Over these past few months, I have been studying and contemplating an issue that plagues just about everyone, especially as we age: the dreaded demon known as back pain!
Given that so many adults participate in Masters swimming as a means of achieving and/or maintaining good health, this is something that everyone of us should be taking seriously. For the everyday individual, back pain can range from an annoyance to a constant source of discomfort and frustration that can impact daily function. This article is intended to be an overview of some of the causes and, every bit as important, some of the misconceptions about back pain. Finding and correcting the cause is a much better strategy than simply treating the symptoms!
First of all, we must understand the purpose of the spine and its supporting muscles. I won’t get too technical and spout off a bunch of impossible-to-pronounce, much less remember, body parts. For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that (especially in the case of the lumbar spine, or lower back), they are meant to act as a stabilizing unit, a platform that allows the hips, legs, shoulders, and arms to create movement and manipulate the surrounding environment in day-to-day life.
While sitting or standing, it serves the same purpose: keeping us upright.
Unfortunately, the majority of people in this country – both young and old – don’t know what constitutes proper posture and movement. Kids spend the bulk of their schooldays slumped at their desks, and over time, the lumbar spine loses the ability to properly extend. This is an issue that I CONSTANTLY deal with as a coach of young kids. Proper posture is not enforced in the classroom, and not corrected in P.E. classes. If uncorrected, these bad habits carry over into adulthood, where so many adults continue their bad habits of slumping at desks, in chairs, etc.
Worse still, most people use their back to create movement – i.e. flexing the lumbar spine when picking something up off the ground, rather than hinging at the hips, or using a squatting motion, by dropping the hips and bending the knees. Even something as seemingly innocent as pulling your knee towards your torso to put on your socks or tie your shoes puts the lumbar spine at risk, especially while sitting. Over time, the muscles of the lower back become strained, as they are not only being asked to perform their intended role as stabilizers, but movements that other joints and muscle groups are responsible for, as well.
Over time, this leads to back pain.
From an athletic standpoint, this condition will severely inhibit your ability to generate the explosive power which your posterior chain muscles are capable of.
In our own sport, consider the start. How are you setting up and executing your dive? Do you hinge and load up you posterior chain when grabbing the block, or are you bending over and making your lower back do the work?
If the latter, don’t be surprised if your start lacks explosive power and you don’t make it very far off of the blocks…and in shorter events like 50s and 100s, that could be a game changer!
Another important note: back pain is often falsely attributed to certain exercises, especially the deadlift. It is certainly true that ANY exercise can and WILL lead to problems and soreness and injury if done with improper technique and/or poor programming.
If your posture and movement habits outside of your athletic training are terrible, the exercises that you do will only serve to overwork your muscle and joint groups. You canNOT out-train bad habits!!!
Also, if you choose to consult a clinician, do be sure to find a good one. Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the foremost spine biomechanists in the world, points out that if you have to keep going back to your chiropractor, they’re not very good at their job. The powerlifting community has a tongue-in-cheek saying that you should never consult a chiropractor who deadlifts less than you, meaning that a truly good clinician knows the ins and outs of any activity that their patients might participate in.
This has been a very brief overview of one of the most common sources of pain and frustration out there. It is a truly massive topic and there is much to learn. It is my hope that this article opens your eyes and piques interest in learning more about this misunderstood topic.