Have you ever wondered what your practitioner is doing when they check your reflex using a reflex hammer? Chiropractors, physiotherapists, family practitioners, athletic therapists…many practitioners use the reflex hammer as an important diagnostic tool for neurological injuries. It can help the practitioner figure out whether the problem is in your spine or more in a peripheral entrapment site.
Quite regularly, patients present to our Burlington Chiropractic and Physiotherapy clinic with a complaint of a pinched nerve. In simple terms, this means that the nerve structures that leave the spine and travel down our arms and legs to provide muscular innervation and sensation can get entrapped or irritated. Nerve irritation symptoms can include numbness, tingling, pins and needles, burning, lack of sensation and weakness to name a few. Disc herniations, sciatica, stenosis and slipped discs (although not all technical diagnostic terms) are common causes for nerve irritation that present to our Burlington Clinic. But what does the reflex hammer tell us and why are we writing a blog on it?
The reflex hammer checks for patency of a spinal nerve at a spinal level. It will tell us whether a specific level of the spine is injured. For example, when a practitioner taps the Achilles area, he or she is assessing whether the patients S1 (first sacral) nerve root is functioning properly. If the reflex is lost, it strongly suggests that the irritation of the nerve is not coming from a muscle entrapment but rather an irritation or an entrapment at the spine. Although sometimes many of the symptoms feel “muscular”, this finding does not occur with an isolated muscle injury. In other words, something like piriformis syndrome would be unlikely, but the possibility of a disc herniation or spinal stenosis (to name a few) is more realistic.
Perhaps what’s more “fun” to discuss is how fast the nerve transmits its message. When we tap the Achilles tendon (in a normal situation) the foot will point down as a response. Did you know that during the split second between the hammer tapping the tendon and the foot pointing downward, the signal raced up the leg to the spine, did a quick u-turn and then sent the signal back down the leg before movement occurred? Incredible!
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