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Brian Schiff’s Blog

Injury Prevention, Sports Rehab & Performance Training Expert

Archive for 'arthritis'

So, I am about 4 weeks into my new job at as a supervisor and sports physical therapist at the Athletic Performance Center (  So far, I am really enjoying it.

I have seen lots of different athletes ranging from youth to professionals.  The one thing people often seek to eliminate with rehab is pain.  Ironically, what most people fail to realize is that this pain is actually one of the biggest tools they need to rely on in the recovery process.

You see, most injuries I encounter are related to repetitive micro-trauma or overuse.  Such injuries include tendonitis, bursitis, stress fractures, muscle strains, cervical and lumbar disc bulges, and so on.


It is critical that people learn to read their own pain as a marker of how well their body is holding up to the stress they are subjecting it to each day.  If they simply learn to recognize and respect pain and what it tells them, they would be able to rehab and recover much faster.

Pain, while undesirable, is one of the most important tools we can use as therapists, strength coaches, ATC’s and fitness enthusiasts to judge how best to move forward or step back.

No pain, no gain is old school and best left in the past.  To help athletes today and long term, it is best to educate them how best to recognize and react to pain when it occurs.  Too many times they ignore it or fail to report it because they believe they will be held out of participation, or it is not a big deal.

Little do they know that this mentality often costs them more playing time long term or even may jeopardize their health in later years.  So, as I tackle patella tendonitis, lateral epicondylitis, muscle strains and such, I teach my clients how to interpret pain in response to their daily life and sport.

Pain is not the enemy, but rather a warning signal our body sends us when it simply needs a break or is beginning to break down.  Therefore, learn to listen more closely to your body and let pain guide your training, play and rehab process.

I advise people to consider the following:

  • Soreness up to 3-4/10 on a 0-10 pain scale (10 being the worst) is acceptable provided it does not escalate with activity
  • Any increased soreness after an activity should subside or return to baseline within 24 hours
  • Pain that is at 5/10 or greater is a red flag and precursor to mechanical failure

Finally, keep in m ind that once pain subsides, that does not necessarily mean your body is done healing.  Pain is a symptom and there is often a mechanical cause or disruption that leads to it.  So, just remember to pay close attention to soreness and pain with activity as your body was programmed to let you know when tissue is starting to break down.

It is no secret that Americans are trying to stay more active well into their baby boomer years and beyond.  The million dollar question is how will what you do today affect your joints down the road. 

Scholars, scientists and medical experts do not seem to agree 100% on what is too much, but most tend to agree that excessive running, obesity, irregular or unusually intense activity (think weekend warriors here), muscular weakness and even decreased flexibility may all contribute to arthritis.

The New York Times recently ran a story about the cost of total joint replacement and suggestions on how people can be proactive to reduce the risk and debilitating effects of arthritis.  Click here to read the article.

I think one of the most amusing yet ironic things about science is that it often contradicts itself.  Obviously, we know being overweight increases stress on the load bearing joints.  Most people would also knowingly acknowledge that improved strength and flexibility would make for healthier knees and hips. 

The big question mark for me is impact loading, or simply the argument of whether to run or not to run.  Some docs say no way.  Others say yes.  Yet others offer more ambiguous words on the subject.  So, what do I think?

I honestly believe there may be no absolute answer.  I am not convinced running on a treadmill is all that much better for you as some would suggest either.  My body tells me blacktop surfaces are better than cement sidewalks, while the soft earth is better yet still.  I use the treadmill in the winter and for speed work but if you run events too much treadmill work will let you down on race day as the body is ill prepared. 

Much like exercise prescription, I think joint loading and tolerance is a very individual matter indeed.  Biomechanics, posture, training history, medical history, repetitive movements, footwear, nutrition, body type, recovery, etc are just a few of the variables one must consider when passing judgment on exercise prescription and limits.

Beyond that, the best indication to reduce or remove an activity for a short bit or long term is obviously pain.  But before doing so, one must correctly identify the source of the pain.  At times, the pain may seem like a joint issue when in fact it could simply stem from poor muscle recruitment, lack of mobility or faulty movement patterns thereby subjecting joints to undue stress.

I say all this to say we must be careful in saying one should not do something definitively.  Some folks run well into their 80’s without issues.  Others break down after one endurance event.  In the end, we must face facts.  The human body is complex and no two people are exactly alike.  I had left hip pain years ago that felt like arthritis.  My orthopd told me the x-ray showed a few mild bone spurs and mild hip dysplasia. 

His advice?  Quit running.  I did for 6 months and the pain did not subside.  So, I began a progressive running program and changed up my strength training to more single leg based work.  Guess what?  My pain went away 100%.  This tells me the impact itself was not likely the cause of my pain, but more likely a muscle imbalance that I overcame through more efficient strength training.

We must look at science, anecdotal findings and clinical experience to pull out general patterns and thoughts all the while continuing to use assessment, feedback and results to lead us to the best conclusion for each client, patient or athlete.  You must use all this information to make the best decision for your situation as well.

Anterior knee pain, aka chondromalacia, patellofemoral pain (PFP) and patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), may be the most difficult condition to remedy in the clinic or gym.  There is always debate and speculation when it comes to taping, bracing, orthotics and exercise.

In the latest edition of the JOSPT, there was a summary from the findings presented at an international retreat held in the spring of 2009 in Maryland.  The publication covered the keynote addresses and podium presentations.

Before I give you the quick and dirty details, I want to emphasize a key point that was made and one I happen to wholeheartedly agree with.  It is this:

When assessing and evaluating those with PFPS, it is important to recognize that these patients/clients do not necessarily fit under one broad classification system.  The anterior knee pain issue is multi-factorial and not every person has the same issues or abnormalities.  As such, the exercise prescription most likely will need to be tweaked accordingly for best results.

Okay, now on to the highlights that may impact your training/rehab.  Some researchers from Belgium have been conducting prospective studies looking at intrinsic risk factors for developing PFPS.  They looked at physical education students and novice runners.  Major findings are included below:

Study #1

There were 4 variables identified as risk factors:

  • Decreased flexibility of the quadriceps
  • Decreased explosive strength of the quadriceps
  • Altered neuromuscular coordination b/w the vastus lateralis (VL) and vastus medialis oblique (VMO)
  • Hypermobility of the patella

Study #2

  • More laterally directed plantar pressure distribution at initial (foot) contact during walking and more laterally directed rollover are risk factors for developing PFPS

Study #3

  • Unable to link hip muscle strength (or weakness) to increasing risk for PFPS
  • No apparent correlation with frontal plane motion of the knee and hip strength (so hip weakness will not automatically cause knee pain)

Finally, what does this mean for therapists and fitness pros?  It means…….

  1. They should address the 4 intrinsic risk factors by stretching and strengthening the quads, with a particular emphasis on balancing the VMO strength in relation to VL strength.  This is not new information.  Spending time on closed chain terminal range strengthening is important. 
  2. Second, keenly observing a dynamic disturbance in foot alignment at contact is important  for predicting PFPS and will undoubtedly impact dynamic training protocols for the entire kinetic chain. 
  3. Lastly, continue to strengthen the hip even though the final study revealed no apparent link.  However, perhaps focus more on this when there is a definitive weakness side-to-side that has been identified.  So, don’t fall back on the weak gluteus medius by default; rather use dysfunction as a driver for exercise inclusion.

PFPS is and will continue to be a difficult problem to treat and remedy with exercise.  Further research is needed to determine and evaluate more specific gender differences, kinetic chain links, the efficacy of taping/bracing, and the most effective classification and treatment algorithms for those of us in the trenches.  In the meantime, listen to the body and use the best available science and information to move forward with your training. 

Reference: JOSPT March 2010

If you have been following my blog, you are aware one of my marathoners has been battling increased medial knee pain.  I initially suspected and diagnosed it as patello-femoral irritation.  I have known she has some chondromalacia (softening or weakening of the cartilage behind the kneecap)  ever since I began training her 2 years ago.

I spoke with the MD Thursday and he confirmed by MRI she has no meniscus tear and just patello-femoral arthritis and inflammation.  I was relieved to know I had hit the mark (remember the chiro said meniscus tear).  The MD I referred my client to wants me to do a specific PF strengthening program with her.  The good news – no surgery needed that will derail training for the Columbus Marathon.  The bad news – she may have to contend with some discomfort related to the pounding for now.

It is always hard to tell a runner to rest.  That is one four letter word that really ticks them off!  So, the answer for my client is relative rest (avoiding excess mileage, not running down too many hills, and increasing recovery windows when possible) as well as implementing a more specific PF rehab program.

We have been doing lots of quad (VMO specifically) work and gluteus medius strengthening already.  So, what I will be adding or changing?  Well, we will be integrating more repetitively the following:

  1. Weighted straight leg raises in flexion and adduction
  2. Modified box step-downs in the terminal range of knee extension to emphasize VMO contraction in a closed chain manner
  3. Modified lunge and squat progressions working around the pain

I will be continuing with single leg strengthening for glutes, hamstrings and quads, while challenging hip stability in the frontal plane as she may be experiencing unwanted force transmission here with impact.  Additionally, I will continue with IT band rolling/stretching and hamstring flexibility.

This client is tough and will run through the pain if need be.  My job is to reduce and eliminate the pain without taking her running away.  That is never easy but it can be done with careful progression of exercise and cooperation from the client.  The key point for strength and conditioning specialists is to modify programming based on the client, while the key point for all runners out there is to be open and honest about pain, as well as willing to comply with modifications in the short term training plan to achieve the same long term goal – finishing the race.

Below is a picture of a modified squat progression (an isometric single leg stability ball wall squat/sit).  I use this exercise with athletes and runners with patello-femoral pain issues when they can’t squat due to pain.  If you want to see exactly how to do this exercise, subscribe to PFP Magazine and read my online column, Functionally Fit, here.  My newest column will be out next week and address double and single leg isometric squats for patello-femoral pain.

Shallow Single Leg Wall Sit

Shallow Single Leg Wall Sit

So, my client saw the orthopodic doctor I sent her to on Wednesday.  He called me and said he felt it was primarily patello-femoral arthritis and some irritation of the medial retinaculum (fold of tissue along the inside portion fo the kneecap).  When I pressed him about the mensicus (remember the chiro suspected this injury), he felt my client at 35 was young to have an attritional meniscus tear, but he did decide to get an MRI to be 100% sure she did not have a tear of the medial meniscus. 

For now, the plan is to let her run and train with me while we await the results fo the MRI and progress training based upon her pain/symptoms.  So, what are good exercises for PF pain in runners?  Obviously, I focus a great deal on strengthening the hip musculature, particularly the gluteus medius, as well as the quads and hamstrings.  Essentially, reducing the amount of pronation, valgus load at the knee, and IT Band tigthness is important for female runners. 

Below is a list of a few key exercises I include in this particular marathoner’s routine with me:

  • Single leg stiff-legged dead lifts
  • Single leg squats with opposite leg hip/knee drive
  • Lateral ankle band walks
  • Single leg lateral reaches
  • IT Band foam rolling

Note: It may be necessary to modify the range of motion on single leg squats based on pain or specific hot spots on the kneecap.  In this case, I typically work above or below the pain zone.  I included pictures of the lateral band walks and lateral reach below (these really target the gluteus medius).

Lateral Band Walk

Lateral Band Walk


Single Leg Lateral Reach

Single Leg Lateral Reach