Back problems plague a large number of people and cause a significant amount of disability, loss of work and recreation. Diving in many ways is good for people with back problems because the weight of the body is removed by the buoyancy of the water. There are still important precautions for diving after you have had a back problem.
Beating Back Pain
Low back pain is one of the more common chronic ailments and, because of weightbelts, one to which divers are especially susceptible. Hauling heavy gear and strapping 30-40 pounds around your waist is risky. Even fit and healthy divers are often stiff at the end of the day. Divers with a history of back pain can be out of action for weeks and even if you’ve never had trouble, you’re not immune. By taking some simple preventive measures, however, you can forestall most problems, even if you’ve had past difficulty.
Everyone knows but few follow the common advice about lifting with your legs, not your back. Tanks and weightbelts are heavy enough to do you in. Always be sure you’ve got a good grip on whatever you lift and use your legs. Always keep what you’re lifting close to your body. Some diving instructors teach students to put on tanks by flipping them over their heads: Don’t. Have your dive partner assist you or put your tanks on a stable, flat surface and strap yourself in.
Put on your weightbelt by standing in front of it, stooping and, using your legs, lifting it up. Don’t swing it around your back as you might do with the belt that holds up your trousers. Not only do you put yourself at risk, but it’s possible you’ll smack the person behind you or, perhaps worse, his camera equipment.
As important as lifting correctly, especially for the diver whose back is already compromised, is stretching out before and, more important, after a dive. Like tennis, cycling or running, diving is a sport and as such it makes demands upon your body. If your body can’t meet those demands, it will break down, keeping you in bed and out of the water. A good stretch is particularly important between a long car or boat ride and a dive since your muscles have probably stiffened. A good stretch, however, is not a painful, bouncing affair. In fact, stretching to the point of pain or bouncing only tears tissues and, because of your reflexes, tightens the muscles you intend to loosen. Always stretch gently until you feel a slight tension that slowly diminishes as you hold the stretch position.
There are stretching exercises for all parts of your body, but the areas upon which you will want to concentrate for low back pain are your lower back, your hamstrings (back of legs) and your quadriceps (those big muscles in the front of your thighs).
Exercise I: Stretch your lower back by lying on your back and bringing your knees to your chest. Hold the position for 20-30 seconds, straighten your legs, then repeat four or five times. If this is painful, start by pulling one leg up at a time, then try both. This tucking position is easy and useful in the middle or end of a dive.
Exercise II: Another good low back stretch again involves lying on your back. Keeping your shoulders and back flat, cross one leg over the other holding the crossed foot just off the floor. You’ll feel a tension from your lower back through the buttock and thigh of the lifted leg. Hold that for 20-30 seconds and repeat the stretch four or five times.
Exercise III: A lower back exercise you can use even when sitting or standing, the pelvic tilt, is nevertheless best done like the others, lying on your back. Simply tighten your buttock and abdominal muscles at the same time. Hold for about 30 seconds, relax and repeat four or five times. This exercise will help reduce tension on tired lower back muscles and forestall debilitating pain.
Exercise IV: In order to stretch your hamstrings, stand up, resting the back of one heel on something about waist high and stable. The foot on the ground should be pointed ahead and the support leg should be slightly bent. Now gently bend forward from the waist, looking straight ahead. Hold about 20 seconds and repeat. Remember not to stretch to the point of pain. The tension you feel should be distinct but pleasant.
Exercise V: Like hamstrings, quadriceps are stretched from a standing position. Raise your right foot behind you and hold the top of it in your left hand. Gently pull your heel toward you. Hold this for about 30 seconds. Repeat. Stretch your left quad by holding your left foot in your right hand. You may find it necessary to keep your balance by holding onto something with your free hand. In stretching your quads or in doing any stretch, remember that we are not all equally limber, nor are we likely to be just as flexible today as we were yesterday. Stretch only until it feels right. Anything beyond that will be worse for you than not stretching at all.
Lashing 30-40 pounds on your waist and swimming horizontally is a spine cruncher. A drysuit, with the extra buoyancy in the legs and feet, aggravates the tilt in your spine that the weightbelt produces and further compresses your intervertebral discs. If you have back problems, distributing your diving weights will help alleviate the pressure on your back. Ten to 20 pounds can be moved to your tank with minimum effort and minimum inconvenience. The amount of weight you move to the tank depends upon how your back feels and how much you want to work moving or lifting the tank.
Further reduction in disc compression can be accomplished with a pair of ankle weights. Quilt one to three pounds per weight of lead shot into some durable parka material, sew on Velcro patches, and you’ve made a serviceable pair of weights. Ankle weights can also be purchased at dive stores. Home-made or store bought, they work to keep your legs down and to straighten your spine.
Proper lifting, stretching before and after a dive, and redistribution of your weights can be keys to reduced back pain and reduced back problems. Most of us don’t like to think about these things; fewer like to trouble themselves with seemingly unnecessary precautions. Still, minimal care can keep you in the water instead of home while your companions are enjoying a dive.