, or race coming up and you can’t afford to take any down time.

You decide to put conventional wisdom into practice and take it easy, resting as much as possible. You ice the area. After all, it’s what we have been told to do for years. You may even take it a step further and do some stretches to bring some relief to the area. If the pain is bad enough, you may reach for medication to help take the edge off.

However, over the course of weeks or months, you begin to notice this pattern occurring more frequency as your pain persists. It’s got you puzzled. Now your pain is not just present during training or sport, but you notice it with everyday tasks such as walking or opening doors. You could shrug off the pain before, but now pain during simple tasks has your attention. You may now be getting concerned since it’s not only taking less to cause pain, but your pain may be getting more intense. You may even start to avoid certain activities.

What you are learning and beginning to realize is that despite the efforts to ease your pain, your symptoms persist and are getting worse. Despite rest, ice, and medication, your symptoms are not improving.

Change the Approach
Contrary to what has been preached for years, it is now known that interventions such as rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medications and electrical stimulation will not solve your problem. The application of these interventions was based upon the assumption that inflammation within connective tissue or joints was created by repetitive motions and sustained postures associated with labor, sport, or other forms of activity. However, this assumption has been proven to be wrong. New understanding of overuse injury is providing the foundation for treatment that truly addresses the root cause of your symptoms, not merely alleviating them.

New Understanding
We all know someone who has been told they have tendinitis, or inflammation of a tendon. Tendinitis is commonly referred to as an “overuse” injury.

Tendons are the structures that connect muscle to bone. They are critical in transmitting the force produced by muscles during movement. It was believed that tendons, when injured or over-stressed, became inflamed and painful. Inflammation is the body's natural response to injury. Inflammation begins the healing process. Applications such as rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medication are prescribed to minimize the effects of inflammation.

Interesting thing is, research has demonstrated that inflammation is rarely present within tendons, thus providing a new understanding of how overuse injuries develop.

Back in 1979, a couple surgeons by the name of Robert P. Nirschl and Frank A. Pettrone examined sections of injured elbow tendons under a microscope. What they found was no presence of inflammation. None. What they did notice was how the tendons had degenerated. Their color and texture had changed. The tendons were grayish and swollen rather than white and soft.

No inflammation? No tendinitis. Tendinosis is the correct name for this condition. Tendinosis is the result of repeated or sustained muscular contraction associated with poor movement or posture, which decreases blood supply. The body begins to react in similar ways as if you had injured muscular tissue and scar tissue development is triggered. This would be a normal response if there were actual damage, but the body has been tricked. There is no injury, but scar tissue accumulates in healthy tissue due to compromised circulation. Accumulated scar tissue increases mechanical stress on tendons, limiting normal function of muscle contraction. Limited function means reduced strength, range of motion, and can lead to pain during activity.

Now that we understand the mechanism behind scar tissue production, the deeper question is, "What is the underlying reason for poor movement or poor posture that is responsible for the overload?" Because if the reason was simply just sustained postures or repetitive movements, wouldn’t we see more of the population coming down with overuse injuries?

Mobility vs Stability: Stabilizing the Confusion
Mobility seems to be the buzzword of the fitness industry and it’s certainly popular among certain camps within the physical medicine profession. There are plenty of products, assessments, and even entire workouts that are devoted to mobility. Some define mobility as the ability to achieve a certain posture or position, while others define it as the ability to achieve a certain range of motion specific to a movement (i.e. squat, push-up).

Advocates of mobility claim that mobility should be achieved first. We need mobility and lack of mobility is implicated as a predisposing factor for overuse injury. But is mobility the secret to preventing overuse injuries and unlocking athletic performance?

While mobility is important, if we consider the developmental model, stability should be the primary focus.

Enter the Developmental Model
Developmental kinesiology, or essentially understanding how we develop motor function through early childhood, emphasizes the existence of central movement patterns that are “hard-wired” from birth. For example, an infant does not need to be taught when and how to lift its head, roll over, reach, crawl, or walk. Each and every one of these movement patterns occurs automatically as the CNS matures. During this process of CNS maturation, the brain influences the development of stability before purposeful movement can occur.

The process begins with the coordination of spinal stabilization and breathing through what is known as the integrated spinal stabilizing system (ISSS). This constitutes the “deep core” and it is activated subconsciously before any purposeful movement. The musculature of the ISSS  contracts automatically under the control of the nervous system. The role of the ISSS is critical because it provides a fixed, stable base from which muscles can generate movement. The ISSS is essential to maintaining joints in a neutral position, thus maximizing muscular forces with minimal stress to structures such as ligaments, capsules, and cartilage.

Bottom line: Inadequate activation and stabilizing function of muscles may place greater stress within the body, compromising posture and movement. Mobility is DEPENDENT upon stability. You need stability first before you can achieve purposeful, efficient motion. A deficient stabilizing system is likely to lead to strain or overuse injury due to compensatory movements.

Managing Overuse Injury
Now that we have a better understanding of why scar tissue develops in the body and factors that contribute to poor movement and posture, its time to discuss what can be done in the treatment and prevention of overuse injuries.

#1 - Myofascial Release Techniques. Understanding that overuse injuries are most often degenerative scar tissue problems rather than inflammatory conditions, treatment strategies should change accordingly. Rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medication, and electrical stimulation are no longer ideal treatments. Treatment that involves myofascial release or soft-tissue manipulation becomes the focus in order to breakdown scar tissue and allow for normalized muscle/tendon function. Clinicians or therapists are able to locate scar tissue by touch. The hand is a powerful tool.  Characteristics they evaluate for may include abnormal texture, movement restriction, or increased tension. Treatment is often delivered by the hand or with the use of an instrument and is non-invasive in nature.

#2 - Improve the stabilization function of muscle. To ensure quality movement during functional activities or sport skill execution, it is critical that all stabilizers of the body are adequately activated. Insufficiency within certain muscles in the kinetic chain will result in muscular imbalances that can contribute to chronic pain or poor performance. Corrective stabilization strategies thus should always be the foundational concept of any training or rehabilitation program. Clinicians are beginning to recognize the importance of “training the brain” since the majority of motor dysfunctions may be more related to altered CNS function than local joint or muscle issues. The CNS is the “driver” and attention must be given to how it coordinates muscular patterns during movement in order to provide stability.

For example, if someone has difficulty performing a squat, rather than focusing on local “tight” or “weak” muscles or restricted movement in a specific joint, one may need to realize that the insufficiency is due to a dysfunctional ISSS pattern at the brain level.

Rather than focusing on mobilizing a tight glenohumeral capsule/joint and strengthening the rotator cuff musculature in the treatment of shoulder impingement in a baseball pitcher, should you focus on an inadequate ISSS and the "weak" link in the kinetic chain, such as poor dynamic scapular stability, proprioceptive deficits, or impaired lower extremity mobility.

The body functions as a single unit during complex movement, not in segments. The key is to maintain control, joint stability, and quality of movement. Every joint position depends on the coordination of stabilizing muscle function throughout the entire body. Through repetition, ideal stabilization patterns are achieved and then integrated in with sport-specific movements.

Conclusion

New information has provided a deeper understanding of how overuse injuries develop and led to improved treatment. These concepts are foundational to the patient-care and sports performance training clients receive at Gallagher Performance. Myofascial release techniques can help offset the build-up of scar tissue within tendons or muscles, promoting normal function of those tissues. Ultimately, the ability to coordinate and control precise movement will minimize stress on the body and the trigger for scar tissue development. Developmental kinesiology provides a method for both assessment and the training or rehabilitation of muscular stabilization as it relates to efficient movement. The combination of these approaches not only reduces the risk of injury and pain syndromes resulting from overuse, but impacts sport performance.

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