Real-life stories: how two runners beat back pain

Case Study One

Ruby Mills started running a few months ago but despite increasing her mileage slowly, she started to feel a twinge in her left hip. “The pain would subside after a few rest days, but every time I started running again it would return,” she says. A fellow runner suggested that since the pain was only present in her left hip, that she might have an imbalance in her pelvis. Mills visited London-based chiropractor Dr Christina Leach to find out more.

Leach x-rayed Mills’s spine and pelvis. She explains what this revealed: “A spondylolithesis [a slipped disc] was putting pressure on the nerves in the base of the spine. She may have had this condition from a very young age and not known about it until running started to irritate the area. A vertebra had slipped forward slightly, causing some irritation to the part of the sciatic nerve that was supplying the hip, which caused the pain.”

Mills was surprised to learn that a slipped disc in her back was affecting her hip. “If you have any problems in your back, they often come to the surface when you start running because it is quite a compressive sport,” says Leach. “You need to make sure the biomechanics of your lower back are working at 100 per cent.”

If there are mechanical weaknesses where a vertebra that is out of position is causing nerve irritation, the brain (via the nervous system) will not be able to successfully send vital messages to the joints and muscles, in Mills’s case her hip. The result is reduced strength and reflexes, which ultimately leads to poor performance. Problems further down the legs can also occur since lots of muscles are attached to the pelvis, including the hamstrings and quadriceps, so any rotation or misalignment in this area will affect the tension and tightness of the muscles, and irritate the nerves in the area that supply the muscles.

Once Leach had identified Mills’s slipped disc, she set out to gently adjust the vertebrae to take the pressure off the nerve supplying the hip. Mills is delighted with the results: “I’m training to run a marathon and have been increasing my weekly mileage to about 40 miles with no leg pain,” she says.

Case Study Two

Rob Watts had been running for more than 12 years before an old back injury he’d sustained playing cricket as a teenager resurfaced. Like many runners with back problems, the first symptoms he noticed were in his legs. “Initially I didn’t think it was my back because I was having problems down my hamstrings, even down into my knee,” he says. “The initial tightness I felt in my legs turned to pain and I was forced to visit an osteopath. He told me that the pain in my legs was caused by two joints in my lower back locking up.”

Andrew Harwich, Watts’s osteopath, explains his condition: “It’s not quite a dislocation, but the joints do get knocked out of place,” he says. “This leads to the muscles around the joints becoming strained and tense and this tension moves down into Watts’s buttocks and hamstrings, and even down into the calf and ankle.”

This leg pain caused by tension in his back has sometimes prevented Watts from training: “It’s the pain from my thighs to my ankle that stops me running. If I keep running, the soft tissue becomes bruised and in some cases torn, which normally means six weeks out,” he says.

After several years of six-monthly treatments, Watts knows when he is susceptible to aggravating his back, and how to avoid it. “It tends to happen more in the winter when I’m running on uneven ground. If my foot lands awkwardly, it can be enough to click the joints out of place, especially if the muscles and ligaments are cold and not particularly pliable. I know that if I’m stretching properly I’m less likely to have problems.”

Watts is managing to average 40 miles a week as he trains for an autumn marathon, hoping to beat his PB of 2:42, but he’s still looking after his back by stretching it regularly with a routine Harwich has given him that aims to reduce the tension in his hamstrings, calves, shins and ankles. “The stretches do help, but I still need a clunk on the osteo’s table every now and then to sort it out,” he says.

 

Backs: to the future. (Real-life solutions)