Grappling & Back Pain

back pain and Brazilian Jiu-JitsuI’ve owned a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school for almost 20 years and the 2 most common chronic pains I see in students are knee and back pain. I have knee issues, and don’t have this issue figured out (other than listening to my body and not doing lots of rubber guard and heel hooks). But back pain I have figured out.

My back pain started in 2007 after I took a bad fall in Judo. For the next 8 years I spent 3 weeks out of every year on the couch, unable to move, and the rest of the year in minor pain, and in constant fear that it was going to get worse.

As far as what was causing it, I always blamed Jiu-Jitsu. In 2015 I found out that Jiu-Jitsu wasn’t the problem. There were several times when it aggravated my back, but the source of the pain were from several other places. These were my issues, but if you’re dealing with back pain, you may find that some of these solutions may help you:

  1. Tight Glutes and IT band. This is the EASIEST fix to back pain, and is really common. Get a lacrosse ball (harder than a tennis ball), and lay on it on the side of your thigh. Many people use a foam roller, but I find that most of them don’t dig in enough (except for ones that have big ridges on them). Move around until you find a spot that hurts. That could be the muscle spasm that can get rid of your back pain immediately. Do both legs and check your glutes as well. If you can barely walk before you do this, and after you’re at least 50% better, then a lacrosse ball will become your best friend.
  2. New couch. After hard training do you go home and crash on an old couch for several hours? If the cushions are flat, your spine is out of alignment. This applies to beds as well.
  3. I needed orthotics. I’ve seen probably 20 chiropractors in my life, and only one told me that I needed orthotics in my shoes, since my arch support was gone. This meant that walking was worse for me than Jiu-Jitsu.
  4. Massage. I always ask my massage therapists to work on my IT bands and my glutes. I use a lacrosse ball on a regular basis, which will save you a lot of money, but massage therapists can find areas and focus on them. I get two massages per month.
  5. Laptop use. My good chiropractor told me that sitting on a lazy boy chair and looking down at my laptop was horrendous for my back.
  6. I started using a lumbar pillow in my car. My driver’s seat doesn’t have good lumbar support, so I bought a cushion online that attaches to the seat.
  7. I started using a standing desk. It turns out that not sitting all day at work is not only better for your back, but it reduces your risk of many other serious problems.
  8. Use a good chiropractor. I see a chiropractor every 3 weeks or so now, but my initial visits to two different chiropractors changed my life. One in Ann Arbor told me about my improper laptop use, need of orthotics, and what muscles were weak. Another in Colombia beat the hell out of me. If you can imagine rolling with Erik Paulson and every time you tapped he kept going to the point that you were sure that he was going to put you in the hospital, that was my experience with Esthanedh Motta. I wrote about it in detail on startstanding.org.
  9. Stretching. Not just your legs, but for me it was chest and lats. My chest was so tight (probably from years of chest workouts and not so many back workouts) and my pecs were pulling my shoulders forward into a kyphotic posture.
  10. Core workouts. You do Jiu-Jitsu, so you’re strong right? I assumed that I was strong not only because I grapple a lot, but I also lift weights. Turns out that I have completely neglected several muscle groups. Since I’ve done Jiu-Jitsu for so many years, my body has learned to be as efficient as possible when doing any techniques. I still get a cardio workout, and it does keep some strength up, but it’s not enough. So I do Foundation workouts (basically yoga poses that just focus on the back), and I use bands and bodyweight exercises to strengthen the neglected areas.
  11. Walking. I’ve heard from several sources that human beings need to walk and walking will help put your body back in alignment.

After about 9 months of working on my issues, 95% of the pain has gone away. I no longer worry about driving for more than a half hour, I can drive four hours on end with zero pain.

I used to avoid walking. Now I actually look forward to it.

This may seem like a lot of work, but it’s absolutely been worth it. Most of the cases of back surgery that I’ve heard about don’t seem to work out, so I figured I was in for a life of pain.

Now only occasionally do I get slight pain. Since I’ve fixed my posture, I regularly see a chiropractor, and I’ve gotten rid of my bad habits, I usually just go for the lacrosse ball or a good foam roller and work on my IT bands and or glutes, and the pain is usually gone quickly.

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