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Show Jumping Athletes and Back Pain

Put Your Back Into It!

Athletes participating in Show Jumping report low back pain as a common injury that interferes with training and competition. Although there are many reasons for low back pain, in show jumpers it is due often to muscle imbalances and poor posture in the tack.

Our spine has a natural curvature to it like an S. This curve allows forces to be distributed and absorbed evenly through the intervertebral discs (shock absorbers) that separate the individual vertebrae of the spine. The natural curves can be exaggerated (hollow back) or insufficient (flat, rounded back). Changes in the curve of the spine affect how the loads are distributed through the spine and soft tissue (ligaments, and muscles). When these changes become habitual we ask our bodies to work at a biomechanical disadvantage increasing the risk of injury. It is important that we find the balance in the curves of the spine. To find the correct curves you need to be able to sit directly on your ischial tuberocities (seat bones) with a slight arch in the low back and your shoulders over your hips. The correct seated position in the tack will help you maintain a biomechanical advantage for your spine and by doing so reduce the muscular work required to hold you in the tack.

Often riders have difficultly obtaining and maintaining a neutral spine due to muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances occur when the length and strength of opposing muscles surround the joint are not even–think of it as a Tug-of-War on the joint(s) resulting in the shorter-stronger muscles winning. When there is an imbalance, the shorter-stronger muscle pulls on the bone it is attached to and changes the load on that joint. For example: the hip flexors; the muscles responsible for bending your hip; shorten and win against weak-long abdominal muscles. The hip flexors pull the pelvis forward while the upper trunk leans backward to counteract the forward lean stretching the abdominal muscles. This results in an exaggerated curve (hollow back) and puts undue stress on the lumbar discs and musculature. Hip flexors also inhibit (win against) the gluteal muscles, which are responsible for hip extension. Without the gluteal muscle strength the hamstrings compensate by gaining strength and shortening like the hip flexors. To go even farther, due to neurological connections, other muscles of the deep stabilizing mechanism in the low back may become dysfunctional and compound issues.

It sounds complicated, and it can be. If you find that it is difficult to maintain your seat position, you may benefit from a consultation with a physiotherapist do develop an individualized  comprehensive stretching and core-strengthening program to target the specific muscles that may be contributing to muscle imbalances and preventing you from being able to get the curves of spine to line up in the tack. Incorporating deep core exercises will allow for lumbar stabilization in a neutral spine position while still allowing movement to occur so we can connect with our horses.

Just as we call the vet for our horses’ injuries it is just as important that we seek professional medical advice regarding our own aches and pains, and maybe even improve our riding!

Lauren Weber M.Sc.P.T., B.HSc

Physical Therapist, Panther Sports Medicine Oakridge