Even though the pain can be so bad that you may not be sure that you can live through it, do not panic! Back pain affects 80% of UK adults at some stage in their lifetime (and usually in mid-life) and for the great majority of them, this passes within a week. For the 10% that it lingers more than a week, the scans and the words used by consultants can seem very scary.
I remember my Dad impressing on me the importance of avoiding spinal injury when I was a kid who loved climbing, abseiling and mountain biking. He was right that the back is a complex mix of bones, tissue, and nerves that drive everything, and the challenge is that the central nervous system is not very good at healing itself (medical experts are divided on what is possible vs impossible).
And back problems are not the end of your sport. 85% of male gymnasts, 80% of weightlifters, 69% of wrestlers, 58% of soccer players, 50% of tennis players and 30% of golfers have had back problems and the large majority of them have come back to their sport – albeit, for some of them, this has taken a little time.
Crucial advice for you before you go to any health professional!
This book ‘Back Mechanic’ by Stuart McGill claims to be ‘the secrets to a healthy spine your doctor isn’t telling you’. I would suggest that every athlete with back pain needs to get it and read it cover-to-cover twice before they take any action. It is very readable and contains truly excellent explanations, evidence-based plans, and case-studies from athletes where he has led their rehabilitation.
In the ‘Back Mechanic’ book, he explains why:
- your pain may worsen after trying physiotherapy, especially with significant manipulation
- why you can seem to be OK and then try to do something and be knocked out for 3 days straight
- why it makes sense if you find walking faster is less painful than dawdling
- why you may get told that the pain is in your head (which he completely refutes)
- why just keeping a diary of your pain levels and painkillers is not enough
- yoga and pilates may be recommended to you but may increase your pain
- and many more questions answered!
A structured self-assessment and practical toolbox
The mid-section of the Back Mechanic book leads you through a highly diagnostic structured self-assessment of your back pain in static and dynamic movements.
From this, you can build up basic movement tools for simple, small, pain-free movements.
Then he moves into spine hygiene so that you can expand your pain-free abilities, with further sections on building a resilient back and restoring the hips, as well as specific conditions.
Will this help me avoid surgery?
There is a whole section on avoiding surgery, and the key decision points that will lead you to build an evidence base that suggests that you may not be able to move forward without surgery.
How to recover and trust your back
Many athletes who have come back from back problems say that one of the biggest challenges is regaining confidence in your spine. The second book – ‘Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance’ (which is more expensive and you may have to order from Canada or USA) gives a really excellent guide on building up from the end of the first book into using your back in performance situations but is a longer and harder read.
You may benefit from a just few simple exercises – for example this article gives an overview of the different exercises that can help strengthen up specific muscle groups that may be weak as well as tight: https://fitnessvolt.com/lower-back-pain-athletes/
The message is – do not panic, don’t rush to the Doctor yet – read the ‘Back Mechanic” book and create a plan that you believe fits with your specific symptoms and responses to the static and dynamic tests in the book. It may take some time, but a good path to take given that 40% of people after surgery have ongoing pain and often end up having second and third spinal surgeries (each with considerably lower probability of successful outcomes).