Fit for Duty: So, you have back pain?
By Sherry DeanFeatures Fitness Health and Wellness canadian firefighter firefighter training Sherry Dean wellness
Statistics Canada reports that more than 80 per cent of the population suffers from back pain at some point in their lives.1 To add insult to injury (pardon the pun), Statistics Canada also reports that for 85 per cent to 90 per cent of individuals with back pain, no known specific cause can be identified.
Most back pain occurrences will happen between the ages of 30 and 50 and will affect men and women equally. The cause of back pain can come from a mechanical movement, from trauma or from an underlying medical issue. No matter the cause, suffering from back pain can be completely debilitating for the person suffering it; even in the best case scenario, your body’s mechanics will be affected for a range of five to 10 days as your muscular system adjusts from tying to protect itself.
We do know that some of the contributing factors to back pain are poor abdominal and back muscular tone, obesity, poor posture, sedentary lifestyle and improper lifting techniques. Most of these can be addressed by having a regular and thoughtful workout regime and healthy diet. So, that’s the good news! The bad news is that firegrounds are rampant for improper technique. We get things done at all costs, including poor form and risk to injury.
There are some simple treatments for the back pain that isn’t caused by trauma or medical conditions – those that are instead linked to activities like a fetched hose line or swinging an axe in a cramped hallway – that do not need official medical treatment. Alleviating the pain with over-the-counter anti-inflammatories or relaxant medication and working to restore proper function can be improved with some downtime for a couple of days. Unfortunately, this may not be an option for many firefighters. This downtime should be coupled with either heat to improve blood flow or ice to reduce the inflammation. If possible, try to get back activities as soon as possible, as this will help prevent stiffness and muscle tightness.
Preventing a back injury is not always possible, but focusing on a strong core, good conditioning and using proper techniques is not a huge time investment, though it will really pay off.
A visit to a massage therapist, or self-massage, is also extremely helpful. Your mobility practices will come in handy to help release some of the tightness your body will experience when you have back pain. It is amazing how twisted out of shape and crooked your spine can become when your body’s protection system comes into play. Your body is trying to correct the problem, but imbalance over several days can cause discomfort in your hips, knees and shoulders. Using massage to release tension may not be comfortable, but you already know mobility isn’t pleasant. If you are doing this yourself, your focus needs to be on your muscularity, not on your spine. You are treating a muscular issue, not a skeletal injury.
Preventing a back injury not always possible, but focusing on a strong core, good conditioning and using proper techniques is not a huge time investment, though it will really pay off. Your workout regime should have at least some focus on abs and back. Focusing too heavily on either area can cause an imbalance, which will have an effect on your posture and ‘pulling’ your body forward or back, so it’s important to balance your focus between abdominal work and lower back work. Mindful connection to your body while it is at work is also fundamental, but not always possible. There are a lot of us who have ‘thrown’ our backs lifting the milk out of the car or picking up our golf ball.
Here is a workout focusing on strengthening your core, front and back. Be safe and well and take care of yourselves out there.
Exercises to reduce back pain
Complete four rounds of each exercise.
30 to 60 seconds between sets.
You can do consecutive sets or run through all exercises and repeat four times. Remember, change is your friend and keeps your body alert. Adapt, adapt, adapt.
- Roll outs x 15 – two dumbbells or a barbell will work here. Limit the distance of travel by ability but make yourself work.
- Plank x 1 to 3 minutes – Adjust your plank: elbows, straight arm, stacked feet, weighted, side plank. If you are cruising through 3 minutes, change it up.
- Dead bugs x 15 each side – complete with no weight or add a stabilized kettle bell on one side while you dead bug the other. Switch sides after 15 reps.
- Tension band extensions (Pallof Press) x 15 each side – straight over from chest to full extension, chest to overhead, extension to overhead, cross body, with a partner. There are so many variations of this one.
- Superman/banana x 20 (front and back) with 5-10 sec hold between transitions. Switch directions of your roll each time.
- Overhead walk x 50m to 100m – double arm or single arm, dumbbells, kettlebells, hosepack. Make sure you stabilize before you move and as you move.
- Billette, Jean-Michel and Teresa Janz. “Injuries in Canada: Insights from the Canadian Community Health Survey.” Statistics Canada, 2015. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624-x/2011001/article/11506-eng.htm.
- “What You Need to Know About Treating Lower Back Muscles.” Healthline, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/pulled-musclein-lower-back.
Sherry Dean is a career firefighter/engineer with Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service. She has more than 20 years of experience in fitness and training. email@example.com.
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