Imagine a profession in which the daily requirements are stacked against your health. Habitual tasks that range from sitting at a desk or in a car for extended periods of time to sprinting and grappling with a suspect without any warm-up guarantee the potential for physical injury. This is an unfortunate byproduct of the career path many law enforcement professionals have chosen.
One of the occupational hazards of the job is low back pain. Studies have shown that 62 percent of police officers suffer from low back pain, with only 8 percent having had back pain before joining the force. Job characteristics that have the potential to exacerbate low back problems include the following:
• Tight hip flexors or low back fatigue from sitting or driving for extended periods of time
• Chronic inflammation from the intake of high-glycemic, pro-inflammatory foods late at night
• Low back structural imbalances from dominant twisting motion when using in-vehicle computer
• Altered pelvic and spinal alignment due to the imbalanced weight distribution of the duty belt
• Neck and upper back problems from excessive “hunching over” during seated positions.
• Stress-related muscle tension in the low back and neck.
Vitamin D3 deficiency has been know to exacerbate low back pain. Officers who work night shifts and sleep during the day, have lower levels of vitamin D3, which is one of the factors to contribute to their higher incidences of low back pain..
During a shift an officer may wear a 15- to 25-pound duty belt for roughly eight hours or sit in their vehicle for hours or complete paperwork while sitting at their desk, all of which may cause stress or muscular imbalance in the musculature of the low back. Research has shown that officers who spend a high percentage of their time in a vehicle report higher incidences of low back problems. The requirements of an officer’s job, whether it is police or ATF or SWAT, can vary to a great degree, but one element remains the same: the potential for low back pain.
The solution may not be as simple as the common practice of bending over and touching one’s toes. Often it is necessary to seek out professional help in the form of chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, strength training and stretching. To begin to lay the foundation for a healthy back, whatever action is chosen must restore proper ratios of muscle length to muscle tension. To help accomplish this, stretching may be the most convenient and least invasive method of laying the foundation for restored back health. Here are three excellent stretches.
Hip Flexor Stretch.
Position one foot on the ground in front of you about a femur’s length away, with the opposite knee below or behind you and in contact with the ground. Prop the rear foot up against a bench and keep the torso upright. With your weight balanced between the front foot and rear leg knee, reach up into the air with the arm that is on the same side as the rear leg, and lean to the opposite side. Maintaining an upright posture, begin sinking the hips toward the front foot and stretch the hip flexors. Perform for 4-6 reps of 15 seconds. DON’T do all stretch on same side before switching. Switch sides every rep.
Quadratus Lumborum Stretch.
Lie on your back with your arms out to your sides, feet up, with knees and hips bent at roughly 90-degree angles. Trying to keep your low back flat on the ground, try to bring your knees to the ground on one side of the body, keeping your shoulders and outstretched arms in contact with the ground. Hold for 45 seconds, and then perform on the opposite side. Perform for 4-6 reps of 15 seconds. DON’T do all stretch on same side before switching. Switch sides every rep.
Seated Rotational Low Back Stretch.
Sit down with your right foot crossed over your left knee, with your right knee pointing straight up into the air. Maintaining this position, rotate your upright torso toward the right until your left upper arm can make contact with your right knee. Ideally the elbow or triceps will press against the lateral aspect of the knee. Look to the right, stretching your low back and glute musculature for roughly 15 seconds. Perform the same stretch on the left side. Perform for 4-6 reps of 15 seconds per side. DON’T do all stretch on same side before switching. Switch sides every rep.
According to most police officers, serving the public as they do is extremely rewarding. But the risk for negative health consequences, such as lower back pain, looms large unless our men and women in blue make a commitment to regular stretching.
Brown JJ, Wells GA, Trottier AJ, Bonneau J, Ferris B. Back pain in a large Canadian police force. Spine. 1998 Apr 1;23(7): 821-7.
Gvi DE, Porter JM. Musculoskeletal problems and driving in police officers. Occup Med (Lond). 1998 Apr;48(3): 153-160.