Tuesday, August 23, 2016

High Hamstring Tendinopathy

High Hamstring Strain and High Hamstring Tendinopathy

Fig 1: Common mechanism of
hamstring injury
High hamstring strain and/or pain at the attachment of the hamstrings (referred to as high hamstring tendinopathy or proximal hamstring tendinopathy) is a common complaint among runners and athletes who are involved in kicking sports such as soccer. The pain is experienced at the region of the sit bones (the ischial tuberosity) and is aggravated with sitting and with activities such as running and kicking. The pain can be sharp, aching, and sore, and it can be described as a pulling sensation. This injury can be very slow to heal and has a high frequency of recurrence.

The hamstrings frequently become injured in their eccentric phase of contraction. What this means is that in activities such as kicking a soccer ball or football, or in the leg swing during running, the hamstrings are lengthening (and the quadriceps are contracting and shortening). Although the hamstrings are lengthening, they fire to slow down or decelerate the motion (Fig.1).

Understanding this mechanism of injury is crucial for Sports Medicine Acupuncturists® such as myself, as this informs clinical inquiry. Are the quadriceps and other hip flexors short and overactive placing the hamstrings in a chronically taut and lengthened position (Fig. 2)? This would need to be addressed to allow adequate healing. Or, are the hamstrings chronically in a shortened position? Both of these situations could be an underlying cause of hamstring strain recurrence and in both situations the patient would complain of 'tight' hamstrings. In the first instance these 'tight' hamstrings are pulled taut like a rubber band overstretched (a very common occurrence), while in the second they are in a short and tight positions. However, treatment strategies for these two instances would be very different.

Fig. 2: Schematic illustrating hamstrings being pulled in a chronically overlengthened position. Patients would complain of chronically 'tight' hamstrings in this case as they are chronically pulled taut. 

Fig. 3: Modified from Netter's
Atlas of Human Anatomy
When patients complain of this pain, it is also important to properly assess which structure is actually injured. While many patients come in to clinic complaining of high hamstring strain, two other structures frequently mimic this pain. The lower fibers of the gluteus maximus overlie the hamstrings at the region where high hamstring strain occurs. When this muscle is the culprit, there is a palpable taut band that can be felt in these fibers from about the region of the coccyx to the attachment of the hamstrings. Also, the adductor magnus, the most posterior muscle in the adductor group which is on the medial thigh, attaches very close to the hamstrings and pain associated with this muscle can mimic high hamstring strain (Fig. 3). Both of these muscles create a slightly different 'flavor' of pain and can have characteristic signs and symptoms reported by the patient; this allows an astute clinician to find the fixed site of pain and treat it properly for the quickest healing time.

Besides these sources of pain, referred pain is also a possibility and needs to be considered. Referred pain may come from the lumbar spine, from the sacroiliac joint, or from trigger points in the gluteal muscles, the low back, or even the lower portion of the hamstrings. The clinician must be thorough during evaluation and patients should make sure that their practitioner, whether an MD, acupuncture physician, physical therapist, or massage therapist, has the understanding and training to properly assess and evaluate the condition. Proper assessment of all the factors leads to proper treatment. Proper treatment leads to faster and more profound healing.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cupping Relieves Pain, Speeds Healing

Cupping as a Treatment for Pain and Accelerant to Healing.

From the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, cupping has been in the news. Athletes such as Michael Phelps have all been 'spotted' with very regular circular bruise-like marks. It seems that the Olympics are fast becoming the signature event for introducing the world to alternative treatment modalities that, while popular among top athletes, are little known among the general public.

Image By Craig Maccubbin
(Flickr: Overhand Serve)
[CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
The most obvious example was in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where beach volleyball powerhouse duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May dominated their increasingly popular sport. Keri Walsh had a very colorful elastic tape on her shoulder—and Kinesiotape's webpage hits went up from about 600 views per day to 345,000 per day! Elite athletes had been using Kinesiotape before this, but it was not usually visible under their gear. Given that the women's beach volleyball uniform is a basically a bikini, this tape became very visible. Since then, Kinesiotape has become widely used by a wide range of health practitioners, and by athletes from professionals to weekend warriors.

Jumping forward to this year, we see that legendary swimmer Michael Phelps is bringing wide attention to another frequently used ‘alternative’ practice. But what is it, and what is it for?

By Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 br
via Wikimedia Commons
Cupping has its roots in ancient Chinese medicine, and has also been practiced in ancient Egypt and the Middle East. Cupping uses fire to create a vacuum in glass or bamboo cups, which are then adhered to the skin. The fire (usually in the form of a cotton ball soaked in alcohol) is held in the cup, thereby using up the oxygen and creating a vacuum. The fire is then removed from cup, and the cup is quickly placed on the skin. There are also vacuum pumped plastic cups and silicon suction cups available which do not require the fire to create a vacuum. In either case, the cups are left on for about 5-15 minutes. It’s also possible to do “moving cupping,” in which the cups are moved over tight tissue.

There are many possible uses of cupping in Chinese medicine, but treating sore muscles from overuse and accelerating healing is what athletes such as Phelps are looking for. When muscles become overly tight, the added tension compresses capillaries—the very delicate, microscopic blood vessels where oxygen and nutrients are exchanged between the blood and the body's tissues, and where metabolic waste products move from the tissues to the blood. This compression reduces blood flow and oxygen to the muscles; as with any tissue that is not getting adequate oxygen, pain and soreness and reduced healing time follows.

Cupping decompresses the muscles and their connective tissue layers while pulling stagnant blood to the surface. This stagnant blood is what is observed as the purplish circle, which looks like a very symmetrical bruise and lasts about a week. The amount of discoloration is determined by the amount of suction, the amount of time the cups remain in place, and by the amount of stagnation that was there in the first place. As the stagnant blood is pulled to the surface, fresh, oxygenated blood can move into the muscle, which can relieve pain and increase healing time.

Many people wonder if it hurts, which is not surprising since the mark looks like a bruise, and cupping may be momentarily uncomfortable, depending on the patient. The resulting discolored mark, however, is not painful, and patients are often unaware of it if it is on their back or some other spot they can’t see. I caution them to let their partners know to expect it and not be alarmed at how dramatic the mark looks until the discoloration diminishes. Not surprisingly, as the procedure is repeated, the amount of discoloration is less each time as the amount of stagnation and compression is reduced.

There are variations to placing the cups on the body and having them remain in place. A small amount of lubricant can be placed on the skin before adhering the cups. The cups can then be moved while maintaining suction. Or, the cups can be adhered to a region that is particularly tight and the patient can be asked to perform slow movements while the practitioner manipulates the cups. All of these techniques can further serve as a type of myofascial release (manipulation of the muscle and fascia) which can increase blood flow, decompress the tissue, and restore proper range of motion. The big difference is that, compared to deep tissue massage strokes, which push down on and compress the muscles and connective tissue, cupping lifts and decompresses the muscles and connective tissue.
Cupping has some positive research to back it up, though it is not extensively researched and more good quality studies would be helpful for cupping to be accepted in the mainstream of medicine. It is shown to have few adverse effects, and those that are reported are mild. 1,2,3
If you are an athlete and looking to reduce healing time and increase performance, call your local acupuncturist today to give cupping a try. You may find that Michael Phelps is onto something!


1. Cao, Huijuan, Xun Li, and Jianping Liu. “An Updated Review of the Efficacy of Cupping Therapy.” Ed. German Malaga. PLoS ONE 7.2 (2012): e31793. PMC. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

2. Kim, Jong-In et al. “Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review.”Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2011 (2011): 467014. PMC. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

3. Mehta, Piyush, and Vividha Dhapte. "Cupping Therapy: A Prudent Remedy for a Plethora of Medical Ailments." Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 5.3 (2015): 127-34. Web.

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Levator Scapula Neck Pain

Levator Scapula Disfunction Can Cause Pain and Stiff Neck Syndrome

Next week I will be teaching a class at the Florida State Oriental Medical Association (FSOMA) Annual Conference. The class will discuss neck pain and stiffness and will specifically highlight acupuncture and manual therapy techniques to treat the levator scapula, a muscle which frequently causes neck pain and stiffness and pain in the shoulder blade region.

Fig. 1 A (left) and 1 B (right): Images from Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, by Drs. Janet Travell and David Simons,

The levator scapula, seen in Fig. 1 A, is a muscle which stretches from the upper neck to the upper part of the shoulder blade. Not surprisingly based on its name, the levator scapula elevates the scapula. But it also rotates bends it sideways. Both of these movements basically move the shoulder blade closer to the neck on the same side. When this muscle develops trigger points (painful nodules within the muscle), it can cause quite a lot of pain and neck stiffness. This pain pattern is illustrated in the Fig. 1B and as can be seen, the pain concentrates at the base of the neck and frequently spreads to the medial border of the scapula. Patients often state that they feel the pain between the shoulder blades. The neck frequently becomes stiff, and pain is worse when patients turn the head to the side of the pain, as in looking over the shoulder.

Fig. 2: Neck position which shortens the levator scapula and can lead to pain.

Fig. 3: The imbalance in the pelvis
and legs, causing an elevation on
of the right ilium which frequently
contributes to an elevation of the
left shoulder girdle. This can
cause pain and stiffness in the
left neck.
This can be a chronic condition, or it can come on suddenly. It is not uncommon for people to wake with this pain after a night's sleep in an awkward position. A cold draft on the neck while sleeping is also frequently reported by patients. This pain can be quite distressing as it interferes with activities such as driving and makes it difficult to find a comfortable position.

In chronic cases, it is found that patients often perform an activity that repetitively shortens this muscle. A common example is a busy office worker, student or parent holding a phone to their ear with their shoulder. Awkward computer workstations, poor sitting posture, poor breathing, and even imbalances affecting the leg length (more on this in a different post) can contribute to pain in the levator scapula (Fig. 3)

Local acupuncture techniques can be an excellent way to address the muscle directly to release muscle contraction. In addition, acupuncture along the related channels and to muscles that are part of the dysfunction, myofascial release (a deep tissue type of massage) to lengthen bound muscles and connective tissue, and corrective exercises to address posture are all tools that can greatly reduce pain and improve range of motion in the neck and treat this 'stiff neck syndrome.'

A self-help exercise is described below. This can be performed several times a day and should not cause pain or aggravation of symptoms. Use your judgment and consult your physician if you have any doubts.

This exercise is described as if there is pain at the base of the neck on the left side, which is worse when turning to the left. The directions can be reversed for pain occurring on the right side.

1) Lie face-up or sit upright in a chair with your feet on the floor.
2) Gently turn your neck towards the painful side (to the left) to the point just before it hurts (this may be only a small turn in severe cases).
3) Place the hand opposite the painful side on your cheek (right hand on the right cheek) and gently, with very little force, turn the head back into the palm (to the right). There should be no movement, and this is an isometric contraction. In other words, you are resisting the gentle turn with your palm and not allowing any movement. Hold this position for about 6 seconds.
4) Relax for about 1 second, and then see if you can turn more towards the painful side (to the left). Still stop before there is actual pain and do not attempt to turn more than your body will allow.
5) Repeat steps 3 and 4.

Note: This exercise is most useful in acute problems when there is severe pain and difficulty turning the neck. The goal is to GENTLY tease out movement. Many times, the body perceives that there is danger to the joints (maybe you fell asleep in a position that was stressing the joints of the neck, for instance) and there is a reflexive spasm to guard and prevent movement. Trying to stretch aggressively and forcefully will often aggravate the condition more in these situations, as the neck muscles such as the levator scapula will contract more to guard the area. In more chronic cases, stretching and range of motion exercises can be employed.

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