Weekend warriors please take note:
My son, age 30, recently called me about his back. He was lying in the grass outside of his office building because the spasms had become so severe that he couldn’t sit at his desk without pain. I had him move in specific ways to help me understand what muscles were involved, asked him questions about what he thought might have precipitated this event (nothing that he could think of), and recommended some stretches, a routine to limber up the back muscles and pump blood into them done in resting positions (see the entry on Limbering the Low Back), icing several times a day for up to 5 minutes, and maybe epsom salts baths. I recommended that he keep moving in every way he could that didn’t cause pain and call me to let me know how he was doing.
A few weeks later he was better, but still having pain, so he traveled up from out of state for a treatment. In the course of conversation he said that a week before the event, he had been taking his sailboat out of the water, taking down the heavy mast, maneuvering the boat onto a trailer, all with a lot of pushing and pulling and heavy lifting. He didn’t think that had caused the problem because a week had gone by before he went into spasm. But, that was the precipitating factor!
Here was a young man who was accustomed to doing whatever he wanted with his body, who worked out regularly and was in good shape, and had never had a problem before with his back. Why did this happen?
Until about age 15 a person can do a lot physically without consequence because the mother cells called stem cells that can differentiate into any kind of cell needed for healing are still in active mode. At about that age, the number of stem cells available to create healing reduces because the body is coming toward the end of it’s cycle of growth. Rapid healing slows down as the body ages starting at about age 15. The next change comes around age 45 when the production of bicarbonates produced in the digestive tract to neutralize acids in the blood slows down. The effect is that there are more acids in the system that begin to cause oxidative stress (like rusting iron). Again, as the cells begin to be less efficient due to this process, the capacity of the body to heal quickly slows down.
So, the sad fact is, that as we get older, we can’t overload muscles with unaccustomed tasks without preparing the muscles for that work. They just can’t recover as quickly as they did when we were young. “Personal Training” is a field that addresses this fact. The muscles need to be trained and conditioned to do what we require of them. Even with conditioning, unaccustomed overload will very likely cause spasm and pain.
This is a series on low back pain. If you missed the summary of causes, go back to Part 1. These recommendations are from my Neuromuscular Therapy center near Boston.