Beat lower-back pain before it starts
April 1, 2003
Lower-back pain is a common problem, especially for the exercise student. Learning to recognize lower-back problems before they become chronic can be key to avoiding pain and permanent damage.
Posture is always a critical factor, because incorrect balance of the spine can cause stress on supporting back muscles. Weak abdominal muscles also add to the stress on lower-back muscles.
Consider the alignment of your legs while you jog or walk. A knock-kneed leg movement adds a whipping motion to the leg while it comes forward. It also adds a forward lean to the trunk while you run. Try to limit your side-to-side motions as much as you can.
There is no way to completely remove yourself from the stress on lower-back muscles, if you pursue a sport. However, don’t concentrate on strengthening one muscle group, such as the legs, without strengthening the rest of the body. Overworking one set of muscles will shorten them and lead to loss of balance or improper posture. An example would be tight psoas muscles from lifting the leg in repeated jogging patterns that pull on the muscles of the back. If you sit at a desk all day, you are further shortening that psoas muscle and adding to lower-back imbalance.
Impact remains a key problem for joggers. Decrease impact with good cushioning in the heel and sole of your shoe, and take off a little body weight, if you need it.
Run smoothly on a soft surface such as dirt. Pay attention to your hips. If you have hip pain, it could be a result of pain transmitted from your lumbar disc area. Check your structure for imbalance in leg length and height of hips.
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If you are an athlete with evidence of advanced arthritis, previous trauma of fractures, injury to the leg or back area, or are overweight, you might consider another form of activity besides jogging for aerobic conditioning. Consider jogging in a pool.
Training errors are the biggest cause of lower-back pain. Watch for the first signs of back stress and adjust your body to alleviate it. My sports medicine books list five basic exercises to help prevent lower-back pain. Do sit-ups or crunches for abdominal strength with knees bent. Lower-back extension stretches are another good bet. Do “knees to the chest” while lying on your back and chest lifts or extensions on your stomach.
Hamstring stretches are most important to retain the flexibility of the pelvis. The lunge stretch is important to stretch the psoas muscles in the front of the upper thigh, and don’t forget the floor pelvic tilt. Press your hips to the floor while you tighten your abdominals (keeping your knees bent) then do a slow arch with the back.
These exercises are great, even if you don’t have a lower-back problem. Take the time to listen to your back. It will give you less trouble if you concentrate on prevention.
Jerry Vance is certified by the American Council on Exercise and teaches fitness at the Carson City Community Center and Healthsmart.