Sacroiliac joint dysfunction or sacroiliitis are common terms used to describe the pain of the sacroiliac joint. It is usually caused by abnormal motion (i.e. hyper- or hypo-mobile) or malalignment of the sacroiliac joint. Sacroiliac joint syndrome is a significant source of pain in 15% to 30% of people with mechanical low back pain. Sacroiliac joint syndrome is a condition that is difficult to diagnose and is often overlooked by physicians and physiotherapists.
Pain is usually localized over the buttock. Patients usually describe the pain as sharp, dull, achy, stabbing, or shooting pain directly over the affected joint. Patients can often complain of sharp, stabbing, and/or shooting pain which extends down the posterior thigh usually not past the knee. Pain can frequently mimic and be misdiagnosed as radicular pain. Patients will frequently complain of pain while sitting down, lying on the ipsilateral side of pain, or climbing stairs
Clinically Relevant Anatomy
The sacroiliac joints are located on each side of the spine between the two pelvic bones, which attach to the sacrum. Multiple structures are involved in the support and movement of the sacroiliac joints. The ligaments which contribute to this synovial joint are the anterior and posterior sacroiliac ligament, interosseous ligament, sacrotuberous ligament, sacrospinous ligament and iliolumbar ligament.
The joints are surrounded by some of the most powerful muscles of the body, but none of these has a direct influence on joint motion. The main function within the pelvic girdle is to provide shock absorption for the spine and to transmit forces between the upper body and the lower limbs.
It is often hard to determine exactly what caused the wear and tear to the joints. One of the most common causes of problems at the sacroiliac joint is a trauma. The force from this kind of injury can strain the ligaments around the joint. Tearing of these ligaments leads to too much motion in the joint and over time it will lead to degenerative arthritis. Pain can also be caused by an abnormality of the sacrum bone, which can be seen on X-rays.
Pregnant women have a greater chance to develop sacroiliac joint syndrome. Female hormones are released during pregnancy, relaxing the sacroiliac ligaments. This stretching in ligaments results in changes to the sacroiliac joints, making them hypermobile. After the fifth decade of life, the sacroiliac joint fuses.
Approximately 90% of the population will at some experience or present to the clinic with some form of low back pain/pathology. About 10% to 25% of these patients are thought to be experiencing pain from the SI joint. The majority of SI joint pathologies affect the adult patient population.
The majority of individuals affected by sacroiliac joint pain are adults. The disorder is most common in individuals who lead a sedentary lifestyle. Overall, obese patients are more commonly affected by sacroiliac joint pain. The disorder is seen in both genders and people of all races.
Symptoms of sacroiliac joint syndrome are often difficult to distinguish from other types of low back pain. This is why making a diagnosis of sacroiliac joint syndrome is very difficult.
The most common symptoms include:
- Low back pain
- Thigh pain
- Difficulty sitting in one place for too long due to pain
- Local tenderness of the posterior aspect of the sacroiliac joint (near the PSIS)
- Pain occurs when the joint is mechanically stressed e.g. forward bending
- Absence of neurological deficit/nerve root tension signs
- Aberrant sacroiliac movement pattern
- The joint can be hyper or hypo-mobile which can cause pain
- Pain is usually localized over the buttock
- Patients can often complain of sharp, stabbing, and/or shooting pain which extends down the posterior thigh usually not past the knee.
- Pain can frequently mimic and be misdiagnosed as radicular pain
- Patients will frequently complain of pain while sitting down, lying on the ipsilateral side of pain, or climbing stairs
Sacroiliac joint syndrome is a controversial diagnosis, therefore pain and injury to the sacroiliac joint are commonly overlooked. This condition is often listed under the general term dysfunction, a term that serves as a collective term for different conditions. The differential diagnosis should include:
- Radicular pain
- Piriformis syndrome
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Lumbosacral facet syndrome
- Trochanteric bursitis
- Hip fracture
- Hip overuse syndrome
- Diagnostic Procedures
A comprehensive physical examination for evaluating SI joint dysfunction:
The patients’ hips should be evaluated for symptom elicitation, and ROM should be performed and documented. Trendelenburg testing is also helpful. Direct palpation over the SI joints will often elicit discomfort. Leg length discrepancy is also a cause of sacroiliac joint pain. Leg lengths should be measured in all patients with suspected sacroiliac joint dysfunction.
Physiotherapists use a variety of orthopaedic provocation tests:
- Gaenslen Test
- Sacral Thrust Test
- Thigh Thrust test
- Distraction Test
- Faber test (Patrick Sign)
- Yeoman’s test:
The patient is prone with the knee flexed 90°. The examiner raises the flexed leg off the examining table, hyperextending the hip. This test places stress on the posterior structures and anterior sacroiliac ligaments. Pain suggests a positive test.
- Gillet test:
The examiner’s thumbs are placed under the posterior superior iliac spine and S2. The patient is asked to stand on one leg while moving the opposite leg towards the chest. If the joint side that is flexed moves up, this is considered a positive test.
- Laguerre test:
The patient lies supine and the examiner flexes, abducts and rotates the patients affected joint. The pelvis must be stabilized and pain signifies a positive test. This test differentiates hip pain from sacroiliac pain.
- Sacroiliac Compression Test:
The patient lies supine. The examiner exerts anterior pressure on the iliac wings with both hands. By crossing his or her hands, the examiner adds a lateral force to the compression. Pain is a sign of strained anterior sacroiliac ligaments.
CT and MRI are often used to confirm the diagnosis.Ultrasound-guided injections are an invaluable tool in the diagnosis (and therapeutic management) of SI joint pathology.
Physical Therapy Management
The aim of the first stage of treatment is to reduce the inflammation with icepacks and anti-inflammatory medication. The second goal is to improve mobility using mobilizations, manipulation or exercise therapy.
If there are complaints of instability, it can be useful to make use of a sacroiliac belt to temporarily support the pelvis, together with progressive stabilization training to increase motor control and stability. If the sacroiliac joint is severely inflamed, a sacroiliac belt can also be used.
Postural and ergonomic advice will help the patient to decrease the risk of reinjury.
- Core Stability
Exercises is a major component of a programme when treating Sacroiliac pain and core stability has been shown to be effective.
For the lumbar exercises, awareness is necessary in order to isolate the co-contraction of the local muscle system, which happens without global muscle substitution. It’s necessary to train the specific isometric co-contraction of two important core stabilizers: musculus transversus abdominis and the lumbar multifidi. These muscles have to be trained at low levels of maximal voluntary contraction; it’s important to maintain controlled respiration and neutral lordosis in weight bearing exercises.  Its really important to take into account the following principles: breathe in and out, tighten the lower abdomen below the umbilicus carefully and slowly without moving the upper stomach, back or pelvis such as a hollowing. Furthermore, a bulging of the multifidus muscle may be felt by the physiotherapist. There is a need of precise palpation of the muscles to ensure effective muscle activation.
Isolated Lumbar Stabilizing Muscle Training
Specifically for stabilization exercises, it’s recommended to begin in a quadruped position. The physiotherapist can manually guide the spine through the full arc of flexion and extension. It’s essential to tuck in the chin and hollow the abdomen by tilting the pelvis posteriorly. Lift one arm slowly while continuing to maintain the neutral position of the spine, without changing the natural curves; return the arm and then continue with the other.
The lumbar multifidi can be palpated medial to the lumbar facet joints bilaterally; this allows the physiotherapist to avoid changes in muscle activity of the long spinal extensor muscles, ensuring that the patient is performing the exercise correctly.
Activation of the musculus transversus abdominis and multifidus together in sitting and standing positions, or while performing stepping and balance activities are essential
Integration of Lumbar Stabilization into Light Dynamic Functional Tasks
Sit on an unstable base of support and co-contract the transverse abdominis and multifidus muscles while performing the following stabilizing exercises individually to improve lumbo-pelvic control: hip extension, lumbar spine extension, and thoracic spine extension with co-contractions. These co-contractions can also be performed while walking and performing other activities of daily living.
Integration of Lumbar Stabilization into Heavy-Load Dynamic Functional Tasks
The next exercises are isometric co-contractions to be performed with the addition of heavier external loads to the lumbar spine: bridging and single-leg extension in quadruped. Single-leg extension from quadruped can provide further challenge with alternating arm/leg extensions. To increase the complexity and the load of these exercises, single-leg bridging and the bilateral bridging exercises can be performed with the lower extremities on an unstable base of support such as a Swiss ball.
Finally an example of an exercise to improve coordination is single-leg bridging with alternating lower extremities on an unstable base of support. Alternating the stabilizing lower extremity on the Swiss ball further challenges coordination and balance while improving the stabilization capabilities of the core musculature.
During all these exercises the co-contraction of the musculus transversus abdominal and multifidi are imperative.
Treatment of Sacroiliac Joint (SIJ) Syndrome is best approached from a multidisciplinary standpoint and it is not uncommon to see modalities such as manipulation included in the programme. Conservative treatment consists of exercise therapy and manual therapy. It’s important to determine and address the underlying causes of dysfunction during the treatment.
There is evidence for both SIJ manipulation and lumbar manipulation. Following the performance of each of these manual therapy techniques pain and functional disability are significantly improved in patients diagnosed with SIJ syndrome. Manual spinal thrust manipulation may be considered as a component of effective treatment for patients with SIJ syndrome. Sacroiliac joint and lumbar manipulation was more effective for improving functional disability than sacroiliac joint manipulation alone in patients with Sacroiliac Joint Syndrome. Spinal high-velocity low-amplitude manipulation may be a beneﬁcial addition to treatment for patients with SIJ syndrome.
The tension of a pelvic belt is comparable to the muscle activity of the transversus abdominis (and the obliquus internus abdominis) muscle. Transversus abdominisa has an anterior attachment on the iliac crest, an ideal place to act on the ilium producing compression of the SIJ in combination with stiff dorsal sacroiliac ligaments.
A minimum contraction of 30-40% of the maximum voluntary force of the transversus abdominis is sufficient to achieve stability of the pelvis according to Richardson et al. No greater contraction is needed to achieve joint stabilization because the lever arm of the transversus abdominis is almost equal to the lever arm of the pelvic belt. There is also no significant change of stability by increasing belt tension from 50 to 100 N, but if the belt is placed in too low of a position, it may lead to a small decrease of laxity. Greater belt tension isn’t recommended secondary to the potential of skin pressure and discomfort.
When the pelvic belt is worn there is a decrease of the sacroiliac joint laxity. This difference in laxity is due to the position of the belt. Positioning the pelvic belt just below the anterior superior iliac spines (the high position) is more effective than the low position (at the top of the pubic symphysis). However, the tension of the belt has no significant influence on the stability of the SI-joint.
When the use of the sacroiliac belt for a hypermobile SI-joint is appropriate, it should be worn for 24 hours per day up to 6 to 12 weeks. This belt should be used in combination with physical exercises and manual therapy in the case of joint dysfunction and muscle imbalance. The belt may be removed once the patient has improved control of the lumbopelvic musculature. The location of the sacroiliac belt should be at the superior aspect of the PSIS to assist in stabilizing and supporting the pelvis.