Oh jiu jitsu... we love it so much, even when we wake up and get out of bed like a 90-year-old grandpa. Let's face it, Brazilian jiu jitsu does a lot of wonderful things for the body, such as weight loss, strengthening, building your cardio, etc. But it can also take a toll on your body, too. One of the most common parts of the body that can become injured in BJJ is the back.
Here are a few common back ailments and how to manage them:
Muscle or Tendon Strain
There are a ton of different muscles and tendons (the fibrous tissue that connects the muscles to bone) that make up the back, each of which have their own purpose and function. Because of the nature of jiu jitsu - with all the bending, twisting and inverting that goes on - all of these muscles come into play at one point or another. Now, it'd be one thing if we were doing all the bending, twisting, inverting by ourselves, but because we are doing so with the weight and pressure of another human being - sometimes one that is much larger - we are at an increased risk for muscle strains, particularly in our lumbar region (lower part of the back). A strain is the overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons in the back, which, in addition to pain and stiffness, can be accompanied by muscle spasms.
The best treatment for strains are ice, rest and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen). Taping the afflicted area with kinesiology tape can relieve some of the pain and inflammation (See our Guide: Taping Injuries in BJJ for more information), but you'll need a buddy to help you... unless you're super crazy flexible (you weirdo). What's most important is that you stay off the mat for a couple days. Yeah, yeah, I know... better said that done.
Sprain and strain are often used interchangeably, but a sprain most commonly refers to overstretching or tearing of the ligaments, which is often accompanied by bruising. Ligaments are the tough, fibrous tissues that connect the bones together. Again, the lumbar region is usually most affected by this type of injury, as it's the epicenter of a lot of our twisting and inverting movements in jiu jitsu. Various sets of ligaments connect each of our vertebrae together, as well as connects our neck and sacrum to our spinal column. The main causes of a sprain include over rotation or excessive bending of the spine (which in jiu jitsu can happen on a daily basis... both voluntarily and involuntarily).
Both strains and sprains can last anywhere from a five days to a month, but you can easily minimize that time by taking it easy. Just as with muscle and tendon strains, ice (followed by heat therapy after the first 48 hours), rest, NSAIDs and taping are your best options. Remember, if you don't stay off the mat, you could potentially risk tearing the already weakened ligament, which will prolong your recovery time exponentially.
Bulged or Herniated Disks
Another common injury is when the intervertebral discs (the cartilage between each vertebrae that acts as a cushion and shock absorber for the spine) become compressed and bulge outward or herniate ("rupture"). Bulging and herniation are basically the same phenomenon, in increasing intensity: the tougher outer cartilage of the disc (annulus fibrosus) is weakened, causing it to bulge out the side or even rupture, allowing the soft goopy inner cartilage (nucleus pulposus) to protrude, which irritates the nerve in that area. According to Recharge Sports Injury Center, "Many factors decrease the strength and resiliency of the disc and increase the risk of disc herniation. Life style choices such as smoking, lack of regular exercise, and inadequate nutrition contribute to poor disc health. Poor posture, daily wear and tear, injury or trauma, and incorrect lifting or twisting further stress the disc. If the disc is already weakened, it may herniate with a single movement or strain such as coughing or bending to pick up a pencil." Eek. Long story short: take care of yourself both on and off the mat.
Most mild to moderate cases can be treated through non-surgical methods, including NSAIDs and ice/heat therapy to reduce the inflammation, as well as stretching and particular exercises to strengthen the muscles and reduce spinal pressure, chiropractic spinal manipulation or even epidural steroid injections (ESI). For most people, recovery takes approximately four to six weeks. However, more severe cases may require surgery, called a "discectomy", to remove a portion of the disc that's touching the spinal nerve.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
When it comes to back injuries, you can prevent a lot of them by simply taking the time to properly warm up and stretch. This is something that way too many jiu jitsu practitioners - including myself - neglect in their training regimen, but is the single most important thing you can do to increase your longevity on the mat.
Train on... and don't forget to stretch. Oss.