We have all heard the common proverb “It’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back“, referring to how something presumably minor can, overtime, cause a catastrophic and sudden reaction, due to the cumulative effects of the individual actions. Whether this refers to car tires wearing down overtime until the tire eventually blows a flat, a tree covered in ice during a snow storm that slowly bends more and more until it finally snaps, or continually “squeezing” into those tight jeans until finally one day you try squeezing into them and they rip at the seam, the overlying idea is that it was not one single event that led to the destruction; instead, it was gradual wear and tear over time. The same holds true for a large majority of injuries to the human body.
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
– John Wooden
Many of the injuries we treat are not due to a single traumatic event, but are more often from chronic wear and tear, or as we describe it, repetitive microtrauma. Whether that be rotator cuff tears, carpal tunnel syndromes, lateral Epicondylagia/Tennis Elbow, Bulging/Herniated Discs, Arthritic related conditions, knee pain, tendonitis, etc., the underlying cause of the dysfunction is due to repetitive microtrauma leading to tissue breakdown and pain.
What causes repetitive microtrauma?
The simple answer is an underlying movement dysfunction and/or sustained postures, which results in muscle imbalances, soft tissue restrictions, joint dysfunctions, adverse neural symptoms, impaired stability/motor control, and eventually structural adaptations. Our job as physical therapists MUST be to not only treat the site of pain, but to identity and treat the underlying movement dysfunctions which led to pain and limitation in the first place. In other words, we must identify and treat the cause of the cause.
If my pain goes away, why does it matter?
When a patient comes into OSSPT with a rotator cuff tear, whether it be post-surgical or for conservative treatment, our first priority is to provide a proper environment to allow adequate healing to the damage tissue. Then we must identify and treat the underlying movement dysfunctions which led the rotator cuff to tearing in the first place, to prevent future recurrences. Simply giving generic range of motion and strengthening exercises is not enough and will result in short term improvements, at best. If we don’t fix the underlying cause of the cause, the likelihood of future re-injury is high.
Physical therapists wonder why so many of their patients return to the clinic weeks/months/years later complaining of the same symptoms they were previously treated for, often, blaming the patient for being non-compliant, a failed surgery, age, etc., without ever looking internally. We, as a profession, need to spend more time educating and proving to patients that we are more than just a profession of people who give out “stretches and stuff” as some claim, and prove to patients we are an invaluable member of the medical team, because right now, we are heading in the wrong direction as a profession, having become a bunch of overqualified exercise supervisors. If we keep heading this direction, doctors will continue to disregard our abilities, insurance companies will continue to cut reimbursement, and patients will continue to devalue the services we provide, until eventually, it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back for our profession.