If you’ve been involved in BJJ for any length of time you probably have a story that involves hurting your back. Maybe it was your lower back or maybe it was your neck, but likely you’ve hurt it at some point. It’s no secret that BJJ despite being named the “gentle art” is far from it.
The back is unlike most other joints in the body. Most joints are pretty simple – a few bones meet and are held together by some muscles. The action of the muscles pulls on the bones on one side and levers them to bend the joint. If you look at our limbs we have two types of joints. The closest to our center, the hips and shoulders, are multi-directional joints that move in all directions. Then we have joints that move in only single directions. Our elbows and knees are called hinge joints for this reason, as like the hinges on a door they only work one way. Then, at the extremities we have another set of multi-directional joints for our hands and feet, or more specifically our wrists and ankles.
While the dexterity of the hand speaks volumes as to how many muscles and nerves are involved, and the huge array of muscles around our hips and shoulders allows them to work in any direction, the back is different again. The back consists of twenty-six vertebrae. That’s twenty-six joints that all link up and articulate. Holding this in place are an enormous number of muscles. To move the spine through flexion, extension, or rotation is the job of all these muscles.
As non-clinicians we want an understanding of back mechanics that allows us to quickly figure out what is wrong, and address is appropriately. An easy to use system breaks the back into three segments – the neck or cervical area, the rib cage or thoracic spine, and the lumbar or lower back. Three chunks.
The neck or cervical section has seven vertebrae. The mid back or thoracic spine has twelve. And the lower back has five plus the sacrum. So just saying to someone, “I’ve hurt my back” isn’t going to cut it from a treatment perspective. You’re going to need to be a little more specific with your language. This, by the way, is why you should run a mile from anyone who diagnoses you with “non specific back pain” – they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about if they can’t narrow down what your problem is. You should run a mile from these charlatans.
There are a lot of myths surrounding backs as to what you should and shouldn’t do. Sadly most of these come from someone with a product to sell. Pilates springs to mind as the likely biggest culprit when it comes to snake oil methods of back care. Comments like “you shouldn’t flex your spine” always seem to spring up without taking back mechanics into account.
Given the nature of BJJ it is unlikely that you will significantly hurt your thoracic spine during training. The reason for this is simple – it’s designed to flex far more than the neck and lower back, and has bigger muscles to control its action. Instead, we are far more likely to injure the neck and lower back. The neck is pretty easy to figure out – you’ve got a little thin thing with seven joints in it supporting a bowling ball. That’s a lot of stress at the best of times, let alone when you are curled up in a ball with someone trying to smash pass you with all their weight driving into you. And that’s not even taking takedowns into account.
The lower back is the other chunk of your spine that is likely to get hurt. That makes sense, right? We learn to control the head or the hips, and in many cases to even twist them to control our opponent. Well, the lower back doesn’t deal well with being flexed or twisted. In fact, noted physiotherapist Shirley Sahrmann says that flexion and rotation of the lower back is the worst thing you can do it from an injury perspective. And that makes sense too. Have you ever had someone do a can opener guard pass to you and noticed how everything is fine until suddenly it isn’t? And at that moment when you are being crushed into a little ball your brain basically shuts down, your legs fly open, and your opponent is able to casually walk past your legs.
The problem with BJJ is that much of our sport occurs during moments of spinal flexion. Add on to that many people who practice the art are coming from a deskbound perspective and they are already turning up to train with a compromised spine. One of the leading back specialists in the world recommends a simple solution – perform work in back extension to reduce flexion based pain.
This video shows the early version performed prone.
The next step is to perform standing extensions, as shown below.
And finally, perform these neck glide plus extensions to regain normal function in the neck.
In part two and three we’ll cover more extensive ground based spine and neck work to use once you’ve settled the pain down.