When I went through my lower back injury (herniated disc), one of the most important things I learned was the importance of spine hygiene. Spine hygiene was a term that I had first heard from Dr. Stuart McGill who used it to describe the way one treats their spine on a daily basis.
Before suffering my herniated disc injury in 2013, I can tell you that I had no acknowledgment for spine hygiene whatsoever and I beat the shit out of my spine. In fact, I would do repeated weighted flexion/extension exercises without any regard for the damage it was doing to my spine (discs and joints).
I didn’t know much about spine biomechanics at the time since I was primarily an exercise Phys guy. I could name you all the metabolic pathways from glycolysis to fatty acid biosynthesis but had very little regards for joints forces or mechanics. It was just something that I didn’t find particularly interesting at the time until shit hit the fan and I herniated a disc. Upon herniating a disc and having severe lower back for about two years, I began to switch a lot of my attention from exercise Phys to biomechanics. At the same time, being a strength coach, I found that the biomechanics side of things was always more applicable when working with athletes than any physiology that I had learned.
Anyways, the reason I share this story with you is because I want to talk to you about the importance of spine hygiene – and how my 20 year old self got it all wrong. I’d been planning to write a post on this for some time, but a reader just wrote in asking about this one specifically — so, I’ll put this one off no longer. He says:
“Do you still use spinal hygiene even when you’ve recovered? Do you still sit down as little as possible, do your rehab exercises etc? Would be great if you could do a video/post on this”
Hey brother, I’m glad to oblige. In answer to your question, I present today’s post:
Why Its Important to Maintain Good Spine Hygiene After a Lower Back Injury
After I had made a pain free recovery from my herniated disc and facet joint problems, I had made it my goal to return to weightlifting and sports – specifically hockey. Two things that I was very passionate about, but wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to return to them with my situation at the time, since both had contributed to my lower back issues. However, after becoming pain free this ended up becoming a realistic goal, but needed to be approached very carefully. I know I couldn’t lift and workout like I did previously and my approach to training needed to change. Gone were the days of lifting twice a day and doing ridiculous things like weight weighted sit-ups or crunches. Rather, I needed to focus on the health of my spine if I was ever going to make a return to weightlifting/hockey and actually have longevity in those activities.
In come, Spine Hygiene
During my recovery, I had already been practicing good spine hygiene, and it was one of the primary reasons why I made a recovery in the first place. I was avoiding my pain triggers, which involved sitting and forward spinal flexion as much as possible. The more I avoided these, the better I got. Mind you it was a slow process, but I was giving my back the much needed rest it required in order to recover. (Note: Repeated Spinal Flexion is the exact mechanism that creates a herniation and sitting, specifically prolonged is an activity that places a high a stress onto the spinal discs that could result in more damage/pain)
Upon making a pain free recovery, I knew that I needed to continue to limit these movements (spinal flexion) and activities (sitting) if I was ever going to have success in weightlifting/hockey.
So.. I continued to avoid both of these upon making a pain free recovery… and continued with practicing a lot of my prehab/rehab exercises (e.g., planks, rollouts, carry’s, pallof press) that I was performing during my recovery as well.
Overtime, by continuing to practice good spine hygiene on a daily basis, I progressively got stronger and felt better. I slowly started to progress to light dead lifting and playing hockey. However, I knew I couldn’t rush things, and I needed to build up to that training capacity to were I can handle these activities on a more consistent basis. So, I took my time and was very patient with the process.
Fast forward one year after my pain-free recovery and I was back to deadlifting heavy weight and playing hockey 🙂
Feels good to be back lifting heavy like a meat head again. Pretty happy with those first reps, but lost a bit of power on the second. This is the first time lifting this heavy since prior to my L5-S1 disc protrusion. Must say… it felt great! 💪👊💪 #workingonthatdeadliftgame #meatheads #discbulgerecovery #dawgiscoming
First time lifting 315lbs post recovery. Not bad eh??
And more recently, I’ve jumped to 390lbs
However, I must admit, I haven’t made much progress lately since I’ve been using a lot of my training capacity being on my feet all day at school/work (8-12 hour days really take a tool on your body). For these reasons, I haven’t felt comfortable really pushing things on my deadlift lately and probably won’t until things calm down with school/work. Note: This is all part of the process of spine hygiene. Currently, I’ve been using a lot of my spine capacity on other activities (standing/sitting/walking all day) and haven’t been able to use that during lifting. Hence, it becomes harder to maintain good spine hygiene for the deadlift, since it’s a lift that requires a lot of strength and capacity at the lower back and hips to perform! However, with all that being said though… I am still playing hockey 2x a week 😉
Anyways, the point of this post was to address the importance of spine hygiene in recovery and post recovery. The better one can practice this skill, the better off they will be in the longevity of their athletic career. If one doesn’t practice good spine hygiene, they will only be putting themselves at greater risk of injury or re-injury for that matter.
Here a few practical tips for maintaining good spine hygiene:
- Avoid and limit pain triggers as much as possible
- Reduce sitting as much as possible, specifically before exercise or a competition
- Avoid prolonged standing as much as possible, specifically before exercise or a competition
- Perform the necessary core exercises individualized to your needs to help improve spine stability and stiffness
- Avoid early morning exercise or spine bending (higher bending stresses on the spinal discs in the morning compared to the afternoon/evening