How to protect your lower back during physical activity
Written by Dr. Jordan Wilde, DC
Milwaukie Spine and Sport
Low Back Pain Season
With spring time upon us and the weather slowly becoming more pleasant most people will see an increase in their physical activity levels. This is wonderful, get out there and work or play. Whether we are getting outside to play a team sport, exercise, garden, or work on the house we will be using our bodies to perform these actions. Either during or after these activities chances are you may feel some low back pain. Lower back pain is one of the most common conditions that patients present with at their doctor’s office, so it would be helpful to take a few moments to learn how protect your lower back. We will discuss a little bit about it’s anatomy, what causes low back pain, and how to prevent it while being physically active.
We all remember scoliosis screening in school, having to lift our shirts up and bend over in front of someone that we do not know. That was to check for a lateral or side to side curvature of the spine which is a developmental problem that can lead to future complications. However, not many people know about the natural and advantageous curves in our spine that go in a forward and back direction. These curves alternate from our neck, upper, and lower back vertebrae and are known as lordosis and kyphosis. They help align the spine in a way that distributes pressure and your weight evenly throughout the 25 different bones and cushioning discs in our spine.
Why it Hurts
Unfortunately, we often participate in activities that cause us to lose these natural curves in our spine which causes an increased pressure on the joints of the lower back. This increased pressure causes irritation, inflammation, and eventual degeneration (AKA osteoarthritis) of the joints in the low back. Activities that cause this are improper lifting, prolonged bending over, carrying heavy objects, and twisting. All of these activities involve combinations of stooping or bending forward with our upper back while our lower back is slouching. I am sure that we all can remember participating in these activities and the way our backs feel after.
Low Back Pain Prevention
Lower back pain can be prevented by avoiding or modifying these problematic movements we previously discussed: improper lifting, prolonged bending over, carrying heavy objects, and twisting. When we are lifting something, make sure to bend at your knees, keep your lower back straight (do not lean forward), think about contracting the muscles around your waist to prevent forward leaning, and stand up using your legs focusing on driving your weight through your heels (having your weight on your toes will cause you to lean forward). Avoid working on something that causes you to be bent over forward for prolonged times. Time will allow the pressure to build and that prolonged pressure will fatigue muscles and stretch the joints of your lower back (known as hysteresis or creep). This will cause a temporary instability in your low back that will increase your chances of injuries such as sprain/strains and disc herniations when you return upright. So be very careful when you are returning upright from that flexed/bent forward position, do it slowly, engage the muscles around your lower back, and do not lift heavy objects when returning upright. When we are carrying heavy objects you should keep the objects pulled close to your body, do not have that weight held out away from your body with arms/elbows straight. Twisting is a very tough motion on the discs that separate and cushion the different vertebrae in our spine. By making sure that we are facing whatever we are working on, we can limit the amount of twisting we engage in. This usually means making sure to take that extra step to move our feet, this will allow us to square up and face what we are working instead of keeping our feet planted and having to twist with our torso in order to work.
Go Do It!
Now that you know more about the lower back, what causes low back pain, and how to modify our activities you are better prepared to meet the demands of increased physical activity while avoiding lower back pain. Keeping your core strong and stretching after physical activity will also help. These concepts are outlined in more detail in a prior blog entry about weightlifting and resistance training. If you have more questions about any of these concepts or do find yourself experiencing back pain contact us at Milwaukie Spine and Sport and we will do our very best to help.