A friend of mine hurt his back recently while exercising.
What happened was that he had been incrementally increasing the weights he was lifting in the gym whilst also prioritising bench-pressing, squatting and aggressively crunching his abs’. One day he goes to the gym and has a workout with another incremental increase in the weights, finishes his workout with another aggressive set of abs’ crunches and the next day the pain begins.
The pain in question reveals itself in an uncomfortable tightening of the back muscles at the base of the spine and an inability to move freely. Days passed, with my friend unable to exercise, sleep properly or move without stiff, stabbing pains in his lower back.
It’s important to understand the impact of back pain and how widespread it is. In the UK, for example, an estimated 6.9 million working days were lost due to back-related injuries last year (an average of 14 days lost for each case).
Across the pond, currently half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year, while it is estimated that as much as 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some time in their lives.
Anyone who exercises with weights will likely encounter the above scenario at some point, usually for a combination of reasons, all of which presented themselves in the experience of my friend.
Also, anyone who works out regularly should be aware of those exercises which can damage or "pull" back muscles. Situps and leg lifts (my friend again) can put pressure on the lower back and cause unnecessary straining if you lack the adequate core strength to perform the exercise safely.
Excessive bending, such as touching of the toes, can also place undue strain on the back, as can those exercises that require forward flexion for long periods, such as cycling. Then there is heavy lifting (my friend again), which can escalate back pain by compressing the discs or stressing the spine.
Common symptoms of pulled back muscles include dull, aching lower back pain. Strained muscles also usually feel sore, tight, or ache and there can also be intensified pain when moving. Lower back strain typically worsens with specific movements that activate the affected muscles and can be identified by pain that is localised in the lower back only.
Protecting the back muscle and spine is one of the cornerstones of a safe and effective workout. If we do not do this, we risk long-term damage, not to mention the discomfort and pain involved in the interim.
The primary factors concerning recovery time from back injury are the severity of the injury in question and the treatment applied after the event. A very mild muscle pull can heal in just a few days if rested, but some muscle strains can take as long as four to six weeks to heal, while a very severe muscle pull could take up to ten weeks to repair.
So, apart from resting, what should you do if you strain your back?
Studies show that heat and cold are effective ways to get relief from back pain. Ice packs are more beneficial when a person uses them directly after an injury. Applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel directly to the back in such circumstances can reduce inflammation, as can heat or cold gels when applied to the affected area.
So, however you approach the issue, remember to protect the back when exercising to ensure a long and healthy life, and always make time for stretching after you exercise.