Such an important issue! Great post about how to truly treat the whole patient. Young athletes have emotions, too!
Just ran across this great whiteboard video from an NPR post about low back pain. It’s a video by a Canadian primary care physician. It’s the best patient-friendly explanation I’ve seen of low back pain, what to know, and what to do about it.
While low back pain in the young athlete is not always the same as in adults and there are other kid- and teen-specific diagnoses AND PT treatments to consider, I still find this video very helpful for all ages. Though there are some very rare reasons they may have it, kids and teens almost never have problems like neurogenic claudication due to spinal column narrowing mentioned in the video. Discogenic pain is also more rare in kids and teens..
Given that low back pain is one of my favorite conditions to treat, particularly in the young athlete, I’d say this video hit the nail on the head for the most part. I love the physiotherapy, manual therapy, and Pilates shout-outs in the video. It’s important before beginning something like Pilates or yoga that you start slowly and ensure that your instructor is familiar with how to help people with injuries. In addition, if you are a kid or a teen, it’s important that the instructor is skilled in working with children and adolescents as there are special precautions that must be made in Pilates and yoga due to differences present in the growing spine vs. the adult spine. Typically what I do, as a Pilates instructor and PT, is teach kids the right movements they would need to know for Pilates, then find them the right Pilates instructor or class.
You can skip the ad at the beginning, but I also love the Neurac and WebPT advertisements at the start of the video. Between Pilates, Neurac, and WebPT, I use all of these things in my daily practice (in full disclosure: nobody paid me to say that).
The best 3 lines:
“Motion is lotion”
“A physiotherapist can probably help you with all of these things”
“Movement is medicine.”
Last week I saw this Always ad defining #likeagirl. It went pretty viral among my facebook and twitter circles. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, see the link below. If you did, it’s worth another watch.
Upon watching this, I found myself wanting to cry, scream, smile, laugh, and fist pump. My personal and professional worlds were colliding. I love kids. I love psychological development (it was my major). I have studied peer relationships of children and teens. I love young athletes (it’s the title of this blog). I love a good youtube video and I love social media. I love advocacy for women’s health issues across the lifespan.
Like in the video, I wondered who is defining #likeagirl and why it is viewed by so many as an insult, especially when it comes to young athletes. Where did all of this come from–is this a thought women have of other women? Or a thought men have of women? How did girls’ own views of the phrase #likeagirl spin 180 degrees from positive to negative in a just few years across the young female lifespan?
Like any deep thinking blogger, I of course thought “this would make a great blog post.” I began to reflect on some striking #likeagirl challenges in my own upbringing as a female and how it affects my thoughts and views on this idea.
#Likeagirl defined during the “growing up” years
In 4th grade, I was one of only 3-4 girls in my class. I was teased, bullied, and outcasted for being the only member of the class in the gifted program. Anything anyone could try and take from me, they would. Lunch, pencils, erasers, paper, sanity, innocence…you name it. We tried to get the teacher and school to intervene but nothing really changed. So, fight #likeagirl I (well, my parents and I) did, and I moved on to a different school.
In 7th grade, the most “popular” girls sat next to me in science class. I specifically remember my “friend” asking me if she could cheat off of me during tests. I said no. There went that friendship. Apparently the way to popularity and being accepted #likeagirl was compromising morals.
As we walked down the staircase toward our 9th grade geometry class, my friend said “You know if you keep it up at this rate, none of the boys are going to like you.” It was me making straight A’s, swimming 5 hours a day, and setting nearly every school swimming record.
My friend then followed with “they’ll think you’re intimidating. Boys don’t like intimidating girls.”
At the time I remember thinking “wow, that sucks, boys won’t like me” for about 2.5 seconds. Then I was mad at her for thinking that saying that to me was going to change who I was and make me “give in” to the female norm (whatever that was) just so that boys would like me.
As if my friend were a fortune teller, I didn’t have a boyfriend for 3 years after that. That’s eons as far as high school goes. I had my moments of insecurity about it, but had plenty of other things going for me to distract me. I wasn’t worried about finding Mr. Right at 14, 15, 16, or 17. Ironically, I found him at 18. Mr. Right will tell you that he wasn’t intimidated by me, but looked up to and was inspired my successes. We started dating a month before high school ended. We’ve been together since then and now we’re married.
Take that, Mean Girls.
Growing up, I was too busy swimming to get bogged down in the details and drama of teenage life. Being surrounded by a team that fostered friendship, acceptance, self discipline, self-confidence and the ability to rise from failure is an immeasurable benefit of youth sports teams. Unlike “throw #likeagirl” and “run #likeagirl,” there was no concept of “swim #likeagirl.” We trained in the same lanes as the boys, often pushing each other during practice to help each other improve.
That’s not to say I wasn’t an emotional, annoying teenager (sorry Mom and Dad) and that I didn’t have my moments of being challenged by the #likeagirl norm. I’m also not saying that every girl has to be a competitive athlete to have these values instilled in them. In fact, I believe just the opposite. There are countless other non-athletic outlets and avenues for girls to be successful and gain self confidence and self respect. We, as a society, need to embrace and encourage that.
Defining #likeagirl in the most educated circles
Along with sports, not every female needs academic success to define her, either. You may be surprised to know that even in the most educated circles of women, there are still struggles to define what #likeagirl means.
In college I was surrounded by new ways of defining female success. I’m not sure that I could have picked a better place to foster the #likeagirl mentality. But even Duke harbored its own challenges for women.
I remember walking around East Campus my freshman year thinking “why do these girls all carry purses with a big F or C’s on them? Who is Lilly Pulitzer? And who actually gets dressed in all of that stuff for an 8 AM Chem Lab when you have to wear a lab coat and goggles anyway?” I was completely flabbergasted with the materialistic side of all of the women around me. I had never been around so much privilege and entitlement. Feeling the “sink or swim” pressure, I accepted that I didn’t have to be just like them, even though I did gain an appreciation for things like Tory Burch shoes.
Let’s be honest, materialism is everywhere, not just at Duke. What I found more overwhelming than that was the fact that every female sitting in class with me was somehow like me. Everyone graduated in the top 1% of their class, made ridiculous SAT scores, was an incredible athlete, was devoted to community service and had already published books about it, was going to be the next Maya Angelou or rocket scientist…you get my drift. It was intimidating, impressive, and inspiring.
Here I was, surrounded by successful, accomplished women. I’d yearned for that given I’d run into problems with the definition of #likeagirl success in elementary, middle, and high school. I’m thinking “yes! finally people who are like me who will accept me!.” But something was still missing. I was a nerdy female athlete who liked to wear dresses and pearls one day, do crossword puzzles and hike the next day. This challenge to fitting in to the #likeagirl norm became abundantly obvious to me during sorority recruitment. Like in middle school, these women went to great lengths to be accepted into the most “popular” groups. Sometimes at the sacrifice of their own strengths and morals. That just wasn’t who I was. Also like in middle school, I did not sacrifice my standards to be popular. This was a blessing in disguise. I ended up being president of the sorority I joined, which was a phenomenal leadership and networking opportunity. In my group, women went on to become accomplished and successful lawyers, physicians, published authors, Teach for America leaders, CEOs, Miss America pageant contestants, Peace Corps and military officers, and stay-at-home moms. In our group, #Likeagirl took on many definitions of “awesome”, and that was ok.
#likeagirl challenged by Duke Women’s Initiative
While I was at Duke, these #likeagirl challenges played out before me on a daily basis like a great soap opera drama. It wasn’t just obvious to sorority women. Some smart Duke researchers caught wind of this, too.
The Duke Women’s Initiative was rolled out by woman President Nannerl Keohane in 2002-2003. It was a research initiative raising awareness to issues faced by women at Duke-women you’d think would have no problem defining or championing their successes. It highlighted the juxtaposition that the same women who were some of the most talented in the world in their fields would also find themselves downplaying their success by submitting to disillusioned social norms. They often gave into social pressures to build and mend their developing and broken female egos, respectively. In a sense, there was a real problem among Duke women to define what #likeagirl meant. Being around during this initiative is exactly why I chose to major in developmental psychology with a special focus on development of peer relations, particularly passive aggressiveness among females. I was so curious to know why we as girls act the funny ways we do.
Here is the 43-page initiative in case you’re interested: WomensInitiativeReport(1)
The initiative coined the phrase “effortless perfection.” This describes the amount of effort many of these talented women put in to appear as if they’d put no effort into being successful. Why were they ashamed of people knowing they worked hard or were total nerds? Women confided that they didn’t want to make it look like they’d worked hard to achieve their successes, because hard work and determination connote “male”-like qualities they thought would be intimidating. And really–what it came down to–they wanted to appear this way because they were worried about acceptance and relationships with males and females on campus.
Whoa whoa whoa. That’s kind of like when my 9th grade friend told me boys wouldn’t like me for being successful, because that was intimidating. Or my 7th grade “friends” not liking me because I would not let them cheat. Or being bullied in 4th grade for being the smart girl.
#Likeagirl challenges extended to body image and social success too. Duke women would go to great efforts to mask eating and psychological disorders behind guises of normal-appearing, almost reckless or “laid back” behavior. You’d have the summa cum laude chemistry major who partied every night with her friends, but never studied with her friends because she didn’t want people to know she spent 10 hours/day in the library to get a 4.0. She only wanted them to see that she was a “cool party girl.” She probably didn’t like to talk about her grades or successes.
Like her, many women didn’t want men or other women to be intimidated by their efforts at appearing perfect, so they often hid those efforts or behaved in polar opposite, sometimes reckless ways. They didn’t eat or exercise with others for fear people would see how hard they worked to remain thin. They didn’t want to appear aggressive and dominating or weak and vulnerable for fear that they would not find friendship or intimacy because of those things. So we didn’t want to appear aggressive or intimidating, but we didn’t want to appear vulnerable either. Whew. Make up your mind, ladies!
As much as we did not or do not want to admit it, all Duke women likely had a piece of this mentality in us. After all, I’ll bet several of those women were 9th graders who were told it was not “cool” to be smart or successful. Why else would we, as a cohort, mask our successes in “effortless perfection” to try and fit in?
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, though. There were great things about being around so many smart, successful women. I was fortunate to live with a different woman each year. Each woman had her own unique background and definition of #likeagirl. One was a varsity athlete, another was a biomedical engineer. One was a former pageant contestant, Duke cheerleader, brilliant double major, international public servant and future rock star pediatric NICU specialist. One was a champion of all things liberal arts, challenging abstract and socially responsible thinking on a daily basis.
These girls all had one thing in common: like me, they all had their struggles with defining what #likeagirl means. But they also didn’t let their athletic, nerdy, or “intimidating” pursuits get in the way of their relationships with significant others or friends. They didn’t compromise their personal standards so that “boys or friends would like them.” And they didn’t hide their efforts in being successful. We didn’t compete, but challenged each other. We were ALL far from perfect and accepted each others’ effortful imperfections. We were proud of being successful women without feeling shame for it. Maybe that’s what #likeagirl meant to us and should mean to everyone else.
Defining #likeagirl in the professional world
In physical therapy school, I continued to raise the bar for myself. I didn’t make straight A’s and get uber-involved because I cared about the 4.0 or what involvement would look like on my resume. I did these things because, after all, this is the profession I chose to do and was paying a lot of money for. People were going to be trusting me with their injuries and their lives…and paying money for that! I wanted to soak it all in, then continually grow and learn more.
That’s pretty much what I’ve done–and I’ve done so following in the footsteps of some other PTs who totally rock it #likeagirl. Read this keynote address for incoming PT students last year given by one of my PT mentors who also happens to have founded the practice where I currently work. She has a great message of fighting #likeagirl to overcome adversity, embrace change, challenge the “norms” and become successful. She mentions the idea of surrounding yourself with people who are better than you are, surrounding yourself with people who challenge you, and taking in as many professional development opportunities as you can. Never does she mention compromising your values because “it’s not cool to be successful.”
I love what I do and I love learning more. I keep finding new things to learn about and courses to take. And now-I love teaching about it too. I have the privilege to teach students in the clinic and teach in the same PT program from which I graduated. I’m surrounded by fascinating female (and yes, some awesome male!) colleagues to keep me driven.
Recently, along with some awesome PTs, I was invited to share my nerddom with other PTs by teaching at next year’s national convention. It’s completely intimidating, but in an inspiring way. But, to be honest, I don’t need a convention to share my excitement for what I do. In my own life, I’m retweeting, sharing, pinning, instagramming or posting every article or inspirational item I can find. To all of you who follow me—sorry I’m not sorry for bombing your newsfeeds and timelines with this stuff.
#Likeagirl, I’ve turned from the girl being bullied or shamed for being nerdy and successful to someone who is proud to own it. It helps that I have a few supporters who are proud to “own it” with me.
#likeagirl, Dr. Julie style
And now I find myself colliding all of my passions, specializing in and working with young athletes. Working with young girls from age 6 and up, I have the joy of seeing girls go from “cute” and running #likeagirl in elementary school turkey trots, “sassy” and competing #likeagirl to make the middle school cheerleading squad, to “sophisticated” and swimming #likeagirl in high school to set records. I’m just happy to help them explore and stay strong in their passions and dreams. Unfortunately, along the way I’ve seen my fair share of girls who have fallen prey to peer pressure and given up on the dreams they’d once devised for themselves at that cute, turkey-trotting age.
The most common age for sports dropout is 13. It’s that “magic window” age when girls are in that 7th-8th grade world of “to give in or not to give in.” Unfortunately in our world, there aren’t other great activities that are always “acceptable” for girls to put their hearts and minds into. Though I imagine there are exceptions to this, girls who hang out with the geeky boys, are in engineering club, beta club, national honor society, robotics club, and the 4H club—but don’t play sports or do “girly” things– likely won’t get elected to be prom queen.
And that makes me sad. I’m not saying the traditional “girly” or “sporty” things are bad. Be a pageant queen! Be a princess! Be a star athlete! Go you! I’m also not saying that the 4H club president needs to be famous. But girls need credit and encouragement for more than the traditional #likeagirl roles they have been given. They shouldn’t have to become “effortlessly perfect” for fear that someone will think they’re intimidating, nerdy, or not feminine for being successful.
See this fabulous video from GoldieBlox, a company and campaign devised to inspire girls AND our culture to balance, nuture, applaud, and respect girls’ interests, regardless of what they may be. When I saw that video, it took me back to more of my college observations about defining women’s success by more than just a gender role.
In my experience as a youth sports PT, I find in that “magic window” age of 10-14, too many girls show up on my caseload riddled with pressures placed on them for being too athletic or not athletic enough, too nerdy or not nerdy enough. Some have injuries that just won’t go away without a medical explanation for them. It’s no secret to many of the professionals with whom I work that the girls are often subconsciously using their injuries as an “out” from the pressure of sports. As long as they are injured, they don’t have to compete. Plus they get a lot of love and attention by way of parents, friends, and healthcare professionals worrying after them and making them feel special. It becomes an endless, often sad, cycle, that can end in being socially outcasted, or in medical complications including anxiety, depression, and general decreased conditioning because they are no longer exercising. I think we can all agree that overall these situations probably aren’t the most productive or positive ways to make the girl feel special and valued.
It’s my wish in working with young female athletes or non-athletes, that they never feel pressured to stay involved in a sport or activity that doesn’t make them happy. Likewise, she should be accepted for doing the things that do make her happy. If a girl does or doesn’t love an activity, she should live in a world where she feels ok saying so. She shouldn’t be shamed for being successful because “that’s intimidating.” That can backfire, too. She’ll give up on her dreams and eventually get herself into trouble in some way. Even the young athlete who loves her sport should be encouraged to find balance in her interests, to find success in more than just her sport, academics or her appearance.
It’s important we as a society (and medical profession) encourage success and self confidence in any interest a girl has. We need to encourage that #likeagirl means something awesome, not awful. Maybe that 8 year old princess-loving girl will become a beauty model or Hollywood actress. Awesome! Good for her! Or maybe she will be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Or perhaps she will design the next vehicle that takes humans into space. See this GoldieBlox video about women becoming engineers.
Developing girls are vulnerable. What we as adults say to them makes a lasting effect. What their peers say to them makes a lasting effect. Just notice how vividly I remember 16 years later when my friend (who is still a good friend) said to me how unpopular or undesirable I was going to be for being a successful female.
So please—no matter what inspires her—help your daughter, sister, niece, friend’s daughter, friend, student or patient have the confidence to be proud to be #likeagirl, no matter what she does to succeed. Help her be proud to humbly share with others how much effort she put into doing so.
- Model positive behaviors. Service, encouragement of other women, making friends with boys without making them boyfriends.
- Encourage healthy competition on things that should be competitive (which is almost nothing we do). Encourage teamwork, compassion and support on everything else (which is almost everything we do).
- Help her learn the difference between “humility” and “weakness”.
- Help her learn the difference between “aggressive/intimidating” and “assertive and motivated”
- Define success and confidence in something other than trophies, first places, makeup, number of boyfriends or girlfriends, or the size of her bra or her pants.
- Help her learn that she does not have to strive for perfection in anyone’s eyes, not even her own. Flaws and differences are good, too. If she is that successful girl (which she will be if you follow all this blogworthy advice), let her know it’s ok to show and be proud of how much effort she put in to that success.
- It’s ok to be different. Help her embrace the things that inspire her and make her unique, even if you don’t necessarily find yourself inspired by those things.
- Encourage her to fight #likeagirl in whatever area inspires her and not let her gender define her in any way.
Step it up ladies! You don’t have to be a muscle bound, Rosie the Riveter type to be #likeagirl. It’s ok to be a pageant superstar, a cheerleader, or a princess. But it’s also ok to be an aerospace engineer, high powered CEO, blacksmith, NFL football coach, farmer, or construction worker. Be proud of who you are and model a positive female outlook for all those girls who are looking up to you. If you think someone looks “weak” just say so. If they look strong or successful, just say so. It doesn’t have to be tied to gender roles. Let’s make #likeagirl mean #likeawesome and not #likeawful.
Physical therapists have a vast toolbox of skills to help improve someone’s ability to move. Within that toolbox may be exercise techniques, Pilates, Redcord Neurac, dry needling, other manual therapy techniques, taping, tapping, yelling, cheerleading, lecturing, parenting, inspiring, and mentoring. The truth is, despite what any studies say or any expert will tell you, there is probably not ONE best treatment for any young athlete. I will say no more because Adam (@thesportsphysio) who I follow on twitter really just summed it up best. I’ll let him do the rest of the talking…
Young athletes deserve the highest quality of care. They may be young, active, and often have fewer complicated impairments as their adult counterparts. However, this does not mean that they deserve to be seen at the same time as more than one patient or by any provider other than a PT. Kids and teens have special needs that differentiate them from adults–their cognitive processing and ability to understand movement and exercise concepts often requires more attention than the average adult. Read this great post from my colleague, friend and boss about the ever changing waters and defnitions of what is “quality” physical therapy.
As a physical therapist practicing in Georgia, I have the privilege of being able to use the skill of trigger point dry needling to help patients with myofascial pain and dysfunction, joint stiffness issues, acute and chronic injuries, tendon problems…the list goes on.
Working with a majority of younger patients, I often get questions like “Do you dry needle kids? What’s the youngest patient you have needled? Will my 10 year old benefit from needling like I have?” Those are all good questions. Before I answer them, I think we should cover a little background on this whole needling thing.
What is trigger point dry needling?
In a nutshell, dry needling is a form of manual therapy where the physical therapist or other trained practitioner inserts a solid filament needle into a trigger point in a muscle. This may stimulate a local twitch response in the area, creating a cascade response that ultimately results in a release of the trigger point…or at least that is what we believe happens.
While there is growing evidence for the effectiveness of trigger point dry needling and several studies on what is happening during the technique, the reality is that nobody knows exactly what happens during each treatment in each person. We just know it works and have seen it work time and time again. We believe that the response may be chemical, neurological, mechanical, all of the above, or some of the above. This may vary from place to place between patients or even in various locations within the same patient. Or perhaps it’s a higher order sensorimotor experience change in the brain’s cortex–which I suppose would technically be all of the above depending on who you ask. Either way, there can be great changes that when used in adjunct with other physical therapy tools, pave the way for the patient to see outstanding functional changes.
If you’re still not sure what dry needling is, I recommend you visit these websites for some information:
Is dry needling the hot new thing in physical therapy? Why have I never heard of it?
In some places and in some schools of thought—yes or no. In the grand scheme of the constantly-evolving practice of physical therapy, dry needling is the new kid on the block in many states and in many areas of PT practice. You may not have heard of it because while most physical therapists possess the skills to do it, not all 50 states allow them to do it yet.
What physical therapists can perform trigger point dry needling?
Currently, dry needling requires advanced training beyond the realm of entry-level doctorate level physical therapy education. It is recommended that new graduates wait a year or so to begin training in this practice as good performance of dry needling requires more advanced skills. While new graduates have many excellent skills, the decision-making and safety behind dry needling takes extra time to develop the “finesse” of performance.
Is dry needling the best physical therapy treatment out there?
That is all a matter of opinion. But generally-the answer is probably that there is not one BEST physical therapy treatment out there. Don’t get me wrong-dry needling is one very helpful tool for many patients, but it is not THE tool. In states where dry needling is not legal for PTs to perform, patients see great results with a plethora of other treatment options. Not being able to perform dry needling does not make a clinician any less skilled; likewise, being able to perform dry needling does not necessarily make someone more skilled. It’s just an additional skill to add to the “PT skill toolbox.”
What’s most important are the “above the neck” skills of decision making, assessment, clinical reasoning, and finding the BEST treatment option for EACH patient that allows him or her to optimize the ability to move. See great recent blog about this here. This ability requires a good balance between manual therapy/dry needling, functional movement assessment and re-education, strengthening, stretching, and the good old fashioned teaching and learning interventions my patients lovingly call “Julie’s Sermons.”
So now that we’ve established what it is, where it is, who can do it, and how it fits into PT practice, I can move on to the question I know you’ve all been asking…
But Julie…do you needle KIDS?
My answer is usually something along the lines of “Well, it depends on your definition of kid.” See my first post in this blog to understand my definition of kid. Some “kids” are 44 year old elite athletes who cry like babies when I so much as mention the word “needle.” Some kids are 11 year old elite gymnasts who come in begging for needling and swear it is the one thing that keeps them competing at Level 9.
In general, I tend to look not at chronological age, but a plethora of other contributing factors. This requires the need to use all of my senses to determine just who is the right candidate. One could argue that this rule applies to any patient of any age. Chronological age is one factor. Other factors include emotional stability, emotional and cognitive maturity, education level, personal pain experience, activity level, overall/general health, and tendency to faint or scream at the topic of needles.
So, it’s complicated. If you’re looking for an age “limit” recommendation on dry needling, you’re reading the wrong blog. What I can definitively tell you is maybe you want to steer clear of the super young children. Maybe under 6. Then again, I’ve heard from colleagues that it’s been done on younger kids before, as have trigger point injections performed by some of my physician colleagues. It’s just not black and white.
What I can also tell you is that as of this blog posting date, the oldest patient I have needled is 82 and the youngest is 11.
See this resource from a few pediatric and adolescent sports medicine experts on the practice of dry needling in this population.
Let’s dissect a few of these factors to determine which kid is the right needling candidate.
Emotional stability and maturity
I am not going to lie to anyone. Dry needling can be a little uncomfortable. In general I find that anyone who is not in an emotional place where some discomfort can be tolerated may not be the best candidate. On the other hand-some patients can be fearful of movement/exercise and prefer the security and relief that needling brings after treatment, despite discomfort. Sometimes it’s just emotionally easier when passive treatment is performed on them. They can get a little emotionally attached to the technique. This can be a problem too.
Kids and teenagers—and even adults–can be afraid when it comes to medical interventions. Fear and anxiety can sometimes improve with some coaching and the patient will eventually agree to try dry needling. Others are totally emotionally on board, and then it maybe didn’t live up to their expectations—so they jump ship and ask to not have it performed again. See what I mean? It’s complicated.
“Wait so, you’re telling me this may be uncomfortable. Remind me again how doing something that’s uncomfortable is going to make me feel better?” To some kids, particularly younger kids—this concept is not even an approachable topic of conversation for me. From a cognitive maturity standpoint, some kids just haven’t developed the ability to discern the “later” benefit of doing an uncomfortable “now” treatment. I general I see that in many kids this improves from age 9-11. But then again-it really just depends on the kid.
I also find—and this is my TOTAL anecdotal experience—that sometimes the more the parent is on board with the kid having the technique done, the less the kid is willing to try it. There are many exceptions to this. Some kids and teens do exactly the opposite of what the parents recommend. Most parents would probably agree this concept isn’t exclusive to physical therapy sessions! In other cases, the parent says “poke him” and the kid says “let’s do it!”
But—I use some definite discretion here. Bottom line: I have a strict rule that I must get a resounding YES from the kid or teen before I glove up and pull out the needles. An “I guess” or “Whatever my mom says” just won’t cut it. Sometimes it takes kids a few sessions to warm up to it. Sometimes we try it and it doesn’t really seem to help—largely because I don’t believe they truly understand what I’m doing. The good news is we have so many other interventions we can use that sometimes we don’t even need to go through with needling.
It’s important any patient be at an education level that they can understand the basic concepts of benefits, risks, alternatives, and outcomes required of an informed consent. Generally, most kids at about 8th or 9th grade can handle a mature discussion on the pros and cons needling without a lot of parental intervention.
What I find often is that the patient who is not WELL educated on medical procedures, but ALMOST well educated is the biggest threat to dry needling candidacy. These are kids who are super smart and have done a little research on their own. Perhaps they have consulted Google, their high school anatomy class, or just talked to friends. Needless to say—they thought that because they knew the name of one muscle in the vicinity of their injury or pain, that it MUST be the muscle that needed to be dry needled.
And kids can be very black and white about it—believing dry needling is the only thing that will fix it. Kids can be very smart, but let me remind you about cognitive and emotional maturity. They generally don’t develop their higher level processing and abstract thinking skills until late high school, college, or even mid adulthood. Some people never develop it. So they firmly believe that putting a needle in the muscle will immediately fix their problem that has been going on for months.
Anyone who knows me knows that this is not quite how I operate, nor how I believe humans operate. I am not a one-and-done type of physical therapist. I get down to the source of WHY that muscle is affected due to how the patient moves or how the patient believes he or she should move. Address that first and see if the trigger point is still there later. Then we’ll talk about putting needles in the serratus posterior inferior. Yes, someone asked me to specifically do that and no, I’m not trained to put a needle there.
Personal pain experience
Someone call Lorimer and David. They can explain this part way better than me, but I’ll take a stab at it (pun intended). I could probably go on for days about how a person’s experience with pain is highly individualized. Some people get a hangnail and it is the most painful thing they’ll ever describe. My good friend just gave birth to a nearly 9 pound kiddo without the use of drugs or any intervention. She didn’t say it wasn’t painful, but she certainly lived to tell about it with a smile on her face. I’ve seen 15 year olds burst into tears when I told them I was not going to needle the tiny knot in their back muscle because I did not believe it would be beneficial.
Pain is emotional.
Pain is an output from the brain. See this post to explain that further or the video below to understand pain better.
For some, dry needling is a valuable tool to help people navigate through nociception, central sensitivity, blurred sensorimotor maps, freaked out “protectometers,” or any other great descriptions for that thing we call “pain.” Some people look at you like you have 10 heads when you recommend dry needling. Some are completely convinced it will not help them, while others call themselves “dry needling evangelists.”
For kids, a large part of why I haven’t gone younger than 11 years old is that GENERALLY (not the bold and italics there please) speaking, most kids are healthy and do not have a lot of experience with pain. Generally, pain at this age is highly driven by emotion, fear, and a lot of internalizing of parents’ experiences with pain. Simply put-most kids learn how to cope with pain based on how other family members and their culture breeds them to cope with pain.
Having said all of that—in any person who has very little experience with pain, an injury is often treatable without a lot of passive or manual intervention. I’m not knocking the value of these therapies, but most of these people have not yet learned that “someone else can fix this for me.” They’re open to doing exercises and not afraid of moving. For a few fearful patients, a lot of times we may do manual therapy and/or needling to coax them back into movement. They’ve had pain for so long or on so many instances that they no longer know “which way is up” so to speak. They don’t know what helps or what hurts them, so they just assume avoid all movement and opt for passive treatment.
Needless to say, pain can be very individualized. Even in kids. We have to determine who is the right candidate based on our interpretation of his or her individual pain experience.
What other factors might a PT consider?
Generally, I encourage all patients to start or maintain a level of physical activity. I try and minimize the amount of time that I perform treatments on the patient. The patient is with me maybe 2 hours a week and with themselves (7 X 24)-2 hours. That’s a lot of hours out in the world by themselves. I tell all patients that “movement is medicine.” I’m not expecting my patients to go run a marathon, but everyone has to do something. Kids included. Most kids are pretty active, but some aren’t. I find that age is not a factor here. If a kid is not active, he or she will probably not respond well in the long run to dry needling or to any other interventions. They must learn to take an active approach to caring for themselves.
As for fear of needles: if someone is legitimately terrified of needles-we don’t even go there. This is a screening question I ask all patients when approaching the topic. This can be an issue in kids, though I often find that adults are more afraid of needles than kids. Kids have to get shots all the time for school and have yearly well checks, so they aren’t strangers to needles. Some people just need a little coaching to be ok with needling, while others will tell me the second they find out that we do dry needling that we will NOT be trying this.
Lastly…what caused the trigger point in the first place? Are trigger points really all that bad?
NO! Trigger points happen in everyone. They can be angry little creatures, but they don’t always have to be the problem. Oftentimes they are the result of poor movement strategy. I know several physicians who have learned that dry needling can help patients and refer patients to PT “Just for dry needling.” They are shortchanging the patient when they tell them this. The patient comes in with the understanding that dry needling will fix their problem. What most physicians aren’t trained to do is analyze and retrain movement. And that’s not anything against their exceptional skills. That’s just not a huge part of medical school, residency, and fellowship. That’s part of PT school and advanced PT training.
So, does my kid need dry needling or not?
While there may be exceptions, typically the younger patients (7-13) do not necessarily need dry needling as the first line of defense. Typically, even with the elite young athlete, we do all sorts of kid-friendly and sports-friendly therapy and the kids get better quickly. Sometimes it’s just a matter of quelling their fears and showing them that a little heel or knee pain can get better with some education, strengthening, and proper retraining.’
Now that we’ve established cheerleading as a sport, why does it matter to sports medicine?
My point in painting this picture in Part 1 of cheerleading-as-a-sport is not because I want to see cheerleading in the Olympics. It has nothing to do with my former 6th grade dreams to become a cheerleader. There is the bigger issue. At the end of the day, as with all other sports, cheerleaders get injured. The more participants and complex skills that are required for participation, the more kids will get hurt.
Just as with any other athlete, we are all faced with having to understand cheerleading so that we can rehabilitate them back to their sport. Or better yet—prevent the injuries in the first place. Part of understanding a sport you’ve never done is taking the time to learn about it. So I’ve been to cheer practice, a competition, got the team t-shirt, and have been doing some bedtime reading. I’ve been completely out-tumbled by a 6 year old, too.
According to Shields & Smith (2009 and 2010), some of the most common injuries in cheerleaders (of any variety) are ankle injuries, knee injuries, and low back injuries. When humans have to lift other humans overhead, there is going to be a risk of falling. Either the lifter (known as the “base”) or liftee (known as the “flyer”) could be injured as a result of a flying human failure (that’s a technical term, by the way). Shields & Smith showed that up to 52% of all injuries in competitive cheerleading happen during stunts, up to 24% occur specifically to the base/spotter, 15% from tumbling and 14% from traumatic falls of the flyer. That’s a lot of flying human failure.
In addition to stunting and tumbling skills, the surface on which these athletes cheer may vary from grass to spring floor, resilite (foam) to hardwood floor. The same 2009 study mentioned above showed that 34% of competitive cheerleading injuries occurred on foam floor and 30% on spring floor. The diversity in competition/performance surface literally impacts an athlete’s ability to perform certain skills and has the potential to place undue strain on certain areas—putting them at greater risk for injury. A different study by the same researchers showed marked differences in risk for head injury in cheerleading stunts performed on various surfaces, with higher height of stunt and lower impact-absorbing surfaces leading to greater risk for injury.
Patients of mine have ranged from the competitive cheerleader with a traumatic ACL tear or ankle sprain, to the sideline cheerleader with a stress fracture in the back from improper base and tumbling mechanics. I’ve seen flyers who have fallen from a stunt with severe concussions. I wrote about concussion in cheerleading last month, and the CDC has some great educational information and athlete stories out to spread the word, too.
Last month I began working with a 15 year old high school cheerleader/tumbler who very eloquently told me the reason for her injury was “because I don’t tumble or base with the right form.” Not only was I impressed that a 15 year old identified the root of her problem, but she identified a risk factor that Shields & Smith (2009 and 2010) have shown to be the biggest predictor for injuries in bases. Remember how I mentioned in Part 1 how impressed I was with the University of Kentucky base body mechanics? I take notes for my patients. This is part of what we make sure our bases can do before they can return to cheerleading after injuries. Check out this photo of great base mechanics being taught in 4-6 year olds. Great coaching from an early age instills great injury prevention for the future.
So what do we do in PT? I find that generally for all cheerleaders, no matter what their position or role, the treatment plan mirrors the same plans that I use for gymnasts, divers, or even pole vaulters with similar injuries. The only difference is that for several sideline and all star cheerleaders, we also have to train the skill of avoiding flying human failures.
It is unfortunate to be injured, but fortunate when a young cheerleader ends up in physical therapy. I see it as a great educational, rehabilitative and prevention opportunity to keep a young athlete active and engaged in the sport he or she loves so that he or she can move into a healthy and active adulthood. I love a good challenge and love being creative with my PT skills to develop cheerleading-specific programs to help these young athletes get back to their sports.
I use some cool tools like Pilates apparatus and Redcord Neurac to design kid-friendly and cheer-specific exercises while educating on alignment, spinal mechanics, central stability, breathing mechanics, and all other “typical” concepts I teach to other tumbling and flying patients. If you want to read more about other “core” ideas I incorporate into my young tumbling and stunting athletes, visit this blog or check out this video from my PT colleague Julie Wiebe in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, many young and even collegiate level cheerleaders do not often make it to a medical provider. In fact, the same 15 year old I mentioned above was injured then immobilized for 6 weeks. That’s a long time to not move a body part, folks. Had her mother not brought it up in conversation with me one day, she would have returned to cheerleading without correcting the imbalances and poor mechanics that likely led to the injury in the first place. As I mentioned, even she knew her mechanics were an issue. They had to ask to be referred to physical therapy. It shouldn’t happen that way.
The disconnect in sports medicine: why cheerleaders don’t get the right care
Why is it that cheerleaders do not regularly receive medical attention? Due to the fact that several sport governing bodies like the NCAA, AAU and sports medicine governing bodies like the ACSM and NATA do not always recognize cheerleading as a sport, cheerleading does not receive money nor sanctions to create a standard set of rules and standards of medical care. It is not heavily researched, though several small groups of researchers have begun to explore this concept. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement on cheerleading. The STOP Sports Injuries campaign also has begun with cheerleading advocacy & safety campaigns.
Most cheerleading competitions are not held in traditional athletic venues; rather they may be held in large convention centers which may not be designed to support emergency medical needs. It is rare to hear of athletic trainers covering cheerleading events and competitions, or for a cheerleading squad to have their own team physician. Without recognition by national and/or international sports and sports medicine governing bodies, there is no requirement for standardization of safety and care.
Enter several of the national cheerleading safety organizations which have formed over the years. Some have been formed by parents who see the need for awareness and advocacy for their young athletes. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a start. See links to some major cheerleading safety organizations below:
These organizations are not necessarily unified. Each has different rules and standards for competition and performance and they have different governing “roles” for each type of cheerleading. The spread of leadership and rules contributes to confusion of “who’s in charge” and requires a very diverse skill set in coaches and in athletes.
As we move along the chain from national organizations into the various forms of more “local” cheerleading, including high school, middle school and recreational leagues-there is even less organization. Some school systems include cheerleading as a varsity sport, while others call it a “club.” In college, some schools offer varsity scholarships for competitive cheerleading, while at others it is not recognized as a varsity sport. The NCAA Injury Surveillance survey, an ongoing project chronicling incidence and risk factors for injuries in 16 collegiate sports does not include cheerleading in its study of collegiate sports. This means that these athletes may not be covered nor managed by the school’s athletic training and medical team. They may not be required to undergo preseason physicals or baseline concussion testing, two key injury prevention checkreins. At the end of the day—there is no standardization of rules and care. This leads to an overall problem of funding for research, prevention programs, and management.
In summary, without all of this information, people just don’t know the right way to handle cheerleaders. It’s a safety issue.
What do we do about this?
So what do we do about this? We have to change our language and understanding. There is no use in denying it as a sport. What does one gain from doing this? Does it make one feel like more of an athlete to say that someone else isn’t an athlete? A 2004 study showed that the Vo2 max, body composition, strength & endurance of collegiate cheerleaders rivals that of other collegiate athletes. They’re in shape, they are performing feats that require a high level of athletic skill, and they deserve the same wellness and prevention attention of other athletes. With the number of cheer-related concussions and injuries on the rise, it’s just not worth the risk of ignoring it at this point.
The AACCA is one of several organizations offering a credentialing process for cheerleading coaches. While there are likely many non-credentialed skilled and talented coaches out there, it is generally accepted credentialing protects the consumer—in this case the athlete and family. It improves safety awareness, injury prevention/management, and standardization of coaching and level progression protocols. While there has been conflicting evidence to show the relationship between coaching credential and injuries, a 2004 study in North Carolina high school competitive cheerleaders showed a 40% decrease in cheerleading injuries when credentialed coaches were present. I am a firm believer that a credential does not guarantee skill. However, it does show a commitment to the betterment of a profession and a sport. Find a credentialed coach near you.
In the case of the young cheerleader, this is something that runs rampant on my caseload—and I blogged earlier this year about how am seeing injuries and early specialization in sports from increasingly younger ages. Some of that is parent-driven, as described in this post, but some of it is culture-driven. Early specialization leads to injuries. It’s a problem. But on the flip side-there has to be a balance. Our kids need to stay healthy and active, and sometimes early participation and specialization in a sport is a way to do that.
Ride the cheerleading safety and prevention wave with me! You just might get to wear a cool shirt like the one below and support one of the fastest-growing athletic activities for young athletes.
Out of respect for all sports, the comparisons made in this post were not meant to downplay or discount the hard work or dedication of athletes in any other sport or activity. In addition, this was not meant to be an exhaustive post about all factors which contribute to sports injuries in cheerleaders. Be on the lookout for future posts that highlight additional issues in these and other athletes. I welcome your feedback and thoughts for future ideas.