Neck & Back Pain
by Dana Williamson, D.C.
Running with back or neck pain is certainly no pleasure. You concentrate on the pain instead of enjoying your special time. Each footfall sends a nagging jolt into your lower back, your neck, or between your shoulder blades. The miles drag by and you keep looking at your watch to see how long you have been on the road. It's no fun at all.
There are many causes of back and neck pain, especially in the athlete. In some cases, you can overcome the problem by yourself. In other cases, you will need to seek the help of a qualified professional.
How do you know when to self treat and when to get help? Here are a few suggestions to follow before you head for the doctor's office.
Work on Your Form
Running requires the maintenance of correct posture with tremendous muscle exertion for extended periods of time. Be sure to "think tall" when you run. A forward lean when running places extra stress on the erector spinae muscles in the lower back, which causes them to fatigue and predisposes them to injury. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. I see many runners holding their shoulders up around their ears. Strains of the trapezius, levator scapulae and muscles of the neck are the common result of this type of bad form. Finally, keep your chest up and out. Avoid that burning pain between your shoulder blades by maintaining the tone of the interscapular muscles. Keeping your chest thrust up and out also expands lung capacity.
Work on Your Flexibility and Strength
Stretch your hamstrings. Almost everyone who has tight hamstrings has some type of low back pain. That is because these muscles work in conjunction with your erector spinae muscles to maintain you in an upright position.
Gentle daily stretches of the hamstrings and calves may help alleviate your lower back pain. Strengthen your quadriceps and abdominals. Running does not naturally develop the quadriceps or spine-stabilizing muscles like the abdominals. Do some cycling or lift some weights. Do your crunches. Increase your spine's range of motion. Gently stretch your neck and lower back in the directions of forward flexion, backward extension, side bending and rotation. Roll your shoulders up and back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. You will feel the difference in your mid-back immediately.
Work on Your Injuries
Get a massage. A good massage will help relieve pain, increase circulation to injured muscles, break up scar (non-functional) tissue and speed healing.
Use ice where it hurts. Ice is nature's own pain reliever and anti-inflammatory treat-ment.
Stay away from hot tubs for a couple of weeks. Heat is one of the components of inflammation. Muscles may feel better while you are in the tub, but it's like adding gasoline to a fire.
Increase your intake of readily-absorbed forms of calcium, magnesium and potassium. They are nature's muscle relaxants. Wheat germ oil is a good source of vitamin E complex for repair and health of muscles.
Finally, make sure you're getting enough rest both between workouts and at night. Your body will need extra time to heal. You are healing most efficiently when at rest.
When You Should See a Specialist
If pain continues a few weeks after following these suggestions, your injury may be more serious than you can handle alone. You may be suffering from a condition that involves more than just muscles.
The health of the spine is dependent upon the individual movement of each of its 24 vertebrae. When one of these joints becomes injured and doesn't move the way it is supposed to, it can cause irritation of the nerve that runs between the vertebrae. These nerves control every function of the body, including the voluntary muscles of the spine. When irritated, they cause muscles to spasm. Spasm causes pain.
The condition where abnormal function of a joint is interfering with a nerve is called a subluxation. Chiropractors are doctors who specialize in the relief of this condition without the use of drugs or surgery. Getting your spine checked for subluxations may be the key that will break the injury/pain cycle for you.
Pain takes all of the pleasure out of running. By following these simple suggestions, you may find relief and once again enjoy a great sport and your special time.
Dr. Williamson founded the West Coast Heelers Running Club in Santa Cruz, California. The club sponsors Special Olympics while raising awareness of the benefits of regular exercise in the community. He is also in private practice, where he works with patients to help them reach their maximum health potential.