The McDougall Newsletter
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From Apr/May '99

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YOUR PERSONAL TRAINER: JACK DIXON

Oh, my aching back!

As much as 80% of the adult population will suffer back pain at least once in their lives, bad enough to keep them out of work for several days. Back problems rank high on the list of ailments that are self-inflicted. Most of our troubles happen because of deconditioned muscles, poor posture, and overexertion in work and play. Our muscles become weak from lack of exercise; we spend too much time sitting incorrectly behind an office desk, a steering wheel, or in front of the TV. Many strains come from pulling or pushing and lifting things carelessly.

 

Back pain affects all of us

Back pain is one of the leading causes of lost work time. This drives up the cost of health care and insurance rates. It dramatically reduces productivity and effectiveness on the job, resulting in higher costs in the goods we purchase everyday. It increases our stress levels and adversely affects the immune system, leading to a whole host of potential illnesses. So even if your back feels great, you end up paying for it indirectly.

 

What to do when the pain strikes

Try simple measures first. Luckily, most back problems aren’t life threatening, so many doctors recommend home treatment first. Typical episodes of back pain usually resolve within two weeks with simple measures like icing the affected area, over-the-counter pain relievers, brief rest, movement and exercise. And regardless of the type of treatment, 80-90 percent of back pain resolves within 6 weeks. If you have a more serious muscle or ligament strain, recovery can take as long as 12 weeks. With time and proper treatment even a herniated disc can be overcome.

 

Guidelines for treating back pain at home

Long-term bed rest is no longer the treatment of choice. Indeed, the lack of activity may actually contribute to recurring back problems. Apply cold first, then if desired, try some heat. Immediately after an injury use ice cubes or a cold pack. Apply ice several times a day-but for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. Never apply ice directly to the skin, use a towel as a protective barrier between it and your skin. An inexpensive cold/hot gel pack can be found in your local drugstore. Buy two so you can always have one ready. They can be kept in the freezer or heated in the microwave. After the initial spasms and acute pain subside, you can alternate ice and heat, limiting each application to 20 minutes. The ice reduces inflammation and the heat helps to loosen tight muscles. Consult your doctor if you think the injury is more serious. For example, if you experience pain or tingling, numbness or loss of control in the arms or legs you may have a damaged spinal cord. If the pains extend downward along the back of the leg you may be suffering from sciatica. If the pain increases when you cough or bend forward at the waist, this could be a sign of a herniated disc. If the pain is accompanied by a fever, you may have a bacterial infection. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, chiropractic care, or massage treatments.

 

Prevention is the key!

Regular exercise may be the most potent weapon against back pain. Regular aerobic exercise and strength training sessions can increase your aerobic capacity, improve overall muscle tone, help you lose extra weight that stresses the back, and most importantly, strengthen the muscles of the torso to help support your spine and prevent back injuries. A term commonly used now in the fitness industry is "core stability", "core", referring to the center, or torso, of the body, and "stability", referring to the ability to stabilize the spine using muscle strength. By strengthening the muscles of the stomach and back, these muscles act as a back brace to support the spine and maintain good posture. In addition to core stability, strengthening the muscles of the upper and lower body will improve balance and help in preventing falls. Weight bearing activities can help maintain bone mass and reduce your risk of compression fractures and osteoporosis.

 

How to get started

Start slowly. Consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program, especially if you’ve hurt your back before or have other health concerns. If you’re out of condition from lack of exercise, your back muscles may be weak and susceptible to another flare up or injury. You can always add more intensity and duration later; don’t overdo it!

 

Develop a plan. As a personal trainer the most common thing I see following a back injury is either too little or too much exercise. Consult your doctor, physical therapist or personal trainer to help you develop a short and long term plan designed for you. Don’t view this as an expense, rather see it as an investment in your health and well being.

 

Keep it simple. Generally, easy swimming, or walking in the pool may be the safest movements for your back. You are placing less than your full body weight on your spine when in the water, reducing compression on the spine. Progress to walking on land for short periods, followed by icing and heat as instructed above. Cycling, on a stationary bike, walking on a treadmill and using a cross-country ski machine may be good choices because they are less jarring to the spine. Remember always to warm-up and cool down, and follow any exercise session with the cold/hot treatment.

 

Don’t gamble. Pay close attention to how you move. Attempt to maintain the normal curves of the spine throughout daily activity. Listen to your body; if it hurts, back off and rest. Avoid twisting movements like swinging a bat or golf club. Don’t touch your toes with your legs straight, keep the knees slightly bent. Avoid quick start/stop sports like tennis, racquetball or basketball. All high impact activities, like running, should be avoided until you are well healed and have increased your strength and flexibility in the spine.

 

Pump iron. Strength training is the best way to strengthen the back and increase core stability. It will tone and shape your muscles, it helps to improve your posture, alignment and joint integrity. Weight training also increases your body’s ability to burn calories more efficiently. It increases bone density and it improves balance, and prevents injuries. It is never too late to begin a strength training program!

 

Be consistent. It’s regular exercise that pays off, not the occasional workout. You can’t store fitness! Consult an exercise expert to help you develop your new fitness plan and make it a priority. Check with your local health club or hospital for back strengthening classes. These strengthening and movement classes can help prevent future episodes of back pain.

Your back will thank you!

Jack is our personal trainer at the Airport Club in Santa Rosa. He is responsible for a higher level in our health and will contribute at times to the newsletter.


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From Apr/May '99

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Back Issues of Newsletter

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