Combating Cumulative Compression
Look At Your Life and Make Some Changes
Ron had back and hip pain that was created after he lifted a ladder out of his truck. Further questioning revealed that Ron had been Olympic lifting twice a week, using a rowing machine once a week, and worked as carpenter five days a week. Ron sat in a truck seat for at least ten hours a week. Ron placed his lumbar spine under a compressive load nearly everyday of the week. Lifting the ladder was simply the activity that created the final stressor that pushed his spine into pain.
Megan had leg and hip pain. She had an MRI that displayed a bulged lumbar disc, and prior treatment with medications had produced no improvement. She stated that the injury was created when she lifted a child, and the pain had been unrelenting for three months. Megan was a diligent patient and the pain was eliminated with two weeks of therapy. At that point, she was ready to return to all of her activities. Prior to the injury, she backpacked on the weekend with her husband, lifted weights in the gym, and carried small children nearly every workday. Megan’s lifestyle involved a significant amount of spinal compression.
The older you are, the stronger you are and the more intensely you train, the more you need to be considerate of the cumulative compressive load placed on your spine. If your training week consist of deadlifts on Monday, box jumps on Tuesday, Olympic lifting on Wednesday, squats on Thursday, and then rowing ergometer on Friday, you will have performed five consecutive days of spinal compression fitness activities. Lifting, carrying, pulling, and prolonged sitting are all common spinal compression work activities. Compression creates “tissue creep” or deformity of the spinal ligaments, discs, and tendons when it is sustained or repeated. This deformity is the precursor to the sudden onset of back and leg pain with a fairly low level activity.
Addressing these three areas will help you manage spinal compression forces.
Number One: Sit Up Straight, Sit Less, and Walk More.
Sitting increases the compressive forces on our lumbar spines. Depending on the research you read, the load is elevated by 80-120%. Sustained sitting is the silent spine sniper that creates back pain symptoms. Slouched spinal sitting for long periods of time is job security for your local neurosurgeon and physical therapist. If you must sit for prolonged periods–sit tall and use a good chair. Stand up as much as possible. I am a standing desk advocate who likes the Varidesk products. Take frequent short walks during the day, as it is the anti-compression antidote for your lumbar spine.
Number Two: Sustainable Fitness.
If you lift and carry as part of your occupational duties, then be careful about increasing spinal compression in your fitness program. Spare your spine and save those cycles of spinal loading for when you need them at work. As an industrial athlete, your fitness programming needs to be developed around the demands of your work. If you are uncertain of the tasks that load or compress the spine, then work with a Fenton Fitness trainer to develop a sustainable plan of exercise.
Number Three: Unload.
Give your spine a day off. Do not lift a bag of softener salt, push the wheelbarrow, or carry a canoe. Get supine, stretch out, unwind, and give your spine a day to recover. If you want to exercise, then take a long brisk walk and do some hip stretching. The Biblical training recommendation of “a day of rest” is one of the best bits of fitness advice I know. Older folks who like to push their performance to the upper levels need to unload at least once a week. If you Olympic lift, power lift, Highland games, or Crossfit, you need to schedule in a week of limited spinal compression every four to six weeks.
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS