Your back is the epicenter for strength and stability, supporting and protecting your nerve center.
Back injuries are one of the most common for all workers, but especially troublesome to public safety workers because of the physical nature of their jobs. In fact, one study shows that more than 50% of all workplace injuries for firefighters center around the back.
While the back is a complex biomechanical structure, we want to focus on three key components.
It’s easy to remember two of them by thinking about a jelly donut. Consider the nucleus pulposus as the “jelly” in the sweet picture, and the disc annulus as “dough.” The pulposus allows the discs of the spine to withstand compression and torque.
The last element important to this discussion is the posterior longitudinal ligament, which protects your spinal cord from impingement and connects the spinal segments. This ligament is like the base of a cot, each spring connected to a point on the frame and keeping the base taut. This ligament is one of the key factors in keeping your spine in alignment.
The spine is also supported by the musculature that surrounds it. This includes muscles on the front, the abdominals and muscles on your back. It is the equal balance, strength and endurance of these muscles that help protect the spine from excessive forces.
Common back problems
When any one of these four key mechanisms isn’t functioning properly, injury and pain are likely. Here are a few common ailments:
- When muscles become weak, the posterior longitudinal ligament becomes loose and this can cause excessive movement of the spinal column. The result? Wear and tear on the disc, causing a disc bulge, which is the nucleus pulposus protruding outside of the disc.
- If the disc annulus becomes brittle or dehydrated, the nucleus pulposus can leak.
Why is leaking pulposus such a problem?
Oddly enough, the body considers this mixture of water and collagen fibers a “foreign” substance and sends an army of antibodies and histamines to attack it. This, in turn, causes inflammation and pain.
Another issue we often see is when leaking pulposus pushes against a nerve root, causing pain and numbness that sometimes can be felt all the way down the leg.
By understanding the symptoms, we can identify which issue is causing the problem and we can address it.
When we see a back injury causing leg pain or numbness, we know a nerve is being affected. Through observing which leg muscles are affected, we can determine which nerves are the root of the problem.
If there is too much (hyper mobile) or too little (hypo mobile) movement of the spine, this can result in low back pain. Too much can stress the joints of the spine, while too little can stress the muscles.
Identifying where this mobility issue is at is critical to resolving low back pain.
If you’re experiencing back pain, you should consult with your doctor, who may recommend a variety of treatments, including physical therapy.
As physical therapists and athletic trainers, we’ve spent our careers studying movement and creating programs to help athletes improve performance and feel better. Now, we’re leveraging that experience and knowledge to help you: our country’s valued first responders.
Join us here next week when we share some of our favorite exercises to help strengthen your back and reduce your risk of injury.
NEXT WEEK: 4 back exercises for public safety workers