Back Pain in MMA

Back pain affects nearly 80% of the population and can severely interfere with your ability to train and compete if you are an MMA athlete.Back pain affects nearly 80% of the population and can severely interfere with your ability to train and compete if you are an MMA athlete. Contrary to what most people believe, the most common cause of back pain is not poor lifting mechanics, but it is more often the result of poor postures and muscular imbalances. This applies to the average sedentary working person, but for those of you who train for MMA, there is more to back pain than meets the eye. The MMA athlete puts a higher demand on the lower back than many other sports, which can lead to bouts of acute and chronic lower back pain.

Acute lower back pain in grappling sports is often caused by muscle strains. These injuries result from over-exerting the muscles in the lower back as in lifting an opponent for a hip toss or seo nagi. Symptoms usually include spasms, aching, tightness and stiffness along with limited ranges of motion. Pain is typically localized to the lower back region and usually does not involve any pain radiation or referral anywhere else in the body. Recovery for back strains is relatively quick given some rest and avoidance of activities that provoke the pain. It is important to remember that muscle strains are like any other injury to the body and require adequate rest for proper healing to occur. I always tell patients if they cut their finger or break a bone, they need to avoid moving the injured tissues to allow for proper healing to occur. For instance, if you continually move the skin where a cut has occurred, it will take much longer for the wound to close. Likewise, if a bone is broken and it is not immobilized or placed in a cast, the constant movement will prolong the time it takes for the bones to heal. Returning to training or competition too soon can potentially turn a relatively insignificant back injury into something more disabling or even permanent. Taking a few days off to let injured tissues heal is better than training too soon and causing further damage. When you have back pain that radiates past your knees and there is numbness or tingling in your legs, you probably have a herniated disc or a pinched nerve in your lower back. The discs are cartilage “shock absorbers” found between the vertebrae that allows for flexibility in the spine. I like to use the analogy of a jelly doughnut when explaining what can happen to discs. The disc is composed of a cartilaginous outer layer (annulus fibrosis) and a soft center (nucleus pulposis). A disc does not “slip” as most people believe, but it can do one or a combination of three things – it can degenerate, bulge, or herniate. Disc degeneration is a process that occurs as a normal part of aging, but it can also be accelerated from excessive stress on the body. The disc essentially wears away and dries out, becoming less flexible and less soft (the dough becomes dry and the jelly loses its fluid content). Abnormal pressure in the lower back from sitting or standing in one position for too long can cause a disc to bulge. A bulge occurs when the soft center of the disc (the “jelly”) pushes out on the outer cartilage layer (the “dough” is pushed outward) which can potentially pinch a nerve. If a disc herniates, the soft center of the disc actually leaks outward and compresses or irritates the sensitive nerves in the lower back. This is a common cause for the radiating pain down the back of the thigh and leg which is referred to as sciatica. Many back injuries are predisposed by muscle imbalances. Jiu jitsu and grappling athletes usually have what’s called flexion-dominance in the lower back and pelvis. In neutral spinal postures the lower back should curve inwards, but most of the movements in BJJ and submission grappling occur with the back in the opposite direction with the lower back bent forward and the hips flexed. Additionally, most training drills also involve repetitive flexion at the waist causing the tightness of the hip flexors and weakness of the hip extensors. Over time, the lower back muscles become underutilized while the hip flexors become shortened. Addressing these muscle imbalances often makes back pain disappear or at least more manageable. The good news is that most episodes of back pain, regardless of the cause, are self-limiting. If you have severe pain that does not resolve within several weeks, and you have numbness, tingling or burning sensations in the leg, calf or foot you should seek a consultation with a qualified sports physician. Any back pain that is accompanied by loss of bowel or bladder control, weakness or inability to control your legs may indicate damage to the spinal cord and requires immediate medical attention. Sometimes imaging is necessary to appropriately diagnose a back injury. X-rays can rule out a fracture or dislocation, but they do not show the integrity of the discs or ligaments. An MRI will accurately diagnose whether you have a degenerated, bulging, or herniated disc. For more info back injuries and how to rehab back pain, you contact Dr. Park at the address below.

Contact info: Dr. John H. Park, D.C., C.S.C.S.Progressive Spinal & Sports Rehab10076 Darnestown Road Suite 200Rockville, MD 20850www.ProSpineRehab.comwww.yourMMAdoctor.comPhone: (301) 294-5101

Dr. Park is a chiropractor specializing in sports medicine and orthopedics. He is also a BJJ blue belt under Mike Moses/Lloyd Irvin ( and continues to train and compete in BJJ.

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Dr. John H. Park