When you've suffered an acute back injury such as a muscle strain or sprain, knowing when and how to resume your normal exercise program can be a key factor for your successful recovery. Start back too soon or too strong, and you could easily reinjure yourself worse than before or even develop a chronic condition that plagues you indefinitely. At the same time, your instincts that are telling you to move and be active are good ones, because being sedentary is one of the worst thing you can do to avoid further back pain.
Keep reading for a few pointers on getting back to exercising or playing your favorite sport as safely as possible, and be sure to consult your doctor if you have any questions about whether a particular activity is right for you following a back injury.
1. Don't let your injury keep you down.
While taking a couple of days to rest and recover is a good idea immediately following a back injury caused by bending, twisting or straining, don't go getting too comfortable on that couch. Because after even this short amount of time, being immobile has the exact opposite effect on the healing process that you have in mind. In fact, unused muscles will begin to atrophy, and eventually, bone loss may occur the longer you are off your feet. Loss of core muscle strength puts your back at risk of further injury and pain, which is precisely what you're trying to avoid.
Simply put, immobility is never a long-term solution for back pain. So as soon as you feel up to it, start increasing your physical activity in small increments depending on how your back responds. For example, you can walk around the house, do some light stretching and perhaps some yoga. Remember that being aerobically fit actually protects you from injury, so while its good to practice an abundance of caution at the start, getting up and moving is the preferred course of action rather than staying bedridden for a week or more. Just be sure to listen to your body, and when and if you feel pain from a certain activity, stop what you're doing, apply ice to the area, and rest.
2. Start slow with stretches.
Your first workouts following a back injury should start with gentle stretches designed to improve blood flow to your muscles and get them loose and warm. Next, you can continue on to range-of-motion and strength training, and if your pain does not return you can work up to doing moderate, low-impact aerobic exercises such as swimming and walking longer distances. Steer clear of high-impact activities like running and football until you have completely healed, and even then, go slow, working at no more than 50 to 70 percent capacity initially. Keep in mind that the object of physical activity when you're on the mend is to strengthen your core muscles in order to improve your posture and stability, thereby reducing your likelihood of further injury. Practice stretches that target your back and abdominal muscles, and you'll not only heal more quickly but also be less likely to reinjure yourself in the future.
Before returning to a full-scale exercise regimen, you may need to consult your doctor. But signs that you're ready to head back to the gym, court, course or track in good form include an absence of pain and inflammation in the injured area, a restored full range of motion, and muscle strength that's almost entirely back to normal. Understand that getting to this point can take time, and don't rush it if you don't want to go back to square one in your rehabilitation.
3. Avoid making the same mistake twice.
When you do get the green light to return to play, make the proper adjustments to your routine to avoid repeating what led to your injury in the first place. For example, sub-par conditioning and incorrect techniques need to be addressed, whether with a coach or training partner. Avoid excessive repetitive loading that's the overuse of one or more muscle groups that causes fatigue and strains. You may need to alter your training program to include lower back stretches, more core strengthening exercises, and other changes recommended by your doctor or physical therapist. Finally, try not to make sudden changes to your training program from one day to the next, and learn all you can about ways to prevent common injuries in your sport or activity.
4. Be on the lookout for signs of a more serious problem in need of medical attention.
You may have thought you were fully recovered from your back injury, but now you're experiencing radiating pain down into your legs, or are suddenly losing sleep due to nighttime back pain. You may have tingling or numbness in one or more of your extremities, unexplained weight loss or new issues with bladder or bowel control. In all such cases, seek medical evaluation.
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