Last week I began what will probably end up being a very long series about back injuries in the fire service. There is so much to say about this topic, including many myths about how to treat and prevent back pain and injuries, six of which are outlined in the video below.
Last week I discussed myth #1 in more depth, while today I will go into detail about myth #2 below the video.
Myth #2: you need a flexible back to avoid back injury
In myth #2, McGill states that people with greater spine flexibility are MORE likely to experience a back injury, which is counterintuitive to many. I’ve also found this to be true in my own research. In 2011, I assessed the isolated lumbar spine flexibility of over 200 firefighters along with their prior injury history. Surprisingly, I found that those who had greater flexibility in extension (see the picture) exhibited a higher rate of back injury.
This is why I tell firefighters to avoid any exercise, including advanced yoga poses, that involve extreme twisting and hyperextension of the spine (although I highly recommend basic yoga and practice it myself).
However, this information should be interpreted with caution. The association between increased flexibility and higher injury risk applies to the lumbar spine ONLY. It is not to say that adequate flexibility in general/at any other joint increases risk of injury. That is definitely not true! As McGill explains, this relationship between increased flexibility and injury risk is specific only to the spine since the role of the spinal muscles is to stop movement, whereas the role of the other skeletal muscles is to promote movement.
Furthermore, we also know that people with very limited flexibility in the back and sacral region have a tendency to feel back pain. Therefore, there appears to be a “sweet spot” where we have enough spinal flexibility to avoid pain but not so much that we increase risk of back injury. For those who have pain associated with extremely limited back flexibility, try the gentle cat-cow exercise that I explain here.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be discussing more myths about back injuries in firefighters, plus I’ll show you the exercises you should be doing to avoid a back injury (and they’re simpler than you think!), so stay tuned.
Other myths in this series:
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