Finding the Switch for Back Muscles after Injury
Over 30 million Americans take part in sports activities of some kind. This includes organized teams and recreational sports. Injuries are common among all sports players. Low back pain occurs in up to 15 percent of all athletic injuries. Most of these injuries are sprains and strains of muscles and ligaments. Some are injuries to the discs between the vertebrae.

There is still no good test to find out what's causing back pain. Likewise, there isn't a treatment that works for all back problems. Researchers have just started finding out something new about low back injuries and pain. There may be something wrong with the way nearby muscles respond to sudden loads.

When muscles don't contract and relax with the right force or timing, it's called a neuromuscular impairment. Doctors at Yale University are studying athletes with and without back injury. They are looking at how the muscles respond to sudden loading on the spine.

When a sudden movement or load occurs, some muscles switch on and others switch off. There is a certain timing needed for this to work smoothly and to prevent injury. These researchers found that athletes with a back injury used more muscles during loading activities. These muscles also stayed "switched on" longer than in normal athletes without back injury.

It is unclear why different muscle responses show up in athletes who've had a low back injury. The authors cite earlier research that suggests three possibilities.

  • The injured athletes' muscle responses may have always been different, making them more likely to suffer a low back injury.
  • The injury may have caused nerve damage in the lower back that changes muscle response.
  • The injured athletes may have been unconsciously trying to protect their backs by using their muscles the way they did.

    Whatever the cause, the authors recommend that programs to improve neuromuscular function should be part of the rehabilitation plan after low back injuries.
    Jacek Cholewicki, PhD, et al. Neuromuscular Function in Athletes Following Recovery From a Recent Acute Low Back Injury. In Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. November 2002. Vol. 32. No. 11. Pp. 568-575.