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Running with a Bad Back
Running with a Bad Back

Exercise is important to every individual’s overall health, helping to improve mental, emotional, and physical portions of the body. Running is no exception. Even though it often gets a bad reputation for being hard on the body, it has numerous health benefits that cannot be ignored. Running is a cardio workout that helps keep the heart and circulatory system in shape. Business Insider shares that it has the added benefit of relieving stress and improving muscle tone. Since it’s a weight-bearing workout, increased bone density is another side benefit.

Of course, every stride the runner takes resonates through the body, being felt from the bottom of the feet to the top of the head. As the feet pound the running surface, the runner’s chances of developing a low-back injury increase. What types of low-back injuries should runners watch out for, and how can the injuries be avoided?

Common Low-back Running Injuries

As an individual ages, the body naturally begins to develop health problems. These may contribute to low-back problems but are probably not the origin of the issue. According to Performance Place, four low-back injuries are closely associated with running.

  • Muscle spasms – Muscle spasms result from overly tight muscles and usually result in “grade 1” tears of the muscles. As the tears heal, scar tissue can develop creating even more tightness in the muscles. Since the core muscles of the body strain to support every part of the body and maintain form while running, Runner’s World recommends taking time to strengthen these muscles regularly through Yoga or other exercises.
  • Disc herniation – Poor posture while running can cause the “jelly-filled” discs that cushion the vertebrae to bulge or develop tiny tears resulting in a pinched nerve. Seeing a specialist who can check and correct any problems with running form is one of the best solutions to this problem and the best preventative as well.
  • Sacroiliac (SI) joint sprain – The SI joint lies where the low back and pelvis meet. The joint is actually paired, meaning there are two joints involved which sit on either side of the low back. Repetitive, uneven stress caused by an uneven stride or running on an uneven surface can sprain the ligament holding this joint. A doctor needs to make the diagnosis of SI sprain and prescribe a proper treatment plan.
  • Facet syndrome – Facet joints are small joints that help stabilize the vertebrae. Facet syndrome is the jamming or compacting of these joints due to running with a forward tilt to the pelvis (swayback style). Individuals who suffer from facet syndrome need to perform decompression stretches to help alleviate the pressure.

Although running surfaces are not necessarily the cause of any of the above problems, they can definitely exacerbate existing problems and shorten the length of a person’s running career.

Different Running Surfaces

Runner’s World points out that every running surface has pros and cons, and no one surface is ideal for every person. A runner needs to know what works for his or her body and choose the appropriate surface. Here are some of the best and worst surfaces and their advantages and disadvantages.

  • Grass – Because running is an impact sport with each step jarring every part of the body, including the spine, finding a running surface with some give is important. A grassy surface is one of the best because it has a natural cushion built in. Its drawbacks are that the ground can be uneven, creating issues for ankles and the lower back. If the grass is wet, it becomes slippery – an accident waiting to happen. If running on grass appeals to you, be sure to wear the right shoes for the conditions.
  • Woodland trails – Woodland trails often have soft dirt created by the decomposition of pine needles or leaves and softening the impact on your back and spine. Depending on the location, runners can have easy running with flat trails or challenge themselves with hills. Be cautious of the rocks and roots that tend to turn up on woodland trails creating tripping hazards. The uneven surface may also create further jarring to an already inflamed back, so choose the trail wisely. Also, keep in mind that if the trail is wet, the mud will be slippery.
  • Sand – Beach running or sand definitely softens the impact on the spine and back. The best sand surface for running is the firm, wet sand. Runners even have the option of running barefoot and enjoying the feeling of the water and warm sand beneath their feet. A word of caution about beach running is that the firmer sand tends to be on a slope as it enters the water. This means runners will have an uneven gait as they move. Running in loose sand negates the uneven surface issue but increases the risk of injuring the Achilles tendon.
  • Treadmill – Treadmills offer the give that keeps the back from jarring and helps minimize spinal compression just like the above surfaces; and they remove the hazards of uneven surfaces, roots, rocks, and water. The biggest downside to treadmills is that they can become boring and runners might lose their motivation to run.
  • Concrete and asphalt – Concrete and asphalt can be found almost anywhere and generally are smooth enough that runners don’t have to worry about tripping. If speed is an issue, concrete and asphalt have the added advantage of increasing a runner’s speed. The downside is that these surfaces are unforgiving. As the feet hit the surface, the body gets jarred, and the spine feels the compression. If runners suffer from back problems and run on a hard surface like this, they need to wear quality running shoes that have plenty of cushion.

Just because an individual suffers from back problems doesn’t mean running for exercise or sport is no longer an option. Runners simply need to be wise about the surfaces they choose and understand how the surface affects their back. If you suffer from back pain and you are uncertain what type of surface is best for you to run on, contact the specialists at Atlanta Brain and Spine Care. They have the knowledge and expertise to point you in the direction that will give you the workout you desire without further damage. Don’t let your bad back keep your from enjoying a good run!

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