How I Fixed My Own Back

How much of what happens to us in life is completely random? How much control do we have over what happens to us?

I don’t mean to make this a deep philosophical or religious discussion. Instead I’m referring to the fact that a lot of what happens to us in life is a consequence of our choices. If someone doesn’t apply themselves in school when they are younger they may find their career options limited. If someone eats and drinks whatever they want through their adult life they may find the have poorer health than their friends. If someone doesn’t maintain their vehicle and have it serviced regularly there is greater chance it will breakdown at some point in the future.

These are examples of correlations and not causations. There are high-school dropouts that go on to become hugely successful in the professional world. Some people hardly ever brush their teeth and won’t have one cavity. And others won’t get any exercise or activity but aren’t overweight or diseased.

The take-aways from these examples is that we don’t make good choices expecting bad things will never happen. But when they do hopefully we’ll be in a better position to handle whatever the adversity or accident is.

This was my reality this week.

I tweaked my back. As is normally the case I was plugging away on some writing, programming, emails and presentations. Long story short I spent numerous hours on end in a seated position. Looking at the clock I realized I had minimal time to get in a training session before the next appointment.

I rushed through my warm-up skipping certain key stretches and mobility drills I normally do. I didn’t do any of the drills to get my core turned on. I stepped straight on the platform to deadlift and then bench in between sets. I like this pairing of lifts as one doesn’t fatigue the other and I can get more sets done in less time. Another clue that I was rushing.

Anyways I did two sets and everything seemed to be moving alright. On my third set I had 365 lbs on the bar. Not a record by any means but still a substantial load. On the second rep I felt something on the right side of my low back.

Here’s where I shut my mind off and made a dumb decision.

I reset and completed another rep. It wasn’t as though I had imagined something in my back. And I should I have set the bar down at that point. It’s as though the ‘check engine’ light came on in my car. And instead of pulling over and calling for assistance I threw a sweater on the dash. If I can’t see the light there’s no problem, right?

Obviously this is faulty logic and completing the extra rep tightened my back up a little more.

So hopefully this can serve as a lesson to everyone reading. Here’s what I should have done and will do to come back as quickly and completely as possible.

For now, I will hold off on exercises that flex the trunk. Think of crunches, curl ups and sit ups. Here’s why.

The image on the left shows the disc optimally situated between the vertebrae. On the right we can see the disc pressed upon by the vertebrae as a result of poor movement.

The image on the left shows the disc optimally situated between the vertebrae. On the right we can see the disc pressed upon by the vertebrae as a result of poor movement and posture.

With lots of sitting the anterior portion of the vertebrae come closer together and push the disc posteriorly. This can result in a flexion intolerant low back which will be irritated by bring the upper body to the lower body similar to touching the toes and putting on your socks. Cycling can also contribute to a similar situation if proper posture isn’t maintained on the saddle.

Besides trunk flexion the other thing to dial back for now would be rotation. So I won’t be booking any tee-times right now or looking to hit a buckets of balls at the range.

The other thing to be aware of is the time of day.

The top and bottom discs are well hydrated and therefore there is less physical space before the vertebrae may impinge on the disc.

The top and bottom discs are well hydrated and therefore there is less physical space before the vertebrae may impinge on the disc.

When we wake up in the morning the discs are the most hydrated that they will be during the day. There is less room for the vertebrae to move before contacting a disc. This is why putting on socks first thing in the morning may be challenging for some.

So besides avoiding trunk flexion and trying not to sit as much there are a few other things I will be looking to do for recovery.

The first is some exercises for the multifidus and glutes. These are inhibited when the back is in pain.

Pain impairs the glutes and multifidus.

Pain impairs the glutes and multifidus.

As you strengthen the  multifidus and glutes this lends stability to the spine and takes pressure off the disc.

At the same time certain muscles become over active with a flexion intolerant back injury. The quadratus lumborum (QL) and rectis femoris kick on a little more.

To tone down the rectis femoris I’ll grab a roller and work the quad with a bent knee. I’ll make sure to maintain a neutral head position as looking up will cause me to go into lumbar extension. And when I find a spot I’ll be sure to focus on some diaphragmatic breathing.

With the QL I’ll hold off on any loaded caries, like farmer’s walks, as this exercise is great for targeting this muscle. At this time though I don’t need extra contribution from my QLs.

Gradually I’ll look to start hinging again. I like using a dowel with my feet under a bench. This ensures the movement is hip and not knee dominant because the knees are blocked and can’t move forward. Holding the dowel against the glutes-shoulders-head provides a physical cue that the spine is aligned. Lastly I like to imagine the space between the lumbar and the spine. With a neutral pelvic position this space should not change when hinging. If the spine is going to move it would be better for the spine to move away from the dowel and into extension. At no time should the back press against the dowel as this indicates lumbar flexion and more pressure on the disc.

These are some of things I’ll be doing to get back to a fully functional and healthy back. Most of this post had to do with what happens in the gym but there are also some things I’m doing for sleep and when I have to be at my desk. Stay tuned on a future post where I discuss what I do at home and for work to help my back.

 

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