Clinical Examination Article Archives

Check out all my articles on clinical examination and evaluating injuries.  Explore the archives below or click the button to subscribe and never miss another post.


How to Assess Thoracic Mobility

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How to Assess Thoracic Mobility is now available.

 

How to Assess Thoracic Mobility

how to assess thoracic mobilityThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on How to Assess Thoracic Mobility.  In this presentation, I’m going to show you how I assess thoracic mobility from multiple perspectives.  Many people have thoracic mobility restrictions and just blindly throwing thoracic mobility drills at them is going to be suboptimal without an accurate assessment.  Some need to focus on extension, some rotation, and others can move well, they just don’t!

This webinar will cover:

  • The key things I look at to assess thoracic mobility
  • How to integrate posture, thoracic movements, and functional movements
  • How to assess for compensation elsewhere when the thoracic spine is limited

 

To access this webinar:

 

Shoulder Impingement – 3 Keys to Assessment and Treatment

Shoulder impingement really is a pretty broad term that most of us likely take for granted.  It has become such a junk term, such as “patellofemoral pain,” especially with physicians.  It seems as if any pain originated from around the shoulder could be labeled as “shoulder impingement” for some reason, as if that diagnosis is helpful to determine the treatment process.

Unfortunately, There is no magical “shoulder impingement protocol” that you can pull out of your notebook and apply to a specific person. [Click to Tweet]

I wish it were the simple.

A thorough examination is still needed.  Each person will likely present differently, which will require a variations on how you approach their rehabilitation.

But the real challenge when working with someone with shoulder impingement isn’t figuring out they have shoulder pain, that’s fairly obviously.  It’s figuring out why they have shoulder pain.

 

 

Shoulder Impingement: 3 Keys to Assessment and Treatment

To make the treatment process a little more simple, there are three things that I typically consider to classify and differentiate shoulder impingement.

  1. Location of impingement
  2. Structures involved
  3. Cause of impingement

Each of these can significantly vary the treatment approach and how successful you are helping each person.

 

Location of Impingement

The first thing to consider when evaluating someone with shoulder impingement is the location of impingement.  This is generally in reference to the side of the rotator cuff that the impingement is located, either the bursal side or articular side.

shoulder impingement assessment and treatment

See the photo of a shoulder MRI above.  The bursal side is the outside of the rotator cuff, shown with the red arrow.  This is probably your “standard” subacromial impingement that everyone refers to when simply stating “shoulder impingement.”  The green arrow shows the inside, or articular surface, of the rotator cuff.  Impingement on this side is termed “internal impingement.”

The two are different in terms of cause, evaluation, and treatment, so this first distinction is important.  More about these later when we get into the evaluation and treatment treatment.

 

Impinging Structures

To me, this is more for the bursal sided, or subacromial, impingement and refers to what structure the rotator cuff is impinging against.  As you can see in the pictures below (both side views), your subacromial space is pretty small without a lot if room for error.  In fact, there really isn’t a “space”, there are many structures running in this area including your rotator cuff and subacromial bursa.

Shoulder impingement

You actually “impinge” every time you move your arm.  Impingement itself is normal and happens in all of us, it is when it becomes excessive or abnormal that pathology occurs.

I try to differentiate between acromial and coracoacromial arch impingement, which can happen in combination or isolation.  There are fairly similar in regard to assessment and treatment, but I would make a couple of mild modifications for coracoacromial impingement, which we will discuss below.

 

Cause of Impingement

The next thing to look at is the actual reason why the person is experiencing shoulder impingement.  There are two main classifications of causes, that I refer to as “primary” or “secondary”shoulder  impingement.

Primary impingement means that the impingement is the main problem with the person.  A good example of this is someone that has impingement due to anatomical considerations, with a hooked tip of the acromion like this in the picture below.  Many acromions are flat or curved, but some have a hook or even a spur attached to the tip (drawn in red):

shoulder impingement

 

Secondary impingement means that something is causing impingement, perhaps their activities, posture, lack of dynamic stability, or muscle imbalances are causing the humeral head to shift in it’s center of rotation and cause impingement.  The most simply example of this is weakness of the rotator cuff.

The rotator cuff and larger muscle groups, like the deltoid, work together to move your arm in space.  The rotator cuff works to steer the ship by keeping the humeral head centered within the glenoid.  The deltoid and larger muscles power the ship and move the arm.

Both muscles groups need to work together.  If rotator cuff weakness is present, the cuff may lose it’s ability to keep the humeral head centered.  In this scenario, the deltoid will overpower the cuff and cause the humeral head to migrate superiorly, thus impinging the cuff between the humeral head and the acromion:

evaluation and treatment of shoulder impingement

 

Other common reasons for secondary impingement include mobility restrictions of the shoulder, scapula, and even thoracic spine.  We see this a lot at Champion.  In the person below, you can see that they do not have full overhead mobility, yet they are trying to overhead press and other activities in the gym, flaring up their shoulder.

shoulder impingement mobility

If all we did with this person was treat the location of the pain in his anterior shoulder, our success will be limited.  He’ll return to gym and start the process all over if we don’t restore this mobility restriction.

The funny thing about this is that people are almost never aware that they even have this limitation until you show them.

 

 

Differentiating Between the Types of Shoulder Impingement

In my online program on the Evidence Based Evaluation and Treatment of the Shoulder, I talk about different ways to assess shoulder impingement that may impact your rehab or training.  There are specific tests to assess each type of impingement we discussed above.

The two most popular tests for shoulder impingement are the Neer test and the Hawkins test.  In the Neer test (below left), the examiner stabilizes the scapula while passively elevating the shoulder, in effect jamming the humeral head into the acromion.  In the Hawkins test (below right) the examiner elevates the arm to 90 degrees of abduction and forces the shoulder into internal rotation, grinding the cuff under the subacromial arch.

Shoulder impingement tests

You can alter these tests slightly to see if they elicit different symptoms that would be more indicative to the coracoacromial arch type of subacromial impingement.  This would involve the cuff impingement more anteriorly so the tests below attempt to simulate this area of vulnerability.

The Hawkins test (below left) can be modified and performed in a more horizontally adducted position.  Another shoulder impingement test (below right) can be performed by asking the patient to grasp their opposite shoulder and to actively elevate the shoulder.

how to assess shoulder impingement

There is a good chance that many patients with subacromial impingement may be symptomatic with all of the above tests, but you may be able to detect the location of subacromial impingement (acromial versus coracoacromial arch) by watching for subtle changes in symptoms with the above four tests.

Internal impingement is a different beast.

This type of impingement, which is most commonly seen in overhead athletes, is typically the result of some hyperlaxity in the anterior direction.  As the athlete comes into full external rotation, such as the position of baseball pitch, tennis serve, etc., the humeral head slides anterior slightly causing the undersurface of the cuff to impingement on the inside against the posterior-superior glenoid rim and labrum.  This is what you hear of when baseball players have “partial thickness rotator cuff tears” the majority of time.

shoulder internal impingement

 

 

The test for this is simple and is exactly the same as an anterior apprehension test.  The examiner externally rotates the arm at 90 degrees abduction and watches for symptoms.  Unlike the shoulder instability patient, someone with internal impingement will not feel apprehension or anterior symptoms.  Rather, they will have a very specific point of tenderness in the posterosuperior aspect of the shoulder (below left).  Ween the examiner relocates the shoulder by giving a slight posterior glide of the humeral head, the posterosuperior pain diminishes (below right).

how to assess shoulder internal impingement

 

3 Keys to Treating Shoulder Impingement – How Does Treatment Vary?

There are three main keys from the above information that you can use to alter your treatment and training programs based on the type of impingement exhibited:

Subacromial Impingement Treatment

To properly treat, you should differentiate between acromial and coracoacromial impingement.  Treatment is essentially the same between these two types of subacromial impingement, however, with coracoacromial arch impingement, you need to be cautious with horizontal adduction movements and stretching.  This is unfortunate as the posterior soft tissue typically needs to be stretched in these patients, but you can not work through a pinch with impingement!

A “pinch” is impingement of an inflamed structure!

Also, I would avoid elevation in the sagittal plane or horizontal adduction exercises.

 

Primary Versus Secondary Shoulder Impingement

This is an important one and often a source of frustration in young clinicians.  If you are dealing with secondary impingement, you can treat the persons symptoms all you want, but they will come back if you do not address the route of the pathology!

I do treat their symptoms, that is why they have come to see me.  I want to reduce inflammation.  However, this should not be the primary focus if you want longer term success.

This is where a more global look at the patient, their posture, muscle imbalances, and movement dysfunction all come into play.  Break through and see patients in this light and you will see much better outcomes.

A good discussion of the activities that are causing their symptoms may also shed some light on why they are having shoulder pain.  Again, using the example above, if you don’t have full mobility and try to force the shoulder through this tightness you are going to likely cause some issues.  This is especially true if you add speed, loading, and repetition to elevation, such as during many exercises.

 

Internal Impingement

One thing to realize with internal impingement is that this is pretty much a secondary issue.  It is going to occur with any cuff weakness, fatigue, or loss of the ability to dynamically stabilize.   The athlete will show some hyperlaxity in this athletic “lay back” shoulder position.  Treat the cuff weakness and it’s ability to dynamically stabilize to relieve the impingement.  How to treat internal impingement is a huge topic that I cover in a webinar for my Inner Circle members.

 

Learn Exactly How I Evaluate and Treat the Shoulder

If you are interested in mastering your understanding of the shoulder, I have my acclaiming online program teaching you exactly how I evaluate and treat the shoulder at ShoulderSeminar.com!

The online program at takes you through an online 8-week program with new content added every week.  You can learn at your own pace in the comfort of your own home.  You’ll learn exactly how I approach:

  • shoulder seminarThe evaluation of the shoulder
  • Selecting exercises for the shoulder
  • Manual resistance and dynamic stabilization drills for the shoulder
  • Nonoperative and postoperative rehabilitation
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Shoulder instability
  • SLAP lesions
  • The stiff shoulder
  • Manual therapy for the shoulder

The program offers 21 CEU hours for the NATA and APTA of MA and 20 CEU hours through the NSCA.

Click below to learn more!

large-learn-more

 

A Simple Approach to Running Analysis for Clinicians

This week’s post is an amazing article by my friend Chris Johnson on what he looks for during a running analysis.  Chris is my go-to resource for running related injuries and rehabilitation.  He’s also recently developed an app on the iTunes app store to help runners, which I have reviewed and found to be really impressive.  Check it out at the end of this article!

 

A Simple Approach to Running Analysis For Clinicians

a simple approach to running analysis for cliniciansThe ultimate special test for runners is RUNNING.

For some odd reason, when runners seek medical consultation, clinicians routinely neglect watching them run during the rehab process. While it may not always be appropriate to take an injured runner through a formal running analysis at the time of presentation, at some point it’s imperative to take the time to watch them run. Only then will you gain a more complete understanding of perhaps what landed them in your hands in the first place.

A great deal of research has emerged over the past several years specifically looking at various characteristics of the running gait and their associated implications. A few prime examples include but are not limited to the following:

  •      Footstrike
  •      Step rate
  •      Hip adduction
  •      Loading rates
  •      Speed

By taking the time to understand the running gait along with ways to shift loads in the lower extremity, clinicians will ultimately be in a better position to help runners return to consistent training in a timely manner through manipulating physical loads on the ecosystem.

While this may seem daunting to those new at running analysis, it can actually be quite simple.  The purpose of this post is to provide clinicians with a simple framework to approach conducting a running analysis using what I call “The Four S’s of Running Analysis.”  These are:

  •      Sound
  •      Strike
  •      Step rate
  •      Speed

While it’s important to appreciate that overground and treadmill running are different animals, approaching every running assessment in a systematic manner is important. Clinicians are encouraged to use the resources at their disposal while understanding their relevance and limitations. By developing proficiency in performing a running gait analysis, clinicians will ultimately refine their clinical decision making and improve their outcomes in terms of restoring one’s float phase.

 

Sound

Before you even watch someone run, close your eyes and listen to the sound of their running gait. As clinicians, there is a great deal of information that can be ascertained by simply listening to one run.

  •      Does the runner land quiet, or is does it sound like they are going to put a hole through the ground or treadmill belt?
  •      Do their feet sound similar or is there a strike asymmetry?
  •      Does the sound of their footstrike change as a function of being shod versus unshod?
  •      Does the sound change as a function of different shoe types?

One of the simplest cues to consider in the event that someone is “overstriking” is to simply instruct the runner to “quiet your feet down.” This may be particularly relevant if the goal is to reduce the vertical ground reaction force (vGRF).

It’s important to appreciate that when one does go to quiet down their feet, that they tend to increase the ankle and knee joint excursions. On the other hand, if landing sound increases, so does the vGRF secondary to decreasing ankle joint excursion while increasing the hip joint excursion (Wernli et al. 2016).

It has been the author’s experience that under a shod condition that a rearfoot strike lends itself to reducing the sound of impact whereas when a runner is barefoot that a forefoot strike serves to quiet down the sound of impact through using the triceps surae to dampen the vertical rate of loading (VRL).

 

Strike

Let’s not complicate things! Does the runner land with a noticeable heel strike or forefoot strike, or do they exhibit a midfoot, or “flat-footed” contact? Is their strike symmetrical?

Also, the point in the race or training session we are discussing matters because one’s strike pattern tends to change over the course of the run, especially during competition (Larson et al 2011).

Over the past several years, there was a considerable buzz around forefoot striking as a means to address common running related injuries. This was due in large part to the book “Born to Run,” in conjunction with Daniel Lieberman’s classic manuscript that appeared in Nature (Lieberman et al 2010) coupled with a craze by the mass media.  It should be mentioned that coaches have long used barefoot training as means to incorporate variability into a runner’s program.

Training runners to incorporate a forefoot strike into their training may prove effective some, such as those with tibial stress syndromes, anterior compartment syndrome, and anterior knee pain.  Caution should be exercised in the context of a past medical history remarkable for injuries involving the calf muscle complex, plantar tissues of the foot, and/or metatarsals as it will bias the load to these regions.

On the other hand, if a runner is dealing with an Achilles tendinopathy or recovering from a calf muscle strain, a heel or rearfoot striking strategy would perhaps be indicated as research has shown that such a strategy reduces Achilles tendon force, strain, and strain rate relative to a FFS pattern (Lyght et al. 2016).

In my opinion, one strike pattern is not necessarily superior to others, but rather, that every strike pattern has unique characteristics and implications (Almeida et al 2015) and serves a purpose pending the context and intent.

By taking the time to understand the implications of each strike pattern, clinicians will be better able to understand the potential changes to consider making as a means to shift load to different regions of the lower extremity. As with any change, however, clinicians must be mindful that it should take place in a slow and gradual manner.

Finally, never take a runner’s word if they tell you that they utilize a certain strike pattern as research has shown that a runner’s subjective report of their strike is not necessarily accurate (Bade et al. 2016).

 

Step Rate

Running is largely about rhythm and timing.

It’s therefore no surprise that over the past several years, a considerable amount of research has focused on step rate or what’s more commonly known as cadence as a simple and practical means to address common running injuries.

The idea is that by increasing the number of steps while keeping running velocity constant, a runner can effectively reduce the magnitude of each individual loading cycle despite increasing the total number of loading cycles for a given training session. This ultimately occurs through a reduction in one’s stride length as when step rate and stride length are manipulated independently, the benefits only occur with a reduction in stride length.

runcadence appBecause I think this is so important, I actually developed a cadence app, RunCadence, which is specifically designed to help runners and clinicians apply cadence to rehab and training for runners through the use of accelerometry coupled with a metronome.

Research has shown that increasing one’s step rate by as a little as five percent above preferred while keeping velocity constant can reduce shock absorption at the level of the knee by upwards of 20 percent. Additionally, increasing step rate by 10 percent above preferred significantly reduces peak hip adduction angle as well as peak hip adduction and internal rotation moments (Heiderscheit et al. 2011).

More recently, a study showed that irrespective of whether one utilizes a rearfoot or forefoot strike pattern that increasing one’s cadence by five percent results in lower peak Achilles stress and strain.

Decreasing one’s stride length through step rate manipulation has also been shown to lead to a wider step width with an accompanying decrease in contralateral pelvic drop (CPD), peak hip adduction, peak ankle eversion, as well as peak ITB strain and strain rate (Boyer & Derrick 2015).

Lastly, clinicians should also bear in mind that increasing one’s step rate greater than 10% above preferred while keeping running velocity constant tends to occur at a greater metabolic cost so as they say, “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.” So at day’s end, remember that the sweet spot is between 5-10% when it comes to increasing cadence based on the current body of literature.

 

Speed

Anytime one discusses running, it’s important that we account for the amount of ground covered in a given time. This is referred to as running velocity, which is the quotient of distance and time.

The typical units that we go by in the United States are min/mile or miles/hour (mph), though most of the world relies on the metric system (m/s or km/hr). So make sure you have a converter bookmarked on your web browser.

Running is typically classified into one of five categories based on speed (Novachek 1998):

  1. Jogging = 2m/s or 4.5mph
  2. Slow running = 3.5m/s or 7.8mph
  3. Medium running = 5m/s or 11mph
  4. Fast running = 7m/s or 15mph
  5. Sprinting = 8m/s or 17.9mph

Additionally, to run faster, a runner must push on the ground more forcefully, more frequently, or a combination thereof (Schache et al 2014).

At speeds < 7m/s the ankle plantarflexors reign supreme as they contribute most significantly to vertical support surfaces and increases in stride length (Dorn et al 2012). At faster speeds, however, the energy sources tend to shift proximal as a means to increase stride frequency in order to increase speed.

The reality is that most runners seeking our services will fall under the category of joggers and slow runners unless one works with speed based running athletes and short course racers.

Once a runner has reached a point in their rehab where they are a candidate to undergo a running analysis, the question naturally becomes, “what speed should we select?” This question is best answered by primarily considering the runner’s pre-injury status along with the severity, region, type of injury, and agreed upon goals.

It’s also essential to clearly identify the runner’s typical training and race intensities to better understand the entry point to having them run as well as the various speeds worth taking them through as part of the analysis.

It should also be mentioned that a thorough running analysis may require a couple sessions to work them up to faster velocities to ensure tolerance to progressive loading. Unfortunately, a common pitfall in the clinic is reluctance, or failure to have runners work up to faster speeds. This invariably leads to a myopic view of one’s running while engendering the potential for hasty clinical reasoning as we transition runners back to training.

In retrospect, running is an activity that has relatively predictable performance demands. By taking the time to develop proficiency in conducting a simple running analysis while applying the research as it relates to shifting loads in the lower extremity, clinicians will be better positioned to help runners return to consistent and healthy training and beyond.

 

Download the RunCadence App

running_cadence_appRunCadence was developed by two physical therapists to help the running community apply step rate to running via real time step rate notification and metronome.
Start using RunCadence to get more in tune with your running. While no shortcuts or “hacks” to running exist, gait retraining using cadence is the next best thing.  Click below to download:

 

 

About the Author
chris_johnson_headshot

Chris Johnson, PT, is the owner of Zeren PT and Performance in Seattle, WA.  In addition to being a highly skilled physical therapist and performance enhancement specialist for runners, Chris is also certified triathlon coach (ITCA), three-time All-American triathlete, two-time Kona Qualifier, and is currently ranked 16th (AG) in the country for long course racing.

How Neural Tension Influences Hamstring Flexibility

Many people think they have tight hamstrings.  This may be the case for some but there are often times that people feel “tight” but aren’t really tight.

I’ve been playing around with how neural tension influences hamstring flexibility and have been having great results.

Watch this video below, which is a clip from my product Functional Stability Training: Optimizing Movement, to learn more about what I mean.

 

How Neural Tension Influences Hamstring Flexibility

 

Learn Exactly How I Optimize Movement

Want to learn even more about how I optimize movement?  Eric Cressey and I have teamed up on Functional Stability Training: Optimizing Movement, to show you exactly how we both assess, coach, and build programs designed to optimize movement.

Click the button below for more information and to sign up now!

large-learn-more

 

The One Thing You Must Do When Evaluating for an ACL Injury

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are common. When evaluating the ACL, special tests like a Lachman Test or Anterior Drawer have been shown to have great reliability and validity.

However, there is one main reason why you may get a false positive for an ACL injury of the knee that is often overlooked – you actually injured your posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)!

I know, it seems backwards, but watch this quick video for my explanation!

 

Learn How We Evaluate and Treat the Knee

For those interested in learning more about how Lenny and I evaluate and treat the knee, we have an amazingly comprehensive course that covers everything you need to know to master the knee.  Our detailed examination process, all our treatment progressions, and detailed information on nonoperative and postoperative treatment of ACL, patellofemoral, meniscus, articular cartilage, osteoarthritis injuries, and so much more.

 

 

 

3 Tips for Assessing the Patellofemoral Joint

The latest Inner Circle recording on 3 Tips for Assessing the Patellofemoral Joint is now available.

3 Tips for Assessing the Patellofemoral Joint

3 Tips for Assessing the Patellofemoral Joint

This month’s Inner Circle presentation is on 3 Tips for Assessing the Patellofemoral Joint.  In this live inservice recording, I discuss a few tips that that I follow when evaluating someone with anterior knee pain, or patellofemoral pain syndrome.  Often times the patellofemoral joint gets little attention during the examination.  But, in order to treat patellofemoral pain successfully, you need to have an accurate diagnosis that is very specific.  Not all anterior knee pain is the same!

This presentation will cover:

  • How your anatomy of your trochlea can alter your ability to statically stabilize
  • How to assess the static stabilizers of the patella
  • A detailed overview of how I palpate different soft tissue structures around the knee
  • How and why you need to look both proximally and distally as well as at the knee
  • The one simple test I do with everyone to assess how proximal and distal factors xalter the forces at the knee

To access this webinar:

Assessing the Shoulder Shrug Sign

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on Assessing the Shoulder Shrug Sign is now available.

Assessing the Shoulder Shrug Sign

Assessing_the_Shoulder_Shrug_SignIn this inservice recording, I overview the two main types of shoulder shrug signs that I see.  The classic shrug sign typically involves either a rotator cuff injury or significant capsular hypomobility.  However, we also see shrugs in people that have poor overhead mobility.

This webinar will cover:

  • What are the different types of shoulder shrug signs?
  • How to tell if you have a mobility or motor control issue
  • The sequence I follow to determine what to choose for my treatments

To access this webinar:

Assessing for Lat and Teres Tightness with Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Limitations in overhead shoulder mobility are common and often a frequent source of nagging shoulder pain and decreased performance.  Any loss of shoulder elevation mobility can be an issue with both fitness enthusiasts and athletes.  Just look at all the exercises that require a good amount of shoulder mobility in the fitness, Crossfit, and sports performance worlds.  Overhead press, thrusters, overhead squats, and snatches are some of the most obvious, put even exercises like pullups, handstands, wall balls, and hanging knee and toe ups can be problematic, especially when combined with speed and force such as during a kipping pull up.

Assessing for Lat and Teres Tightness with Overhead Shoulder MobilityWhen assessing for limitations in overhead shoulder elevation, there are several things you need to evaluate.  I’ve discussed many of these in several past blog posts and Inner Circle webinars on How to Assess Overhead Shoulder Mobility.

I am worried about what I am seeing on the internet right now.

I feel like the mobility trends I am seeing are focused on torquing the shoulder joint to try to improve overhead mobility.  Remember, the shoulder is a VERY mobile joint that tends to run into trouble from a lack of stability.  Trying to stretch out the joint or shoulder capsule should never be the first thing you attempt with self mobilization techniques.  In fact, I have found it causes way more problems than it solves.

Think about it for a second…

If your shoulder can’t fully elevate, jamming it into more elevation is only going to cause more issues. Find the cause. [Click to Tweet]

In my experience, the focus should be on the soft tissue around the joint, not the shoulder joint itself.  The muscles tend to be more of the mobility issue from my experience than the joint.  Just think about all the chronic adaptations that occur from out postures and habits throughout the date.

Two of the most muscles that I see causing limitations in overhead shoulder mobility at the latissimus dorsi and the teres major.

Here’s a quick and easy way to assess the lat and teres during arm elevation.

 

Assessing and Improving Overhead Shoulder Mobility

For those interested in learning more, I have a few Inner Circle webinars on how to assess and improve overhead shoulder mobility: