Back injuries: is it safe to train?
Back pain affects most people at some point during their lives. But active people – including athletes, body builders, those who play sport and regular exercisers – are arguably more susceptible to it than most.
There are many types of back injuries that can affect you if you’re active, the most common being muscle or ligament strains and sprains. These are often caused by muscle overuse when bending, twisting or straining, by over stretching or by lifting heavy weights using a poor technique. If you’re active you may also be more likely to injure yourself by falling, which can lead to muscle and/or joint damage.
Taking a day or two to rest and let your body recover immediately after having a back injury is often considered a good idea. However, it’s not advisable to stop moving altogether, even if your initial instinct is to take things as easy as possible. Resting for too long could also have the opposite effect on the healing process, and your muscles may start to seize up and lose their strength – which can increase pain as well as your risk for having more injuries in the future. And that’s exactly what you should be trying to avoid.
So, after having a brief rest, try to start increasing your activity slowly and gradually, and listen to your body – your back will respond accordingly if you try to do too much too soon. You may, for instance, want to try taking a gentle walk or even do some light stretching. However, stop and rest if you feel any pain.
Getting back to exercise
When you feel up to it, try to do something a little more challenging to help keep the muscles that support the spine strong. This will also help reduce stiffness by keeping your muscles and joints mobile. Plus, exercise in general releases natural painkilling hormones called endorphins, which may mean you may not have to take so many painkilling medicines.
The type of exercise you do doesn’t matter as long as you do something and remain active, advises the charity BackCare. Swimming and other forms of water exercising are ideal if you have a back injury, as the water supports your joints and muscles while you’re exercising. Yoga and Pilates are also thought ideal for strengthening your abdominal and back muscles while increasing flexibility, or for something even more gentle you could try learning t’ai chi. If you like to go to the gym try using the exercise bicycle, the step machine or the cross-trainer. Whatever you do, try to start with some gentle stretches to boost blood flow to your muscles, which helps loosen and warm them up.
An example of a popular exercise that helps increase flexibility in your back muscles is the cat stretch. This is an easy stretch, and most people should be able to do it. Here’s how:
Start on the floor on your hands and knees – your hands should be directly below your shoulders and your knees should be in line with your hips. Keep your neck straight and in line with the rest of your spine (you should be looking towards the floor).
Next, slowly raise your head and look upwards. At the same time, allow your back to arch gently, with your abdomen moving downwards towards the floor. You should feel a nice stretch through the front of your chest and neck. Hold for a few seconds.
Slowly stretch your spine in the opposite direction by arching your back up towards the ceiling and dropping your head with your chin aiming at your chest. This time you should feel a stretch in your back – but only stretch as far as is comfortable. Hold for a few seconds, then repeat the entire movement up to 10 times.
When you’re familiar with the movement, try co-ordinating it with your breath. Breathe in as you arch downwards, then out as you arch upwards.
For more stretching ideas take a look at these exercises recommended by the NHS, which aim to reduce lower back pain by stretching, strengthening and mobilising the lower back muscles – all of which you can do at home.
Meanwhile try to avoid high-impact activities such as running or high-contact team sports until your back is completely back to normal again – and even then, if you do these kinds of activities, start slowly and work up to your previous level gradually. In fact, depending on the injury and how bad it was, it may be a good idea to check with your GP before returning to full-scale exercising.
Strengthening your core
To keep your back as injury-free as possible most fitness professionals recommend strengthening your core muscles. These are the muscles around your trunk and pelvis, including your lower back, hip and abdominal muscles as well as the muscles surrounding the spine. Strong core muscles help support your back, but they also improve your balance and stability, which can be useful not just when you’re exercising but also for normal everyday activities.
Unlike other muscles such as your arms and legs, your core muscles don’t get much exercise during typical daily life, plus they tend to weaken as you get older. So, doing exercises that focus on strengthening them is important, especially if you want to prevent or minimise lower back pain.
Any exercise where your abdominals and your back muscles work together counts as a core exercise – this can be anything from lifting free weights where you need to stabilise your trunk to exercises such as the plank or using a fitness or exercise ball. The bridge is another typical example, and one that’s often recommended for people who’ve had back injuries – here’s how it’s done:
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor roughly shoulder-width apart. While squeezing your bottom and stomach muscles, raise your hips off the floor until there’s a straight line from your knees down to your shoulders. Hold for a few seconds, then lower your hips back down to the floor and repeat. Gradually try to hold your hips up for longer.
When your core muscles get stronger you can try a variation of the bridge pose that also works your shoulder muscles. Lie on your back with your legs straight. Then place your hands flat on the floor by the side of your hips, with your fingers pointing away from you. Slowly push up on to your hands so that your arms are straight – make sure you work your bottom and stomach muscles as you do so. When you’re in the correct position there should be a straight line from your shoulders down to your toes. Hold for a few seconds then lower back down and repeat. Gradually try to hold your hips up for longer.
What else can you do?
As well as exercising to relieve pain and strengthen your core muscles, there are other things that may help while you’re recovering. For instance, try to drink plenty of water, as this may help reduce stiffness in your muscles and help your blood to carry healing nutrients and oxygen around your body.
Also, try to make sure you get plenty of sleep, as rest is important while you’re recuperating. Relaxation is essential too – try practising meditation or guided visualisation, or have a long soak in a warm bath, as the heat of the water should help keep your muscles loose.
Finally, if you have any discomfort – for instance when you first have an injury – but would prefer something more natural than conventional medicines, there are several nutritional supplements you could try, including devil’s claw, turmeric, fish oils and glucosamine. For more information on these supplement – and for more general information on back pain – click here.