Back Pain and Muscle Injuries
A while back, I injured my back due to a combination of factors, including doing dead lifts and improper form while lifting. I felt some discomfort in my lower back at the end of a long day, and the next morning, I could barely get out of bed. The only reason I did get out of bed was that I didn’t want to pee myself!
Back injuries are hard to diagnose, because there are so many muscles and ligaments in the back, and there are so many different types of injuries that can have very similar symptoms. My injury may have been a bulging disk, a.k.a. herniated disk, or it may have a severe muscle strain, or even a back sprain. But regardless of the specific injury, your body will do everything it can to protect the spine. So, a back injury will usually result in a massive reaction by the muscles surrounding the area. The pain from an injury to a disk may not be from the disk itself, but from muscle tension, pulled muscles, and spasms that result from that protective reaction.
Over the next few weeks, I spent a lot of time talking to a physical trainer and reading up on recovering from back sprains and muscle injuries. I learned a lot, and most of it is applicable to all kinds of injuries!
When a injuries to muscles and ligaments are new, there may be inflammation and/or swelling. During this time, it’s important to reduce the swelling, which is why ice and or anti-inflammatory medications are typically recommended. I didn’t ice my back, but I did take a LOT of ibuprofen, which helped with both the pain and the inflammation. In fact, pain is often worsened by inflammation, so reducing inflammation alone can help reduce pain.
Once inflammation is under control by using anti-inflammatory medication, ice, and or giving it time, heat becomes an important aspect of the healing process. Bringing warmth to injured muscles and ligaments increases blood flow, which means more nutrients to the area and more healing activity altogether.
Another benefit of applying heat to injuries is that it helps loosen and relax the muscles. This is important for all soft-tissue injuries, but it can be particularly important for something like a back injury, where a great deal of the pain comes from muscle tension and spasms over a wide area. Relaxing the muscles can reduce pain, but more importantly, it reduces the stress being put on the injury itself by the tension in the muscles. It also increases mobility, decreasing the risk of re-injuring yourself with one false move.
Finally, with all of this added mobility, it’s that much easier to stretch.
Stretching is another very important aspect of healing. When muscles and soft tissues are injured, they react. Usually, this reaction is to tighten up, as if recoiling in fear. When they become tight like this, their range of motion is greatly decreased. So, this means that your range of motion is decreased. But it is very difficult in everyday life to immobilize one specific area of our body (unless you have some sort of cast, of course). Because of the injury, the area is weakened and more susceptible to further injury. So, the tension in the muscles and the reduced range of motion means that simple movements can put undue stress on the injury, causing further damage and increasing the healing time.
So, when you have an injury like this, light stretching counteracts the tension caused by the injury. It helps restore your range of motion, increases blood flow, and allows the healing process to continue with reduced risk of re-injury.
Muscles should always be warm when stretching them. Warmth in your muscles loosens them, making them more flexible. This is the best time to stretch, because your muscles are more elastic and it will be more effective. It will also be less painful, which is further evidence that the muscles are more elastic and flexible from the heat.
In my experience, stretching cold muscles has only made them tighter, bringing tension and discomfort over the next several days, and increasing the risk of injury.
If you are starting to get sick of that heating pad, then you’re in luck. The truth is, too much rest can be a bad thing. Rest is important for the first couple of days after an injury, but if you wait forever, the muscles will atrophy and will never return to their original strength. Exercise can be one of the best ways to speed healing for a couple of reasons.
Exercise builds strength. Whether you have an injury, or a maybe chronic back pain, pampering the muscles and ligaments will only make them weaker. And making them weaker will only worsen the problem in the long run. It makes sense, really; muscles grow when demands are placed upon them. Usually we think of it in the form of lifting weights. But when muscles are weak from lack of use, even normal every-day movements can put enough demand on them to force the growth (i.e. healing) needed.
Exercise is a more natural way to bring blood to the muscles. Remaining stationary while resting gives soft tissue time to rebuild, but exercise gets the heart pumping faster, which brings more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the area (not to mention your entire body).
Exercise is the best way to get warm. Heating pads are nice and all, but the heat they provide is superficial and localized. Exercise warms you from the inside out, which no heating pad can do. If you are working with an isolated muscle, then heat in only one spot may be ok. But if you’re working with a complex, interconnected muscle group, like the lower back or knees, then the whole-body warm-up provide by exercise is best. Not only will it help loosen up tightness in the affected area, but it will also loosen up the muscles and ligaments connected to them!
The lower back is the best example of this. When I was recovering from my back injury, localized heat on my lower back was ok for a while. But it wasn’t enough, because those muscles are connected to upper back muscles, neck muscles, hip muscles, leg muscles, hamstrings, etc, etc.... The lower back is SO interconnected to the rest of your body, that tightness in any other area can have an impact. So, in this case, loosening up your whole body with exercise is key. But, I’ve had similar experiences with my knees, where the natural heat provided by exercise was very effective.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, stretching is more effective when the muscles are warm. Stretching after exercise is better because you are warmed up. A full-body stretch after exercise is best, because you’re stretching the entire system of muscles and tendons.
When it comes to exercise, one never wants to make things worse or re-injure something. So, starting slow is important when it comes to exercise. For example, when my back pain was at its worse, it was all I could do just to walk! I work in a large building, so a simple trip to the restroom was like running a marathon! But as it turns out, that long walk was a good thing. When I left my desk, I could barely move. But by the time I got back, I was walking much more easily and smoothly. Even the mild “exercise” provided by walking was beneficial, made the stretching exercises easier, encouraged the healing process.
After a while, when I was able to walk fine and had the majority of my flexibility back, the progress slowed. I was finally able to tie my shoes, but I still couldn’t lift very much (picking up the kids was tough), and certain movements still caused pain, because I didn’t have enough flexibility. So, I increased by exercise level to a light session on an elliptical trainer. I did this a couple times a week, and I immediately saw improvement! The stretching exercises recommended by my physical therapist were far easier after doing even a light workout. They were more effective too, because I began to rapidly regain my normal flexibility and mobility.
Within 2 months, I was almost back to my normal workout routine. This was a much faster recovery than I expected, given the amount of pain I was in initially. And it proved to me that exercise plays a crucial role in any type of healing.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. The information here is based on my own research, my personal experience, and the advice of medical professionals concerning my particular situation. Always consult your doctor or physical therapist concerning injuries and exercise programs.
- Proper Stretching Techniques: Warming Up, Dynamic Stretches, and More
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- Back Pain Relief: Stretching to Relieve Back Pain
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- Heat and Cold Therapy: Articles and Videos on Heat & Cold Therapy Treatment
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- Discovery Health "Chronic Back Pain Relief"
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