Pierce Dunn thought surgery had put an end to nearly 15 years of back pain. After a double discectomy about eight years ago, he says, "I could wake up in the morning without worrying that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed. I became a human being again!"
Feeling revitalized, Dunn, now 57, a partner in a Baltimore investment advisory firm, decided to return to his former hobby: golf. "I played as frequently as I could," says Dunn. "Since then I've been told that golf is about the worst thing you can do if you have a back problem. Soon I was having back spasms that left me incapacitated for a day or two at a time."
Weak Muscles Lead to Back Pain
Dunn was referred to the sports medicine program at Life-Bridge Health and Fitness Center, part of a regional health network in Maryland overseen by medical director Michael Kelly, MHSc, a certified neuromuscular therapist. Kelly soon found that, although Dunn was very fit for a man his age, he'd neglected some areas of his body. "The muscle groups I was using were in good shape, but then I'd isolate other muscle groups, and I could barely lift the weight. I was like an infant," Dunn says.
About 25% of Americans are affected by back pain in a given year, and they spend more time at the doctor's office for back pain than for any other medical condition except high blood pressure and diabetes.
Instead of jumping for pills or surgery, says Kelly, people with chronic back pain should first seek out a thorough functional assessment from a qualified trainer with experience in sports medicine.
Exercising for Back Pain
"A lot of back pain is due to postural alignment problems," Kelly says. "If you catch it soon enough and correct the problem with exercise and strengthening, you can avoid future pain."
Today, Dunn has learned a number of ways to use exercise to relieve and prevent back pain. For example, he works hard on strengthening the muscles involved in the body's core stabilization such as the glutes, a key element in a golfer's swing.
"When your torso and hips are moving rapidly from back to front, your back can keep your torso rotating and put incredible strain on your spine," he says. "When you engage your glutes at the end of the swing, it's like a brake on the spine."
Back pain can be relieved by many different types of exercises. For instance, a knees-to-chest exercise can be a big help if your pain is due to spinal stenosis, a narrowing of areas in the spine that can put pressure on the nerves. That's because lying on your back and pulling the knees to the chest for about 60 seconds opens up the disc space in the back, which relieves pressure on the nerves, says Kelly.
Today, Dunn says, "I still have a tight back from time to time, but the pain has almost completely gone away." Even better: "I haven't had to give up golfing!"