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Lower back pain causes and treatment - these coordination drills ease lower back injuries as effectively as strengthening exercises

About 80 per cent of the world's residents suffer from lower back pain at one time or another, and an athletic lifestyle offers no warranty against the problem. Lower back pain is a common ailment among runners, cyclists, and other athletes, and until now no one has been exactly sure what sports-minded people should do to alleviate - or prevent - the complaint. Now, thanks to research carried out at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, it appears that special coordination exercises can help get athletes' backs 'back on track'

The Copenhagen investigations add some clarity to what has been a muddled picture concerning proper lower back pain treatment. Sports scientists have been pretty certain that inadequate strength and endurance of the back muscles increase the risk of lower back pain, suggesting that back-strengthening exercises would be an ideal preventative. However, it's been impossible to determine which back-muscle strengthening programme is optimal, and recent research has even called into question the validity of traditional back-strengthening therapy. For one thing, scientists have shown that some popular lower back exercises actually magnify 'intradiscal pressure' in the spine, possibly INCREASING the risk of difficulties. In addition, other studies have suggested that back-strengthening exercises are no more effective than short-wave diathermy or ultrasound at ameliorating lower back pain

Developing smoother back movements
So, the Copenhagen investigators decided to take a new tack. Instead of assuming, as almost all other researchers have done, that muscle-strengthening routines are the answer for lower back pain, the Danish researchers reasoned that healthy functioning in the low back does not depend on muscle strength, endurance, and flexibility alone - but also on the COORDINATION of movements involving the lower back. They theorised that individuals who moved clumsily might put inordinate strains on their lower back muscles, connective tissues, and spinal structures, even if their basic muscle strength was pretty decent, leading to the onset of pain. As a result, the Danes hypothesised that training to improve coordination - but not necessarily muscle strength - might help individuals develop smoother movements of the lower back, which would then decrease the risk of harmful stress on the low back and thereby reduce the risk of pain

Forty Copenhagenians aged 18 to 65 with chronic low back pain took part in the study. The subjects had all experienced lower back pain for at least three months in the preceding year, but none of the individuals suffered from serious problems such as osteoporosis, painful osteo-arthritis, inflammatory rheumatoid arthritis, or disc degeneration

The subjects were divided into two groups, each of which trained for one hour two times per week over a three-month period. One group carried out conventional endurance/strength training for the low back, while the other conducted the special coordination training. After a 10-minute warm-up, the endurance/ strength group completed four key exercises:
1) Leg lifts, in which subjects stood by the end of a table, leaned over into a prone position with the hips against the edge of the table and the chest flat on the table, and then lifted both legs behind them to the greatest possible height;
2) Trunk lifts, in which subjects lay prone on a table with their hips at the edge and the upper part of the body extending out over the edge of the table face-down (a strap over the calves kept individuals from toppling off the table). With hands behind their heads, the participants lowered their trunks and then lifted their trunks upward to the greatest possible extent (very much like traditional 'Roman-Chair' exercise);
3) Abdominal contractions (sit-ups), in which individuals lay on their backs with their knees flexed, feet on the floor, and arms behind their heads and then slowly 'sat up' in a straight- forward direction; and
4) Lat pull-downs, in which participants sat on a seat, grasped a weight lever, and then pulled the lever down behind their necks and shoulders, lifting a weight stack which was attached to the lever

During the strength/endurance workouts, subjects did as many repetitions of each exercise as possible (but no more than 100), with 30-second pauses after each set of 10 repetitions. At the end of the workout, participants completed about 10 total minutes of stretching, using 30-second static stretches of the various muscle groups

Like the strength/endurance people, the coordination-trained subjects started their workouts with 10 minutes of jogging and warm-up activity. They then completed four coordination exercises, including
1) 'Knee-elbow touches'' in which they started in an upright, standing position and then rotated their trunks to the right, lifted their right knees while standing on their left feet only, and touched their right knees with their left elbows. They then returned to the standing position, rotated their trunks to the left, lifted their left knees, and touched their left knees with their right elbows. This alternating pattern - left elbow touching right knee and right elbow touching left knee - continued for up to 40 repetitions;
2) 'Balancers,' in which subjects started out on all fours (hands and knees on the ground) and then extended their left legs straight back and their right arms straight ahead, while remaining in balance on their right knees and left hands. They then went back to the starting position and moved their left arms ahead and right legs back before alternating this pattern for a total of up to 40 reps;
3) Modified sit-ups, like No. 3 from the strength/endurance training except that instead of sitting up straight ahead, subjects moved forward alternately to the left and then to the right as they did their 'crunches'; and
4) Proprioceptive training, in which the participants stood on a wooden disk with a sphere attached to its undersurface. Subjects tried to keep balanced on the sphere without letting the edges of the disk touch the floor - while twisting their bodies and bending at the knees. Participants stood on both feet at the beginning of the study but progressed to one-footed balancing (alternating feet) after several weeks. Post-workout stretching was the same as for the strength/endurance group

And the results?
After three months of training, both groups had less lower back pain, better mobility of the lower back, and less trouble carrying out their daily activities, and the coordination group improved just as much as the strength/endurance group. Consumption of drugs to control lower back pain was reduced by about two-thirds in both groups as well

Notably, back-muscle strength increased in the strength/endurance group but not in the coordination subjects, yet each group made similar improvements in lower back function, demonstrating that an upgrade in strength is not the only thing which can heal a 'bad back'. Supporting this idea is the fact that there was not a strong correlation between improved back strength and reduction in lower back pain in the Copenhagen research

What does the Danish research mean to you? If you suffer from lower back pain or want to minimise the risk of lower back pain in the future, improving your back-muscle strength is a decent idea, but it's not the complete answer. You should also carry out the coordination drills completed by the Danish athletes to 'smooth' and coordinate the functioning of your lower-back muscles and spine, and you should probably also improve the flexibility of your low back by stretching out your lower back muscles AFTER they are thoroughly warmed up. With improved strength, coordination, and flexibility in your low back, you should be able to exercise more efficiently and with less fatigue in your lower back area. In addition, the prevention of lower back pain should allow you to train more consistently, leading to higher-quality performances

Owen Anderson

lower back pain causes, lower back pain exercise, treatment, symptoms