BACK IN THE SWING
Simple adjustments can lead to an injury-free spring
by Leah Hughes
Spring is here. As warmer weather lures us out of hibernation, yard work beckons and plush golf course greens tempt us to pick up shovels and golf clubs
But not too fast. Area spinal health specialists see an increase in back injuries in the spring as people rush outside after being less active during winter months.
"You definitely don't want to start back to doing things too fast too soon," says Chris Billiar, supervisor of outpatient rehabilitation at WakeMed's Clayton Medical Park. "Try to slowly increase your intensity."
People often experience problems when attempting to resume a certain activity at the same high level of intensity they used at the end of the summer. They often fail to realize that inactivity during the winter weakens both muscle strength and endurance.
"Spinal misalignment comes from people hibernating all winter, and when spring comes they get those muscles reactivated again and wind up hurting themselves," says William Jackson DC, owner of Community Chiropractic in Garner.
Here's a primer on how to carefully get back into the swing of things just in time for spring.
A good stretch
Robert Isaacs, director of spinal surgery at Duke Medicine in Durham, recommends a retraining period. People should not refrain from physical activity, but they should suppress the desire to overdo it. The body is not ready to jog five or 10 miles after five months of inactivity, he says.
According to Billiar, improper stretching before the first few golf games of the season often causes players to tweak back muscles. But stretching is not specific to golfers or other athletes. Everyone should incorporate stretches into their daily routines to maintain prime back health.
"In the morning when you yawn, stretch out the arms and legs too," says Cheryl Hamburger, owner of Great Blue Heron Massage in Cary.
Daily stretches should be simple, not strenuous.
"Every day, find some time to stretch," Jackson adds. "Just like brushing your teeth, practice a little spinal hygiene."
Just as everyone uses a different type of toothbrush and toothpaste, individuals must find which stretches best suit their bodies. Exercise professionals, personal trainers, and physical therapists help tailor stretches to each body type and physical ability.
"To say that everybody needs to do the same exercises for back pain would be like a doctor saying, 'I'll just give you this pill without taking a history or examining you,' " says Meryl Freeman, manager of outpatient rehabilitation at Rex Healthcare in Raleigh.
She recommends adding some type of muscle-strengthening exercises to any stretching routine.
"The big buzz word is core," she says, adding that stronger core muscles better support the spine and can help prevent many types of injuries.
"Stretching and core-strengthening programs are just good ideas to avoid those same problems that build up over time," Isaacs adds.
Some accidents resulting in back injury are not preventable, but maintaining overall health can help lessen an injury's severity and can shorten recovery time. Making adjustments to everyday habits also can contribute to optimal back health.
"Activities of daily living that you don't realize - silly little things like bending over and tying your shoes and holding that position - can put a strain on your back," Freeman says.
Bending with the knees rather than at the waist can alleviate stress on the back.
"Everything we do is in front of us," Billiar says.
"If you bend forward and don't have good body mechanics, then even picking up a pencil can be the straw that breaks the camel's back."
Reaching beyond the normal range of motion also puts stress on the back.
"One of the biggest things I see in young mothers is reaching into the back seat," Hamburger says.
Even lifting light objects, such as toys or bottles, can be dangerous while stretching or twisting.
Another daily threat to the back involves lack of activity. Many desk-job employees sit in the same position for hours with improper posture.
"Sitting all day can tend to cause muscle tightness, weakness and imbalance, and can put a strain on all structures in the back," Freeman says.
"The more time you spend in postures that put stress on your spine, the more chance you have to get some sort of injury."
To do this, it's important to sit straight up with shoulders back and use a chair with lumbar support. Also, computers should sit at or slightly below eye level to avoid craning or bending the neck.
Jackson recommends obeying the rule of 20. Office employees who are chained to their desks should take 20 seconds after every 20 minutes to stretch and roll back their shoulders. These small changes don't take a lot of time but can offer significant reward in preventing back injury.
Hamburger also suggests making massage part of a regular back-health routine. She often works out patients' problem areas early before they reach a more serious stage.
"Massage can be a great maintenance for health and for someone to find issues before they're a problem," she says.
It's time to see a specialist such as a primary care doctor or chiropractor when back pain lasts longer than a few days.
"A lot of it is back pain that people don't remember from a specific injury; it just kind of creeps up on them," Billiar says.
"The sooner we can start trying to help somebody, the better their recovery," he adds. "The biggest thing is to make sure people don't hesitate to get help for back pain, because it's easily treated."
Leah Hughes is a senior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A cutting-edge MRI
For those times when simple stretching and strengthening don’t seem to help and traditional methods haven’t pinpointed the source of your pain, a new type of MRI offered at Triangle Orthopaedic Associates might be just what the doctor ordered.
Upright, a multi-position MRI that scans patients while they’re sitting, standing or bending, is now available at the medical facility, which has locations throughout the Triangle. Unlike traditional MRI scans, where patients are forced to lie down while a large, tunnel-like tube encircles them, Upright allows them to be comfortable and even watch television while getting scanned. The new technology – which can scan for herniated and bulging discs, among other spinal ailments – not only benefits patients but offers a more in-depth analysis for doctors to better help determine the source of pain.
“With Upright, we are able to see extremely detailed and revealing images not available using traditional MRI,” says Dr. Thomas Dimmig.
“Superior images give us the ability to make a more accurate diagnosis and see problems that often are not visible using a recumbent-only MRI.”
To learn more about the technology, call (919) 220-5255 or visit www.triangleortho.com.