Don't Back Down

Fitness
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It's a rare skier who hasn't experienced back pain. Roughly eight out of 10 people suffer back pain at some time in their lives, according to studies by the National Institute of Health. Whether the pain is caused by an on-slope wipeout, helping your brother-in-law move his piano or simply too many hours parked in front of a computer, it can limit your fun on the hill.

Worse yet, there is no surefire way to cure back pain. Some doctors prescribe rest, others suggest surgery, and still others recommend chiropractic treatment or alternative medicine. The best method of treatment varies with each situation. Here are the stories of five skiers who have found ways to deal with¿and even heal¿their aching backs.

Martin Stuart
Denver, Colo., age 30
Occupation public defender
Ski experience/level
15 years; expert
General fitness level
above average
Favorite ski area
Arapahoe Basin, Colo.
The Pain "Last season I was skiing at Keystone, Colo. When I got off the lift, I felt a twinge in my lower back. I just blew it off and kept skiing. Later I jumped off a 15-foot outcropping. From the top I couldn't see that it was all ice. I landed on my heels and felt the pain immediately. I kept skiing, and soon my back stiffened so badly I couldn't ski anymore. It took me a couple of hours to get down the hill. The next day I couldn't walk at all."

The Program "I went to a chiropractor and acupuncturist who did adjustments and e-stim short for electrical stimulation, a device that uses electrodes placed on the skin to help control pain. The problem went away immediately after that. They both said that I had pulled muscles at the base of the spine and suggested I start doing stomach crunches."

The Progress "I don't keep up with the exercises, so every few months it feels like I've thrown my back out again."

SKI suggests E-Stim and exercise. Provided by most physical therapists and some chiropractors, electrical stimulation increases blood circulation to the area treated and, in the majority of patients, can help relieve pain.

Also, staying in good shape can help you avoid injury. Before the season starts, prepare your body by doing at least three to four days of exercise a week for several months. Exercise should include aerobic activity, weight and endurance training, and stretching. For the best results, stretch daily, or at least several times a week¿not just for five minutes before you click into your skis. (For stretching suggestions, see "Keep It Loose" on page 98). It's also vital to strengthen your abdominal muscles with exercises such as crunches. If your abs are weaker than your back muscles, your pelvis will tilt forward, placing pressure on your spine.

Pat Owens
Chicago, Ill., age 49
Occupation accountant
Ski experience/level
20 years; advanced
General fitness level average
Favorite ski area Vail, Colo.
The Pain "In 1995, I started experiencing numbness and pain in my back and down my legs. I tried a bunch of remedies: I went to a naprapath a practitioner who manipulates connective tissues to ease tension and correct imbalances, and I tried herbal therapy and vitamins. None of them worked."

The Program "After five months, I had surgery for a herniated disk in my lower back. They repaired the disk, and I followed up with therapy. Three times a week I do toe-ups, hamstring bridges, wall squats and work to strengthen my entire core."
The Progress "Now I use a gymnastic ball and do regular ab workouts. I was back at Vail one season after surgery. I'm an advanced skier, but I don't do the bumps. Since my surgery, I've gotten better because of all the exercising I do."

SKI suggests Explore your options. Most back surgery is elective, meaning that it is one of several possible means of treing an injury. Studies show that more than 90 percent of back-pain patients recover without surgery, and one-third of back surgeries are unsuccessful the first time. Ask a variety of health-care providers¿neurosurgeons, physical therapists, chiropractors¿about your treatment options. If surgery seems the best alternative, consider which type would be best for you. Traditionally, most patients have undergone open-back surgery, but doctors are perfecting less invasive techniques such as endoscopic disectomy, an outpatient procedure that uses local anesthesia and microsurgical attachments.

Walt Prest
Meadville, Pa., age 63
Occupation retired engineer
Ski experience/level
17 years; advanced
General fitness level average
Favorite ski area
Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C.
The Pain "In 1995, I experienced sharp pain after cutting brush and then tossing it over a hedge. A twist-and-throw motion evidently caused the disk to rub the sciatic nerve and wear its casing. Within a few days, I was suffering severe pain and decided to go to the hospital. After hospitalization, the pain went away¿for no apparent reason. The doctor said the nerve sheath repaired itself. However the right side of my leg from the knee down has little feeling, extending to my two smallest toes. As a skier with a ruptured disk, I face the possible onset of back pain at any time."

The Program "I've tried to stay in reasonable shape. For several years I visited a local gym where I used various machines to boost my endurance and strength. Since retirement, I've kept in shape by working around my property, cutting and splitting wood and doing repair and landscaping."

The Progress "I normally get in about 20 to 30 ski days a season."

SKI suggests Proper lifting. Improper lifting and carrying heavy loads are common culprits of back pain. To lift properly: Keep the load between your knees and close to your body; keep your back straight, bend your knees and use your legs to do the lifting; keep a firm grip on the object. Put the load back down in the same way you picked it up. For more tips on proper lifting, visit my.webmd.com.

Eric Hoffmann
Chicago, Ill., age 40
Occupation personal trainer
Ski experience/level
seven years; advanced-intermediate
General fitness level excellent
Favorite ski area
Squaw Valley, Calif.
The Pain "At 19, I was diagnosed with a twisted vertebrae that I got while wrestling. Since then, I've been in and out of pain constantly. I picked up skiing about seven years ago, and the pain got worse. I figured it was a result of simple wear and tear plus the old injury. Chiropractors and acupuncturists couldn't solve the problem, so I wrote it off as being stress-related. When I would ski, my back would go into a deep spasm. I managed to ski through it, but my sciatic nerve got pinched and my lower leg went numb."

The Program "I got into yoga. It's all about directing the body, core strengthening and pain transfer. It's a combination of active and static exercise, so I feel like I'm getting a really good balance."

The Progress "The pain is totally gone. I'm now doing an apprenticeship with a yoga instructor because I want to bring it into my sessions with personal-training clients."

SKI suggests Yoga. This ancient Indian practice is a physical and psychological program now practiced by 12 to 15 million people in the United States. It focuses on breathing, stretching, meditating and posture techniques. Devotees contend that it stretches and strengthens muscles, improves balance and stamina, helps control stress, and relieves pain. To learn how to perform yoga poses correctly, begin by taking classes or using instructional videos. For more information on yoga and how it can benefit your skiing, visit www.skimag.com, keyword "yoga."

Irv Littman
Boise, Idaho, age 61
Occupation business executive
Ski experience/level
43 years; advanced
General fitness level good
Favorite ski area Bogus Basin, Idaho
The Pain "I'm 6 feet, 4 inches and lanky. The impression I get is that the world isn't built for people my height. There are lots of opportunities to injure my back. About 20 years ago, I was skiing bumps at Sun Valley, Idaho. The next day, I couldn't stand up straight. The only real cure is to take it easy for a few days, lie on my back with my legs up and avoid impact."

The Program "My doctor said the most dangerous thing is bending over to adjust my boots. He gave me a physical therapy program of stretching and strengthening exercises that specifically target the abs to make my stomach do more of the work."

The Progress "I've had to cut back on a lot of impact sports like tennis and running, and I just stay away from the bumps. But when you're my height, with those long skis, bumps aren't that fun anyway."

SKI suggests Light activity. Even in the recent past, a common prescription for back pain was to rest and avoid too much activity. While it is OK to rest the muscles for a day or two, doctors now suggest that too much rest can be harmful because it weakens the muscles that support the back. If you suffer acute back pain, try relieving it with ice and massage, then do light activity such as stretching and walking.
com, keyword "yoga."

Irv Littman
Boise, Idaho, age 61
Occupation business executive
Ski experience/level
43 years; advanced
General fitness level good
Favorite ski area Bogus Basin, Idaho
The Pain "I'm 6 feet, 4 inches and lanky. The impression I get is that the world isn't built for people my height. There are lots of opportunities to injure my back. About 20 years ago, I was skiing bumps at Sun Valley, Idaho. The next day, I couldn't stand up straight. The only real cure is to take it easy for a few days, lie on my back with my legs up and avoid impact."

The Program "My doctor said the most dangerous thing is bending over to adjust my boots. He gave me a physical therapy program of stretching and strengthening exercises that specifically target the abs to make my stomach do more of the work."

The Progress "I've had to cut back on a lot of impact sports like tennis and running, and I just stay away from the bumps. But when you're my height, with those long skis, bumps aren't that fun anyway."

SKI suggests Light activity. Even in the recent past, a common prescription for back pain was to rest and avoid too much activity. While it is OK to rest the muscles for a day or two, doctors now suggest that too much rest can be harmful because it weakens the muscles that support the back. If you suffer acute back pain, try relieving it with ice and massage, then do light activity such as stretching and walking.

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