New Year’s Resolution: Get Back To The Gym And Avoid Spine Injuries

As New Years passes, millions of people will resolve to get back in shape and back to the gym.  Unfortunately, gyms are not the only who will get busier this time of year as over 450,000 people per year are injured while at the gym and may need to see a physician. A large number of these injuries occur in the neck or back and are caused by a lack of conditioning, overexertion and the use of the improper technique.

In an effort to lose holiday weight as fast as possible many people will engage in extended cardio and heavy weightlifting without proper strengthening and conditioning.  “For many of those who have been away from the gym for several months, their muscles are not prepared for the exertion that comes with heavy lifting or strenuous conditioning,” says Board Certified Neurosurgeon and spine expert, Dr. Anthony Virella.  “The muscles surrounding the spine are especially susceptible to laxity if you have spent extended periods of time away from the gym.  This can lead to strains and sprains of the neck and back as well as more serious conditions like bulging or herniated discs.”

It is important to understand your personal fitness level and avoid exercises and workouts that can lead to spine injuries.  This is especially important for those over the age of 40 as they are often at higher risk of injuries.  One should also seek clearance from a physician or professional prior to embarking on a new exercise program.

The Treadmill
The treadmill is usually the first stop in the gym as it can burn hundreds of those holiday calories in a short time.  However, the repetitive impact that is absorbed by the spinal discs when jogging or running can lead to injury if the core muscles are not properly strengthened.

Light walking or jogging on the treadmill is a great way to warm up and build cardio endurance.  But, for those who take it to the next level and jog or run on incline treadmills, the risk for spine injury increases substantially.  “Increasing the incline on the treadmill changes the way the muscles work,” says Dr. Virella.  “The core muscles and hamstrings become less involved and the weight and forces are shifted to the quad muscles and back muscles and forces the spine to curve as you lean forward.  This curvature can compress the intervertebral discs and cause disc bulges or herniations.”

Sit-ups and Crunches
Most of us have been told that sit-ups and crunches can burn belly fat.  However, what most do not know is that they are some of the most harmful exercises for your spine. “Sit-ups and crunches force you to round your back and bend forward at the waist which creates a tremendous amount of flexion in the spine.  This motion causes the equivalent of over 650lbs of force on the lumbar spine each time the back is raised.  Many people will do hundreds of sit-ups or crunches per workout and this amount of repetitive force on the spine is a recipe for injury,” says Dr. Virella.  “The isolated plank is a much better exercise for the abdominals as it puts almost no strain on the spine.”

The Deadlift
For those focused on building muscle mass, the deadlift is the new trend in weightlifting and although this exercise can do wonders for your core, it can also lead to severe back injury if not executed properly.  For many inexperienced weightlifters, they will begin this exercise by bending forward and rounding the back.  Next, they will quickly pull their backs into an upright position while holding hundreds of pounds in weights and finish by leaning back and rounding the back in the opposite direction.  “This reverse arching of the back is known as hyperextension and is one of the most common causes of spine injuries.  If you factor in the increased forces on the spine due to the weight, an improper deadlift is the easiest way to herniate a disc in the lumbar spine,” says Dr. Virella.  “Going from a neutral spine position to a hyperextended position is the same range of motion that causes whiplash.  So, if not executed properly, a deadlift is essentially creating whiplash for the lumbar spine.”

Don’t Ignore Pain
Most cases of back and neck injuries in the gym are simple strains and sprains and can be treated with rest and over the counter medications.  It is when these symptoms are ignored that the chance of more severe injury can occur. “Whenever someone is trying to work out through back or neck pain, their biomechanics change to compensate for the pain.  This causes improper form as well as exacerbation of the original injury,” says Dr. Virella.  “If the injury is treated properly from the onset, most people can go back to the gym in a few days.  When these injuries are ignored and more severe injuries occur, it may be several months before they can return to the gym.”

About Dr. Anthony Virella

Dr. Anthony Virella is a Board-Certified, Fellowship trained Neurological Spine Surgeon with advanced training in the management of complex spinal disorders. He attended medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and is a graduate of the UCLA Neurosurgery Residency Program. Dr. Virella completed his complex spine in-folding resident fellowship at the world renowned Cleveland Clinic Foundation with Dr. Edward C. Benzel, M.D. Additional work included a second fellowship in Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery at the UCLA Comprehensive Spine Center.

Dr. Virella is a nationally recognized specialist in the field of complex and Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery and has offices located in Westlake Village and Valencia.

If you, or someone you love, is suffering from persistent neck or back pain, call us at 805.449.0088 to schedule an appointment