Biologic tissues are viscoelastic. That means their stretchiness changes depending on how hard they are stretched. We can take advantage of this characteristic when we are rehabilitating a stiff joint. This becomes very important with certain medical problems. Specifically: total knee replacement and frozen shoulder. This concept is generally helpful in orthopedic rehabilitation and I take advantage of it whenever applicable.
Think of silly putty. When slowly stretched it can be drawn out into a long strand, but when pulled aggressively it will snap and break in two. This is an extreme example of viscoelasticity.
Your tissues are similar. While extreme force stretching can cause tissue to tear, this is generally far beyond any amount of stretching a patient can do, even with a physical therapist. A manipulation under anesthesia is a maneuver performed by a surgeon to rapidly regain motion in a particular joint that has become stiff. Tissues tear, and inflammation results. This is the most extreme example of a high force, low duration stretch. It is best to avoid this type of intervention if possible. It is preferable for a patient to spend the time necessary to recover joint range of motion using a long duration, low force stretch. It will result in less inflammation and less pain.
Shoulders and knees commonly become stiff. Total knee rehabilitation requires stretching to regain range of motion after surgery. Stretching is required to speed up the recovery of a frozen shoulder. When attempting to regain range of motion patients are often told to stretch for 10-15 seconds and then relax. Over and over. Sometimes this is effective. Sometimes it is not. There is significant genetic variation with regard to tissue strength and inflammatory response, and significant psychological variation with regard to pain tolerance, and ability to relax while stretching. When a patient has trouble regaining range of motion I try to focus them on long duration, low force stretching. This tends to create less inflammation and is more likely to allow a patient to relax the muscles while stretching. Relaxing is very important because any muscle resistance will prevent gains in range of motion.
This sketch depicts how I think about stretching. A high force, brief stretch is more likely to cause inflammation. A gentle prolonged stretch is less likely to create an inflammatory response. The "amount of stretch" or the total area under the curve depicted by the hash marks could be identical, but my experience suggests the long duration, low force stretching will give a superior result.
How do I know this?
When I was a resident, I developed a frozen shoulder and used long duration, low force stretching to cure myself. I have subsequently recommended this technique to countless patients who presented with frozen shoulders that had failed to improve after many weeks of standard physical therapy. Although occasionally surgical intervention was necessary, the vast majority progressed using this technique and never needed surgery. This technique has become my standard recommendation following total knee replacement and to rehabilitate a frozen shoulder, and has minimized the need for manipulation.
So you finally decided to have your arthritic knee replaced. You got through the surgery just fine. As expected, you had some surgical pain, but almost immediately you realized that your arthritic pain was gone. Awesome! Things seemed to be going very nicely, and now you are home...
Your knee may begin feeling tight and warm. This is normal and expected. Healing occurs in part through an inflammatory process. Inflammation shows up as swelling, warmth, and pain. You have been told to stretch, but may be questioning this recommendation now. You may be concerned that because it hurts you could be damaging yourself or your new knee. This is a very common concern. Please resist the urge to stop stretching.
The knee is a complex joint. There several moving parts and potential spaces (otherwise known as tissue planes). During total knee replacement these parts are moved around , the tissue planes are opened. I think it makes sense to patients when they have some pain after surgery. But as the wound is healing on the outside, why does it feel like things are getting worse on the inside?
As the healing process proceeds, the tissue planes that have been opened begin sticking together. Gradually adhesions, or scar tissue, may form between these planes preventing them from gliding properly. Initially this scar tissue is weak, but it will get stronger every day. For this reason, there is some urgency to regain range of motion as soon as possible. This is because after about 6 weeks or so from surgery this scar tissue becomes strong enough that a patient is unlikely to be able to stretch it out any more. The range of motion you have achieved at this point will be how far your knee will move permanently...without additional intervention.
To better understand knee range of motion lets begin with a couple of definitions. Flexion of the knee means bending. When you sit in a chair and your feet are flat on the floor, your knee is bent, or flexed. Extension of the knee means straightened. When you stand up and your knee is straight it is extended.
Now lets discuss these tissue planes a bit.
The skin must be able to slide over the kneecap (patella). The body achieves this by only loosely attaching the skin to the patella. This loose connective tissue allows motion to occur. Under abnormal conditions, fluid can collect here and create swelling. A potential space such as this is referred to as a bursa. The loose connective tissue found here is called bursal tissue. The specific space, or tissue plane, between the skin and the kneecap is called the pre-patellar bursa. It is shown in purple in my sketch.
The kneecap (patella) is embedded within the tendon that attaches your thigh muscles (quadriceps) to your shin bone (tibia). A tendon is the tissue that attaches muscle to bone. The quadriceps tendon must be able to slide relative to the thigh bone (femur). The area above the patella shown in my sketch as orange is called the supra-patellar pouch.
If either of these tissue planes sticks together, the knee will not be able to bend completely.
In the back of the knee there is a sheet of tissue called the posterior capsule. This is green in my sketch. This tissue is irritated during surgery and will gradually tighten as it heals. If this is allowed to happen, the knee will not fully extend.
So, how do you prevent a stiff total knee? It is not by walking around a lot. It is not by cycling the knee back and forth a lot. It is by gently and progressively stretching. Even though it hurts. The longer you are from surgery, the longer these stretching sessions must be because the scar tissue becomes stronger each day. Gentle progressive stretching works by taking advantage of the viscoelastic nature of biologic tissues.
My basic recommendations:
Future posts will further develop these concepts.
My blog is intended to address common issues I face on a daily basis in practice. Because I focus on total joint replacement of the shoulder, hip, and knee as well as arthroscopic surgery, many of my postings relate to these procedures and the rehabilitation process necessary for the best recovery possible.
I am sure there will be a variety of questions/concerns that I will not spontaneously address. Since my goal is to provide educational resources for patients worldwide, please feel free to suggest a topic you would like to see me address on this website.
Please understand that I can not make personal, specific recommendations to you, as we do not have a doctor/patient relationship. I will, however do my very best to address your question in general terms, and as always, I am available for personal consultation if you'd like.
Feel free to email me: chris@yourorthoMD.com or simply make a suggestion in the comment section below.
The difference between active and passive range of motion is easy for surgeons and physical therapists to understand, but is often unclear to patients.
Distinguishing between these two motions is crucial to properly rehabilitate certain surgeries, especially for a rotator cuff repair. Although I do my best to demonstrate each motion, and patients usually voice understanding, it is common for them to then demonstrate that they do not indeed understand.
Active range of motion is what we normally do all day every day. Our body normally functions using a coordinated series of active motions. This motion is controlled by muscles. Muscles cross joints, which are where bones meet and move relative to each other. When a muscle contracts, a joint moves. This is active range of motion.
Passive range of motion much less common in our normal daily activities. It requires a person to relax and allow their joint to be moved by an outside force. This force could be gravity, or another person (like a physical therapist), or a machine (like a stretching brace, or pulley).
The rotator cuff is a commonly injured tendon. Repairing rotator cuff tears makes up a large part of my practice. I perform this surgery using an arthroscope, and it takes about an hour for me to repair the average rotator cuff tear. Patients usually go home the same day, wearing a special brace to protect the repair.
This is where the hard work begins for the patient.
Rehabilitating a repaired rotator cuff takes time, involves discomfort, and is not fun. It is also crucial to do it properly. Improperly rehabilitated rotator cuff repairs could result in problems. Inadequate stretching (passive range of motion) could cause stiffness. Too much active range of motion, too soon, could cause the repair to fail.
I recommend thinking about rotator cuff rehabilitation as a sequence of 3 main phases:
It is very difficult to completely relax while someone, or something else moves your shoulder. Try to imagine your shoulder is paralyzed. Allow your arm to hang relaxed by your side. Then bend forward at your waist allowing your arm to swing away from your body under the influence of gravity . Keep bending at your waist as far as you can. At this point your arm will be hanging straight down, almost like you are trying to touch your toes or the floor in front of you. Now slowly stand up allowing your arm to gradually return to your side. Try to keep the arm completely relaxed throughout the entire motion. When you are standing upright again and your arm is at your side you are done. Congratulations. You just properly performed a basic passive range of motion exercise.
In an upcoming post I will upload a video demonstrating this basic passive range of motion maneuver and a sequence of increasingly complex passive exercises. After this I will demonstrate active range of motion exercises.
I never really enjoyed writing. Problem solving was always my thing. Especially if it involved tools/scientific reasoning, and especially physical exertion. My friends and family will surely be puzzled to hear I decided to write a blog.
Throughout my life, I have found myself in a variety of leadership positions. The challenge of solving problems is what drew me to these positions. The ability of a leader to communicate is crucial. It is all too easy to offend or confuse if communication isn't clear.
In medical school I realized that some physicians communicate better than others, and that an optimal doctor/patient relationship is driven by good communication. We deal with complex issues, and medical terminology is essentially a foreign language to most laypeople. I observed when speaking with an attending physician, that patients often voiced understanding but gave non-verbal clues that they were confused. Many times the physician was oblivious to this. I made it my goal not to fall into this trap in my practice.
I feel my role as a physician is to educate my patients and help them to make the proper decision for them. The paternalistic physician role no longer applies. I believe a collaborative relationship, although sometimes more challenging is ultimately more rewarding for both physicians and patients.
As an orthopedic surgeon, my time is divided between my office and the operating room. I perform surgery twice weekly and see patients in my office 3 days per week. Management of orthopedic conditions involves as much art as it does science. Additionally, each patient has a unique set of medical and personal issues that will guide their personal risk/benefit analysis. Communication is the key to a satisfying doctor-patient interaction. A typical day in the office for me involves about 40 patient visits. There is rarely enough time to fully develop these conversations issues to my liking. I do my very best to allow time for questions, to make sure patients understand all pertinent information, and provide additional reading material. I never pressure patients to make a decision "on the spot", but rather recommend contemplating our conversation at home. I feel this leads to a more satisfying experience for my patients. There are a variety of issues that come up frequently. This blog is intended to record my thoughts on these topics. I hope orthopedic patients around the world find this information interesting and helpful.
Please recognize that this blog consists of general education only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific condition you might be dealing with. Please discuss all medical issues with your personal physician.
If you would like a consultation with me either by phone, video call, or in person, please contact me at: chris@yourorthoMD.com.
Orthopedic Surgeon focused on the entire patient, not just a single joint.