Spring’s imminent arrival – despite frigid temperatures over much of the United States – undoubtedly has many “weekend warriors” itching to return to outdoor exercise and activities. But weekend warriors – who take part in strenuous bursts of activity only on weekends or certain times of the year – need to be especially cautious of how an abrupt return to vigorous movement can injure their spine, according to Pain Management Specialist Brian Bannister, MD, with Atlantic Spine Center.
Despite minimal activity during the week, weekend warriors often plunge into recreational sports at week’s end, sometimes with perilous results. A 2014 study in the Canadian Journal of Surgery (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4035407/) found that significantly more weekend warriors sustained injuries than everyday athletes during mishaps while hiking or rock-climbing (15.4% of accidents), skateboarding or rollerblading (12.3%), hockey/ice skating (10.3%) and water-related (7.7%) activities. About 35% of the 351 patients analyzed in the research sustained a spinal injury, and more than 8% required spinal surgery.
“Overall, a weekend warrior’s commitment to demanding exercise is a good thing, health-wise,” says Dr. Bannister. “But it can also place their backs, in particular, at risk since their bodies are no longer as flexible or quick to recover as when they were younger.”
Common spine injuries for weekend warriors
What types of back injuries are prevalent among weekend warriors? Depending on how they get hurt, these injuries can run the gamut from mild to severe, Dr. Bannister says, including:
- Muscle strain or sprain: This type of soft tissue damage – whether to muscles, tendons or ligaments – often occurs in the lower spine, known as the lumbar region. Muscle spasms may accompany pain and can be severe, but most strains and sprains just need time and rest to heal.
- Disc herniation: Athletes engaging in activities requiring a lot of spine flexing and rotating – such as weight lifting, collision sports and bowling – have a higher chance of disc herniation, in which the soft center of a vertebral disc pushes through the disc’s outer shell. Pain can be intense and the condition may require surgery.
- Spondylolistheses: When one bone in the back slides forward over the bone beneath it, that’s called spondylolistheses. Some sports, such as weight lifting and gymnastics, confer a higher risk of this problem by causing stress fractures in vertebrae. Pain relievers, physical therapy or surgery may be used to treat spondylolistheses.
- Minor or major fracture: Major spinal fractures are uncommon except in high-speed collision sports such as skiing or motocross and typically require surgery. But small fractures, which can happen during a variety of activities, are usually managed with “conservative” measures such as rest, physical therapy and pain medication.
Tips for back injury prevention
What’s the best way for weekend warriors to prevent back injuries? “That’s easy,” Dr. Bannister says. “Stop exercising only on the weekend! Moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise should be something we take part in at least several times per week, spread throughout the week.”
But for those committed to their weekend warrior ways, Dr. Bannister offers these tips to help prevent spine injury:
- Start slowly: Stretch and walk for 7 to 10 minutes to allow muscles and joints to warm up. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, and be sure to stretch the opposing muscle group on the other side of your body.
- Ramp up gradually: Increase the time or intensity of workouts, but not both at the same time.
- Mix it up: Try cross-training, which involves participating in more than one type of sport or activity. Research suggests this approach results in fewer injuries than doing only one specific activity.
- Listen to your body: If you feel pain or soreness, stop what you’re doing and take a rest. If the discomfort doesn’t gradually improve – or gets worse – see your doctor.
- Remember the right gear: Depending on the sport, you may need a helmet, wrist pads or knee pads. Well-fitting athletic shoes that provide sufficient shock absorption are a must.
“Here’s what I propose to weekend warriors: Make physical activity an every-other-day habit instead,” says Dr. Bannister. “Not only will short workouts during the week help you enjoy your weekend workouts even more, but your back will thank you.”