Tears, aches, bruises and bumps can be unfortunately common for athletes. For many contact sports, it comes with the territory. Athletes who are afflicted with chronic and acute back pain face a recovery process that can keep them off the field and on the bench. Both recreational and professional athletes can strain or sprain key muscles from overuse, even slip a disc.
Before you break out the heating pad and hunker down for a few days of bed rest, it’s important to know what kind of back pain you’re dealing with. Sciatica is pain resulting from the compression of the sciatic nerve, a nerve that runs from your lower back to your feet on both sides. Symptoms often include lower back pain and numbness, radiating pain or severe pain making it difficult to stand up straight or sit down. Such pain often results from direct injury and can be caused by a number of conditions, including a herniated disc.
If you’re a young athlete who has experienced an acute back injury, it’s important to make regular visits to your doctor and to take steps towards proper rehabilitation. These tips will help you keep up with your team while taking the pressure off your back.
It might seem obvious or maybe unnecessary, but stretching before and after exercise is an important habit to keep. It’s recommended that you start off any workout with stretching to warm up, and cool down afterwards with stretches focusing on the muscles you’ve exercised. You might even consider starting your day stretching. There are plenty of low impact stretches designed to relieve sciatic pain.
If you’ve been focusing on gains, don’t ignore your pain. Many weightlifters face sciatica pain resulting from overuse injuries (and occasionally, improper form). Especially if you’re doing the same exercises over and over, you’ll want to mix up your usual workout routine and vary your exercise with equal parts strength training and aerobic exercise. Join a running club, start a Pilates, spinning or step aerobics class, or go solo on a stationary bike or elliptical. Not only will this help you prevent injury, but it’ll help you prevent plateauing in your progress.
There are very few better forms of exercise for increasing your mobility than yoga. Yogic practice for athletes combines strength exercises with flexibility, adding up to a workout that will ease aches and pains while helping you prevent further injury. Yoga will improve your balance and endurance as well, but most importantly, regular yogic practice will help you strengthen your mind-body connection—yoga sharpens your focus and increases bodily awareness, which can help you stay in tune with what exactly your body needs.
Equally important if you’re looking to go Olympic (or just trying to stay in shape) is proper form. When you’re lifting heavy loads, keep a straight back, and when you perform the lift, lift with your legs. Hold the weight close to your body, and avoid twisting while you lift any heavy object. You’ll want to make sure you’ve nailed your form before you start adding more weight, particularly if you’re coming back to lifting after an injury. Never lift alone, either — go to the gym with a friend and have them spot you when you lift.
One thing guaranteed to protect your back? Strengthening your core. You’ll want to be careful how you start adding in core exercise, as some movements will be difficult for a recovering back. Avoid exercises such as toe touches and leg lifts, but consider adding in core strength exercises on an exercise ball, or more back-to-basics exercises such as partial crunches or wall sits. Consult your doctor to plan out the best workouts for you.
Some exercises you’ll almost always want to take care performing, such as squats. But with any form of exercise, you might find it helpful to apply heat packs before working out, and cold packs after exercise. Take a warm bath or apply heat to your lower back 15 to 20 minutes before you hit the gym will sooth any stiffness and aid in flexibility before you stretch.
You’d be surprised how much back pain can be prevented just by changing your posture. Imagine there’s a straight line passing through your body from your feet to the top of your head, and that the top of your head is being pulled towards the ceiling. When you sit, keep your knees and hips level to the floor. Consider buying a small pillow to support your back as you sit, and if you work in an office, take a few minutes every day to get up and walk around, or stretch in your seat.