Chronic pain: What you need to know

At the end of this month, we celebrate National Pain Week. So, this month we’re going to look at chronic pain – something that 3.24 million Australians live with day in, day out. When you are living with chronic pain, life can be difficult. Getting out of bed in the morning, going to work, parenting… Pretty much everything can become very hard work. Being in pain for a prolonged period can be debilitating and can have huge impact on a person’s life.

Back with barbed wireIn 2018, the total running healthcare costs relating to chronic pain across Australia topped $139 billion! And unfortunately, it is predicted that by 2050, more than 5 million Australians will be living with chronic pain. And, as research tells us, women experience chronic pain more than men. Women are generally more sensitive to pain and report more widespread and higher intensity of pain than that of their male counterparts. It is interesting though that women tend to accept their pain and get on with things, whereas men tend to become more depressed when in pain. So, man flu is a real thing!

As physiotherapists, treating chronic pain is part of our daily working life. Understanding chronic pain is complicated and requires some in-depth training. So, to make things a little easier to understand, we’ve put together this blog to help break it all down and give you a little introduction to what chronic pain is all about.

So, what is pain?

This seems like a good place to start. Pain is something us humans and other animals on the planet are fortunate enough to experience. Fortunate? Bear with us. Pain is so crucial because it is our body’s protection mechanism. Interestingly, sometimes we can even feel pain before we get to the injury stage – it can act as a red flashing warning light! Once injured, pain will hang around for a little while to remind us that we need to protect the injured area from further damage – so that we can heal. It’s probably the most state-of-the-art alarm system you’ve ever come across, and the answer is sitting inside your skull. Yes, you guessed it, you have your brain to thank for all of this :).

So, I hear you ask, ‘why are we so fortunate to feel pain?’ Well, there are a small minority of people on this earth who cannot and have never felt any pain at all. These people may have one of a group of very rare conditions called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP). Some people might think this is pretty cool, but this is a very serious condition, and many who are born with it have a shortened lifespan because potentially fatal injuries and illnesses can go completely unnoticed. People with CIP wouldn’t know they had just stood on that rusty nail, or that they have just sliced open their arm or leg. Pain is literally a lifesaver.

For ease of understanding, pain tends to be categorised based on time. ‘Acute’ pain is pain that is felt any time from injury up to the six-week mark. ‘Sub-acute’ pain (a sub-category of acute pain) is pain felt anywhere between six weeks and three months. ‘Chronic’ pain is pain that is felt for three months or longer. Let’s have a quick run down …

Acute pain

We feel acute pain when we fall and graze our skin, twist on the netball court and sprain our knee ligaments, or when we slice our finger with a knife when cooking. When this happens, special sensors around the injury site detect that all is not right and send a message along the nerves to the spinal cord and up into the brain. Your brain processes this information at lightening quick speed and then sends a message back to the injury site as a pain signal and you wince or yell out (and possibly curse). As time progresses over the following days and weeks, the injury heals, and the pain disappears. Along the way, your brain forms a memory of the unfortunate event. This makes you more aware and helps you to avoid similar dangerous situations in the future. State of the art indeed!

Chronic pain

Remember the definition for chronic pain – pain that is felt for three months or longer. This pain is also sometimes called ‘persistent’ pain, because it is just that – persistent! In many instances of chronic pain, it is pain that is felt beyond the bodies normal tissue healing times. As an example, a mild to moderate knee ligament sprain takes approximately six weeks to heal. Sometimes people who have injured their knee still get pain months after the injury has healed. They have entered the realms of chronic pain. Things become more complex because by this stage there may well be involvement of different bodily systems. And, most importantly, the person’s belief about what pain is has a huge impact on their recovery. There may also be unrelated issues, such as arthritis that is impacting on recovery or hasn’t been previously diagnosed.

The development of chronic pain is a complicated process. In a nutshell, the healing of tissues has already occurred (as discussed above), yet the brain still thinks there’s a threat. This is due to changes in the nerves carrying signals to the spinal cord, and changes in the spinal cord itself. Basically, these nerves become highly sensitised and end up sending misleading information to the brain. The brain perceives this information as still threatening, and the result is ongoing pain. Ultimately your nerves are ‘tricking’ your brain into thinking you’re injured. We would like to point out that it is much more complicated than that, but this gives you the basic idea of what is happening.

It is important to understand that when someone is in pain for long periods of time, they can start to become affected in other ways. Depression and anxiety resulting from chronic pain is very common. A person’s beliefs about pain will begin to affect their behaviour also. For example, a netball player with the knee ligament injury, once playing again, may avoid certain movements due to fear of re-injuring themselves. In psychological terms, this is known as exhibiting fear avoidance behaviours, and can keep the cycle of pain going for longer than necessary.

Treating chronic pain

The longer the cycle of chronic pain persists, the more difficult it becomes to treat. Unfortunately, treatment is not as simple as applying first aid principles. Of course, treating someone’s movement dysfunctions and getting their strength and flexibility levels right are very important, but treating the resultant depression and anxiety, and educating the person on what changes have occurred in their body so they can change their beliefs about what pain is, is just as important, if not more.

Until all contributing factors of a person’s chronic pain cycle are dealt with in some way, it is unlikely the cycle will be broken. Therefore, treating chronic pain rarely comes down to just one profession or practitioner. In most cases, it requires a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment. We as physiotherapists play a crucial role, but a person may also require the services of a psychologist, their GP and possibly other specialists too. Pain medications may be prescribed by your GP to help control pain levels, but the debate on how effective strong pain medications are in the instances of chronic pain is still out.

Your physio is an expert at re-training your body to move properly and get stronger and more flexible.  We will use our hands to affect your muscles, joints and skin, as well as prescribe you exercises to get you on the path to optimum movement and health. These will include exercises relating to strength building, flexibility, posture and breathing. We may also give advice on how to improve your sleeping and diet, to make sure your body is getting the correct amounts of rest and nutrition it needs to function. Most importantly though, we will sit you down and educate you on what exactly is going on with your body so that you can begin to understand it yourself and start the process of beating chronic pain. It will be a big team effort, and the results will be totally worth it.

We hope you found this blog a worthwhile read. If you would like to know more about chronic pain or National Pain Week, please visit http://www.nationalpainweek.org.au.

Afraid to laugh out loud? Incontinence help is here!

Hello ladies, it’s blog time again! To celebrate World Continence Week (17th-23rd June), we thought what better topic than the pelvic floor and incontinence. For those of you who are not familiar with this condition, incontinence is the term used to describe uncontrolled loss of urine from the bladder or faeces from the bowel. It’s a tricky problem to get people to speak out about because as you can imagine, for the majority it is quite an embarrassing thing to have to admit.

Let us assure you, if you are experiencing such a problem, you share this problem with over 5 million other Australians. In fact, 1 in 4 people over the age of 15 are incontinent, and females account for 80% of cases of urinary incontinence alone. Shockingly common right?! Well the good news is, help is at hand. The majority of cases of incontinence respond very well to conservative, non-surgical treatment and can often be completely resolved. Interested to know more? Then please read on…

Types of incontinence

It is important to know that there are different types of incontinence, and the management for each is different based on the cause. Briefly, the different types of urinary incontinence include:

  • Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) – the most common form, where small amounts of urine leak due to small increases in pressure on the bladder during physical activity, or from coughing, sneezing and laughing.
  • Urge incontinence – where you get an unexpected, strong urge to urinate with little to no warning. This is usually as a result of an overactive bladder muscle.
  • Incontinence associated with chronic retention – where your bladder cannot empty fully, and you get regular leakage of small amounts of urine. There are many causes for this, including an enlarged prostate in men, or prolapsed pelvic organs in women, as well as medications and certain conditions, such as diabetes and kidney disease.
  • Functional incontinence – where you are unable to get to the toilet, possibly due to immobility, or wearing clothes that are not easy to get off in time.

Faecal incontinence is when you have a lack of control of bowel movements and you may accidentally pass a bowel movement, or even pass wind without meaning to. This may be due to weak muscles surrounding the back passage (ladies, unfortunately this can be following pregnancy and childbirth), or if you have severe diarrhoea.

Why so many females?

In short, babies and menopause! The most common type of incontinence that we see and treat is stress incontinence. Although seen across both sexes, women are three times more likely to experience it than men. It is very common in women following pregnancy and childbirth (when the pelvic floor muscles get overstretched, and sometimes even damaged), and during menopause (due to hormonal changes).

Pregnancy, birth and menopause can affect our pelvic floor. The pelvic floor muscles sit at the bottom of the pelvic bowl, spanning from the pubic bone to the tailbone (front to back), and from one sitting bone to the other (side to side). Imagine a trampoline stretched out and attached to each bony point and you kind of get the gist. When these muscles are strong, they help to support our internal pelvic organs (i.e. the bladder and bowel, and uterus in women) and wrap around the openings of the front and back passages, allowing us to control when we decide to do a number one or two. Following pregnancy for example, they may become weak and dysfunctional, and we can lose that ability to control voiding. It only takes something as small as a cough, or an activity like jumping or running (things many of us take for granted) that may cause a person to lose a small amount of urine.

Treatment Options

There are a number of treatment options that could help. What is most important is that you come and see us first, so we can understand the issue and figure out the best course of treatment. Some treatment options include:

  • Pelvic floor and strengthening exercises
  • Manual therapy
  • Biofeedback (to monitor your muscle activation)
  • Weight loss
  • Reducing caffeine or alcohol
  • Fluid altering
  • Bladder training
  • Quit smoking
  • Medication
  • Surgery or other procedures

We hope you have found this blog interesting and helpful. Please join us in celebrating World Continence Week and help us to raise awareness for people living with incontinence. If you, or someone you know is looking for answers or advice on the management of these conditions, then please get in touch. We are ready to offer professional advice and/or treatment. No more leaking when laughing!

Back pain in new mums

Mother’s Day is just around the corner, so we wanted to dedicate this blog to all the mum’s out there. Being a mum is a tough job for anyone. Juggling work, keeping a home, family and friends, and of course caring for your little ones, can be draining both emotionally and physically. This is especially the case if you are a new mum, when life with your new addition is in its settling in period. Your body has been through a major change over the last 10 months, and it’s still changing now. Having a baby is a big deal, and you now have a recovery period ahead of you. But of course, you have a child to care for constantly, so there’s no time to worry about yourself, right? Wrong… it’s a difficult balance for sure, but looking after yourself means you’ll be able to look after your new recruit to the very best of your abilities.

My back STILL hurts 🙁

Mum holding baby on bedPain is a common symptom experienced by new mums, with approximately 10% of women still experiencing pain two months post-delivery. Imagine being in pain all that time AND having a baby to look after – it doesn’t sound fun does it? Now, whether you’ve been through a natural birth or c-section, your body is vulnerable and weaker than pre-pregnant you, so it’s important to look after yourself to ensure you recover quickly and nip that pain in the bud!

The back is one of the most common areas of the body affected during and after pregnancy. Other areas include the pelvis and the wrists. The main reasons your back will complain in those early days boils down to the fact your posture won’t have a clue what has just hit it. Firstly, during pregnancy, ligaments become lax, muscles stretch or separate, which can produce imbalances or weakness. Even your breathing might change, depending on where bub is sitting in your uterus. Then of course your body is frantically trying to realign your centre of gravity to deal with your growing bump. Your body is working like crazy simply to keep you upright!

Then baby comes along. Of course, there’s the trauma you may experience with a vaginal or cesarean birth. Then, straight away, you will be feeding, changing, bathing and dressing/un-dressing your bubba multiple times a day. All these activities require you to have your baby lying down in front of you, with you bent over them, keeping them fed, warm, and happy. This continuous motion, combined with broken sleep, tiredness, and a recovering body, can lead you to over-work those back muscles. It’s also important to remember that your core muscles will have taken a big hit during pregnancy, so you won’t be as stable in the trunk as you were pre-pregnancy. Eventually your body will let you know things are not right by sending a few signals to the brain – hello pain!

What can I do to help?

Now you know why you may experience back pain, we want to let you know some of the things you can do from the very first day you bring your newborn home, to care for your back (and the rest of you of course), and reduce the risk of injury and pain. That way, you can dedicate 95% of your time to looking after your son or daughter. “Only 95%” we hear you ask – don’t worry, we’ll get to that!

Feeding tips

To reduce the impact of feeding on your back, consider the following tips:

  1. Get a comfortable and supportive feeding chair: Avoid chairs that allow you to sink into them, such as a low arm chair or sofa. You will struggle to get yourself up from a slouched position, whilst holding your baby, without risking strain on your back and shoulders.
  2. Move regularly: Enjoy the one on one time, it’s magical! But, when you sit for long periods, your back and neck muscles will eventually feel it. Try some light neck stretches, and gentle spinal movements like rotating side to side and extending to open out the chest.
  3. Try a feeding pillow: As your baby grows, they will get heavier and heavier. A feeding pillow will take the weight of your baby so your arms, shoulders and back don’t have to bear the brunt of it all.
  4. Get your partner involved: If you’re a bottle feeder, then spread the load and ask your partner (or another family member) to feed when possible to give you a break. If you are breast feeding, they can still help by taking the baby from you when you have finished so you can get yourself up off your chair, minus the weight of your baby.

Changing tips

Oh so many nappies! “I didn’t sign up for this!” Ahem, sorry, yes you did! Just embrace the poo… It gets easier ;). The following tips also apply for dressing your baby:

  1. Get a change table: Whether it’s a nappy change or outfit change, do it at a height where you can stand comfortably and not be bent over for long periods.
  2. Following on from the above point… Avoid changing your baby on the floor. It’s not only your back that might complain, but your neck, shoulders and knees also!

Bathing tips

There is no easy solution to this one. Most baths are low to the ground and require you to kneel and lean right over to get to where you need to be. However, we have found that baby baths can be useful as they are small, mobile, and can be placed at a height that suits your back better. Some change tables even double up as baby baths. Obviously be careful about carrying a heavy bath of water though – as long as it’s safe, try to bath your baby near a sink where you don’t have to carry the bath to fill and empty it.

So, you mentioned 95%?

You’re right, we did! And this is very important. Your baby is going to need lots of attention. But you also need attention. So, the remaining 5% is just for you. The following tips are aimed to address other areas of your life that often get neglected when being a new mum:

  1. Sleep when the opportunity arises: Whether this is when your baby is sleeping, or when your partner or family member are looking after your baby, getting sleep is very important. You need time to restore energy levels and allow the body to repair and recover. Who cares if the housework gets left for an extra day or two – it will still be there when you are ready to do it. Better still, get a family member to help. Team work!
  2. Eat well, stay hydrated: Don’t forget about the importance of a good diet. Eat lots of fresh, nutrient rich food, such as fruits and vegetables. And keep a bottle of water on the go constantly. It’s easy to forget and become dehydrated. If you are breast-feeding, remember where the water in the breast milk comes from… YOU!
  3. Have a bath: Of course, this doesn’t have to end at bathing. Read a book, do a crossword, go and sit in the garden with a cuppa… Our point is, make time for yourself regularly. These little breaks will keep you sane during a chaotic time of life. If help is at hand, use it. It is OK to have a break from it all. We cannot stress this point enough.

These last points can also help in the fight against back pain. Sleeping, eating and relaxation will help to reduce the risk of fatigue. Fatigue will compromise your ability to hold your posture in standing, sitting, and other positions such as bending. So, you can see why the 5% is so important.

At some point, you will need to address the physical changes that have occurred as a result of pregnancy and giving birth. These may include abdominal and pelvic floor muscle dysfunction, as well as spinal and other joint restrictions and dysfunctions. Every woman that has given birth needs to rehabilitate and strengthen their core again. Unfortunately, many don’t get around to it or it isn’t high on their priority list. However, (see points above) it needs to be! And of course, if you’re reading this and are pregnant, or thinking about having a child, there is so much you can do pre-birth to aid your recovery after having your baby, so come and see us!

If you’re a new mum or have had a child in the last few years, we can’t recommend enough to come and see one of our women’s health focused physios. We’ll assess you, and advise you on the best course of treatment and exercise to get you ‘back’ (excuse the pun) fighting fit and who knows… Another baby anyone?!

Healthy hips are here to stay

April is here, and with that comes Healthy Hips week (1-7 April), so we thought we’d write a blog about some of the common hip issues we regularly see in clinic, so you can ensure your hips stay healthy, and keep your body moving for longer.

Woman with hip painThe hip is a pretty complex joint, with numerous muscles, tendons, ligaments and other tissues attaching in and around it to provide support and movement. Because there are so many structures, it means there are lots of possibilities for things to go wrong. And therefore, lots of potential sources of pain when something does go wrong. Fortunately for us clinicians, the common things are common, and the rare things are, well, rare! This helps us to work out quickly what’s going on, so we can put you on the road to recovery.

Do I need a scan?

One common issue we are faced with in clinic, is that our patients will often come to us having seen their GP, following a scan on their hip, and have been told that they have ‘bursitis’ or ‘arthritis’, and this is what is causing their pain. This can be a little problematic for everyone sometimes, for a few reasons. Firstly, many people that have reports that suggest bursitis, or hip osteoarthritis, do not even have pain from that condition – sometimes these findings are simply incidental and have no bearing on our patient’s issues… Secondly, it plants a seed. What we mean by this is that people tend to trust what they see. So, if they see suggestions of bursitis, or arthritis, they suddenly start to believe that this is what must be the cause of their pain, rather than something else (like muscular weakness). Getting the patient to understand that their scan’s diagnosis may not be the cause of their pain (if it is indeed not the cause of their pain) is part of our job as educators of the body, and this can sometimes be difficult!

Common causes of hip pain

In our experience, the most common cause for hip issues in our clinic is muscular imbalance and gluteal weakness. Muscle imbalances are very common throughout the body, throughout the population. We all live different lives, playing different sports, having different hobbies and working different jobs. Look at an example of a desk worker who sits for their job, plays tennis left-handed, and is a keen candy-crush game addict. It’s easy to see over time how their body might develop muscular imbalance from favouring certain positions and sides of the body over long periods of time. Our bodies are rarely 100% symmetrical and can adapt extremely well, but there is always a point where it can no longer keep adapting. This is generally when you start to feel pain. Your body is telling you to do something about it. And this is where we come in!

Weak gluteal muscles are a really common problem for the general population. Why you ask? It’s because a large amount of people now sit more than move. People are more sedentary than ever. Technology is advancing and feeding our need for constant entertainment. And you can actually see it… The world is growing more obese and Type 2 Diabetes rates are continuing to grow. All this being sedentary malarkey is not good for our poor gluteal muscles. When we sit, they don’t get used, and when they don’t get used, they get weak! And they have a pretty important role to play, being responsible for several hip movements, helping to keep the pelvis stable when we walk, and allowing you to advance forward when walking, running and jumping. You see, they want to move you! Weakness in these muscles then leads to bio-mechanical changes around the hips (which spills over into the lower back, knees and ankles), and those fundamental movements suddenly become difficult to perform without major compensation and adaptation occurring. And we know what adaptation over long periods can lead to don’t we? That’s right – pain. Good… You’ve been listening!

Some of the effects of weak glutes include hip, knee, low back or heel pain, poor/slouching posture, and a change in the way you walk (your ‘gait’). If you’re a runner, you may even notice an increase in the number of blisters you are getting, due to the change in your running style (of course, you may also need new runners, so worth getting these checked too!).

What should you do?

If you are experiencing hip pain, please come in and see us… We’ll assess you to see where your imbalances are, and what is causing the pain. Whether it’s down to muscular imbalance, weak glutes, or any other cause, we’ll teach you how to put it right and get those glutes firing properly in no time.

Stress urinary incontinence – what causes it, how to treat it and how to prevent it

Running, sneezing, jumping, laughing – they should be normal activities, but for some women they bring embarrassment or anxiety. Bladder weakness, incontinence and urinary leaking are common problems, especially in women after giving birth or going through menopause. There are many causes of bladder weakness, but today, we’re focusing on one of the most common: Stress urinary incontinence (SUI).

What is stress urinary incontinence?

SUI is where the bladder leaks a small amount of urine during activities that put pressure on the abdomen and push down on the bladder, like coughing, running or laughing.

What causes it?

The bladder

Stress incontinence in women is often caused by pregnancy,

childbirth and menopause. In a quick anatomy lesson, your urethra transports urine from your bladder out of the body, via a muscular structure called the urethral sphincter. The sphincter contracts to hold urine inside your body until you’re ready to go.

During pregnancy and childbirth, your pelvic floor muscles can stretch and weaken. The muscles normally support the urethra, so when they, or the sphincter muscles, are weak, they can’t do their job properly and hold your wee in. During menopause, the female hormone, oestrogen, is produced in lower quantities. Oestrogen helps maintain the thickness of the urethra lining, so sometimes with decreased oestrogen, the lining is affected, and some women experience SUI.

It’s most common with activities such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, walking, running, lifting or playing sport. Other factors that can contribute to SUI include diabetes, obesity, constipation, and a chronic cough (often linked to asthma, smoking or bronchitis).

How to treat it?

Every single person is different, so it’s always best to see your Pelvic floor physio so we can assess you and work out the best treatment plan for you. However, some common treatments we recommend to our patients include:

  • Pelvic floor exercises (see below for more information!).
  • Changes in fluid consumption: This could include drinking certain amounts of fluids at certain times of the day. Or it could involve cutting down caffeine or alcohol to see if they irritate your bladder.
  • Healthy lifestyle changes: Quitting smoking, losing excess weight or treating a chronic cough will decrease your risk of SUI, as well as improve your symptoms.
  • Bladder training: We may recommend a schedule for toileting, depending on the type of incontinence you have. This is more so used when it’s a mix of SUI and another type of incontinence.
  • Manual therapy: You may have some muscular imbalances that are inhibiting your pelvic floor from working properly or are impacting on other parts of your body. We’ll assess you, and then put together a treatment plan, which may include soft tissue massage, other musculoskeletal therapies, strengthening or stretching exercises, or more.

How do I prevent it?

Remember your physios, nurses, doctors, female relatives, mum friends (and the list goes on) telling you to do your pelvic floor exercises or Kegels when pregnant? Well, that’s one piece of advice you should listen to! In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re pregnant or not, you should always do your pelvic floor exercises to help strengthen those important muscles. Some basic pelvic floor exercises include:

  • Draw your pelvic floor muscles in and up, like you are trying to stop urinating mid-flow. Hold for 10 secs. Relax for 5-10 secs between each tightening and repeat 10 times. (Don’t actually do your pelvic floor exercises on the toilet – trying to stop while actually urinating can cause other bladder issues)
  • You can add faster pelvic floor lifts to the exercise by holding for 1-3 secs and relaxing for 1-3 secs. Repeat 10 times.
  • Progressing the long holds to 20 secs and then 30 secs may be a goal to reach for.

Try and make pelvic floor exercises part of your routine. For example, do them when you brush your teeth each morning and evening, and when eating lunch. There are also many more exercises to help you, including core exercises such as Pilates.

Pelvic floor exercises should not cause any discomfort or pain. If you have a history of pain with intercourse, vaginal exam or using tampons, or if you have trouble emptying your bladder or starting a wee, you should see a Pelvic Floor Physio prior to starting pelvic floor exercises.

If you’re experiencing urinary leaking, are pregnant, have given birth (at any point in your life!), or if you want help with a preventative program, please come and see us. It is always best to see a Pelvic Floor Physio to get an individual program and to be confident on correctly tightening your pelvic floor muscles. We have helped thousands of women with stress urinary incontinence over the years and would love to help you live a happier, less-anxious life, so you can laugh all you want without having to worry about incontinence!