Disc injuries are common in any sport that involves loading through our lower backs for example running, rowing and cycling. Without a balance between good posture and technique as well as good core strength and good mobility you are at risk of a disc injury.
Your intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers between your vertebrae - the load bearing bones of your spine. The discs also allow for movement to occur enabling your spine to be flexible as well as strong.
Intervertebral discs have two components in them. An outer layer of tough collagen and an inner transparent jelly called your Nucleus Pulposus. The nucleus has a high water component, which means that over night, when you sleep and your discs rehydrate they will swell - increasing the height of the disc. It is often why people will experience pain in the morning because the disc is larger.
Any disc protrusion (we'll get to a protrusion) will place more pressure on the nerves it is impacting. As gravity takes effect as well as movement and compression, water is pushed out of the disc (a normal process which occurs thoughout the day). There will be less pressure on the nerves in which any protrusion is pressing on and hence why you can start a rowing sessions feeling really stiff and as you start to warm up you feel a bit better.
Degeneration of a Disc
Degeneration of a disc is a normal process. Over time they undergo wear and tear. It is why if you scanned most people's lower backs over the age of 30, they'd have some level of disc degeneration. Since they are so common, Remedial Massage Therapists and allied health practitioners will take the results from scans with a 'grain fo salt,' if you aren't presenting with any symptoms. Obviously it is still very important to make sure you row with good technique, improve your core strength and mobility. The point is that disc degeneration is very common.
Rowing and Disc Injuries
Rowers are more susceptible to disc injuries because of the biomechanics of the sport.
Catch - If you do not have good posture anda strong core able to hold you in that position excessive load will be exerted onto disc. At the catch the boat is at it's heaviest which means you a MOST susceptible to injury.
Initial Drive Phase - Poor technique through the drive phase can lead to lower back injuries like disc protrusions and herniations (phases a the nucleus of your disc being pushed further and further out of the layers of collagen fibres). Making sure you drive with your gluts and have a strong core is essential to avoid injury.
Body Rock - Having good body rock is essential to prevent disc related injuries. Mobility of your hips allows your spine to stay in a neutral position as you come up the slide and take the catch. You spine is strongest when it is in that neutral position (A slight curve in your lower back).
Cross training - A lot of damage to rowers backs comes from poor technique in the gym. Ensuring you are engaging your core and gluts as well as using good technique is essential for injury prevention. It is why we recommend getting your gym program from a qualified strength coach or exercise physiologist.
Rigging - If your boat is rigged to heavy, your oars are too long it can increase the load that is placed on your lower back. If you do change your rigging or oar length - make sure you don't go too heavy too soon or do too higher intensity training session while you get used to the different load.
Ergos - There has been a lot of research into lower back injuries and ergos. Technique on the ergo is just as important, as on the water. Ensure the you don't stay on the ergo for longer than 30 mins at a time to decrease your risk of injury.
MASSAGE -Massage is a good way to help improve the ranges of motion you need to avoid lower back related injuries. Getting your remedial massage therapist to loosen through your gluts, QLs, quads, TFL, psoas, lats, and muscles of your thoracic spine can help to decrease your risk of lower back pain and disc related injuries.
TECHNIQUE - Chat to your coach about improvement you can make to your technique then chat to your remedial massage therapists who understands rowing. Often errors in your technique are due to mobility or strength related issues in your body. Improving your mobility and strength off the water can help to improve your technique on it. That is why it is so important to find health professionals who understand your sport.
TRAINING LOAD & RECOVER - Ensuring you have enough recovery time as well as slowly building up your training load is essential to avoid disc related injuries. Chat to your health professional or coach about modified training programs if you are are just beginning your rowing career or returning after a long period of time away from the sport.