Back Pain in Martial Arts and How to Recover

I am sharing this knowledge from my own experience and from research I have done over the past nine years in an attempt to help beginner and experienced martial artists avoid the pain many people eventually suffer. I suffered minor back pain as a young teen from too many hours slouching in my classroom seat, not knowing the damage I was doing to my back. Eventually, at the age of 21 I strained my lower back from training. If I had known what I do now, I could have healed my back within weeks instead of years. Many people think it is one event, and usually a minor one that causes the back to “give-out”, but the truth is, there was a series of mistakes that led up to the back “giving-out”.  Your back is like a rubber band, and each time you make one of these mistakes, it is like pulling the rubber band a little too hard; after enough times the rubber band snaps without warning.

The first mistake I made in trying to rehabilitate my back was not to let it rest.  Instead, I tried to “stretch-it- out”, and “work-it-out”, but of course that made the pain worse.  Most people out there would say that is obvious, but I include this in the article so that the “gung-ho” people like me at the time, will learn from my mistake.  I should have taken two weeks off from training martial arts, iced my back every night, and stayed in bed as much as possible.  I truly believe if I had followed these steps my back would have healed and I would not have experienced the back pain that plagued me for the next four years of my life.

My back pain started at a four on a pain scale from one to ten, ten being the highest.  It quickly became an unbearable ten, which left me unable to do much at all.  I could not sit or stand for more than thirty minutes, and even lying down only reduced the pain to a bearable six or seven.  I had to kneel to tie my shoes, and if I tried to do toe touches, I could not reach past mid thigh.  In order to endure the pain through my college lectures, I was taking six to eight ibuprofen pills a day, something no one should do, due to the stomach ulcers that could occur.  Over the course of the next year I sought professional help from chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, and surgeons.  They all gave me advice that worked, but not independently of each other.  The chiropractor and massage therapist talked about loosening the muscles through manipulation and allowing blood flow back into the area, the physical therapist talked about posture and rehabilitating the muscles through stretching and strength exercises, and the surgeon recommend injections and surgery as a last resort.  Luckily I never decided on surgery.  I believe my career as a martial artist would have ended the day they put me on the table.

My healing process took over four years, and even though I do not suffer from a pain of ten, I still get days where it is a four or five.  Luckily, this is a rare occurrence.  What I realized first was, I had to stretch, but much more than what the physical therapist taught me.  I had to stretch each muscle in and around the area of pain.  All your muscles are connected and when one gets tight, it pulls on another, which pulls on another.  Eventually your whole body is rigid and the compound effect of so many muscles pulling on each other causes the area of pain to magnify.  I began stretching my hamstrings, quads, calves, lower back, upper back, hip-flexors, groin, and abdomen.  Each muscle group was stretched with at least three different types of stretches that would hit the muscles from different angles.  I did this religiously three to four times a day, throughout the day for five to ten minutes at a time, holding each stretch for thirty seconds.  Next I worked on my posture.  I made sure I stood, sat, and even laid down correctly at all times.

I noticed a slow reduction in pain as the months went by, but I stuck to my regiment of stretching and made sure my posture was correct at all times.  It took almost two years before I felt little to no pain in my back.  The added benefit of all the stretching I did over the two years was a flexibility I did not have before I was injured.  I recommend supplementing the stretching and posture with monthly chiropractic visits, deep tissue massages, and core strengthening exercises.  If anyone is interested, I will make a video of the exact stretches I use to loosen my back and post it to my YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/EliteAcademyGA.  Below are some stretches I recommend for back pain.  This is not a comprehensive list and you should do your own research to find stretches that work for you.  If you have a tear in your back, seek medical attention and allow the muscle to heal before starting a stretching regimen.  My pain was due to bulging disks in my L4 and L5 lumbar region which caused severe nerve pain in my lower back and down both my legs, also known as sciatica.  I have torn or “pulled” a muscle in my lower back a couple of times, and the pain usually goes away after the muscle has been given sufficient time to heal.  I usually ice the region, rest, and gently stretch the muscles at and around the injury once it has begun to heal.  I hope this post has been informative.  Leave questions and comments below.

By Kevin Le