In our fourth `top tips’ blog for a healthy Run Reigate, Mr Will Kieffer, spinal orthopaedic surgeon at Spire Gatwick Park Hospital says put your back to the front of your warm-up routine.
“Running requires strong back muscles but it is probably one of the most neglected parts of the body when it comes to preparing for a race. You only need to watch a runner to see how their head bobs from side to side to understand how much the spine is moving. Back injuries can be due to bad luck, such as tripping on an uneven surface or a fall, but, in many cases, it is down to lack of preparation.
Preparing your back for a run
Most runners will have a routine to stretch out and warm up their leg muscles but forget about the back. Add it into your routine. There are plenty of back strengthening exercises online.
Have your gait assessed in a sports shop and buy a pair of trainers accordingly – this will help correct your running posture and help prevent back injury.
Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated – water stimulates the production of synovial fluid which lubricates the joints.
There are two main back problems which can be caused by running. One is facet joint sprain which is more common in older runners. Facet joints connect each of the vertebrae and can become inflamed, causing the back to become stiff and painful. In severe cases, the nerves can become irritated which may cause pain and/or ‘pins and needles’ in the leg. You may not notice the pain straight away but may feel it the next day when you get out of bed.
The other type of injury is a disc hernia and is more common in 30- to 50-year-olds. This is when the soft cushion of tissue between the vertebra pushes out. Many people may have bulging discs and don’t realise until they start running which aggravates the area. Pain in the lower back may be sudden and can radiate to the legs if the disc is pressing on the sciatic nerve. Both injuries can be caused by overexerting yourself or not preparing properly for a run.
How to help yourself
In eight out of 10 cases, back pain will get better on its own over time (weeks not days), but you need to rest while keeping mobile. If you continue to train, the pain will get worse. However, don’t take to your bed as this will exacerbate the injury. Do gentle exercises like walking, use hot and cold compresses, topical pain relief gel or take painkillers (on the advice of your GP).
When to seek medical advice
This depends on the individual. I’ve seen 30-year-olds who have recently had back pain and want to get back to normal, and others who say the pain has been going on for years. It will depend on how much it is affecting your quality of life. An assessment will be carried out and you will likely need an MRI scan.
There are several non-invasive options such as specialist analgesic pain relief or a steroid injection to the problem area which will reduce the pain, swelling and promote healing. You could be running again within six weeks if you slowly build up with gentle exercises such as using a static bike.
For a more problematic disc hernia, you may need a microdiscectomy – a surgical procedure to relieve the pressure on the nerve or spinal cord. You won’t need to hang up your trainers though, as you should be able to start running short distances around six weeks after the operation.