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How to Prevent Back Problems and Spinal Injuries with Natural Movement

By Dr. Jenny Ploss, Level 2 MovNat Certified Trainer

If you want a strong, healthy spine that endures as you live a full, independent life, you need to move the way you’re meant to.

The spine has several jobs: (a) to protect our spinal cord and (b) provide postural support WHILE (c) absorbing force as we move in varied ways. The best way to prevent injury is to move in natural ways, prevent falls, and practice safe lifting techniques. MovNat is the first practice I’ve found which includes all of this, and in a fun, creative, and motivating way. As a physical therapist, I have worked to find exercises which translate to the real world, and which are motivating and fun. Many physical therapists in my clinic have become MovNat certified in order to embed MovNat in our PT practice, with incredible results.

Let’s begin with an overview of how the spine works and what it does. Then we’ll cover some of the best ways to prevent spinal injuries with Natural Movement.

Spine structure and function

The spine is made up of a series of stacked vertebrae from the neck to the tailbone. It connects the head to the pelvis, and allows connections to the arms and legs. Between each set of vertebra is an intervertebral disc, which is like a cushion and spacer, allowing the vertebrae more movement, and absorbing some force. The spine has a natural curvature to it, with the neck and low back arched backward, and the thoracic spine (where the ribs are) rounded forward.

Postural support: The purpose of our bodies is really to interact with our world. Our hands are built to feel and manipulate, our eyes are built to see, our mouths are made to taste and communicate. That is no different for the spine! The structure of our spine allows us to stand and sit up straight, and allows us to walk on two legs so we can navigate our world. When combined with our rib cage, our pelvis, our limbs and all of our muscles, the spine allows us to keep our head upright in many different postures and through all kinds of movements so that we can see and interact with our surroundings.

Force absorption and transmission: The spine has a curve to it which acts like a spring (if the spine was straight, it would be rigid it would not be able to compress and extend in order to absorb forces. The thing is, our whole body is made to work together to absorb the forces we experience – our feet, ankles, knees, hips, and spine work together to absorb force as we jump, lift, and even walk! In addition to absorbing force, the spine is the connection between our arms and legs, so it transmits force from one to the other – we use this when we use our legs to produce force to swing a golf club, lift a heavy object, or throw a ball.

Spinal cord protection: The bones of our spine (the vertebrae) are formed to surround and protect our spinal cord, which is the cord of nerves that brings sensory information in from our world, and sends movement and response information out to our muscles. The best way to protect your spinal cord is to use seat belts and helmets, and to practice fall prevention.

Allows for varied movements: The spine is a wondrous thing, allowing us to observe and interact with our world in so many directions. Our spine can bend forward and backward, rotate, and bend to the side. This is why it is made of so many bones and joints, rather than just one or two (can you imagine if our backs only had one joint, like a knee?!). More importantly, it can allow for a combination of these movements, making it possible to adapt to a myriad different positions.

Because the spine must allow for movement while absorbing and transmitting forces AND protecting our vital organs (our nerves), we must take care of it! Natural movement addresses each of these requirements, and translates to the demands of the world in which we live. Through Natural Movement, we gain mobility, balance, coordination, and strength – AND we can use the skills we gain through training to interact with our world in a meaningful way.

5 Keys to injury prevention, the MovNat way

Now that we know what the spine does for us, I’ll talk about some of my favorite MovNat skills for injury prevention. Please keep in mind that I really do incorporate all of the Natural Movement skills in order to meet the abilities of all of my patients; not just these favorites listed here.

1. Move often and in varied ways and directions.

Perhaps my favorite thing about MovNat is its inherent emphasis on varied movements and postures. For the spine, this means that ALL of our joints (including our spine – it should move in MANY directions!) move and we work on stability and postural support through a wide range of positions so that your body is prepared when you come across a similar movement in your regular life. I can’t really list the skills for this one, because it is literally ALL OF THEM. So, the key is to just move in as many different ways as you can, all the time! MovNat is an excellent way to do this since Natural Movement incorporates the full range of natural human movements into each program.

Favorite Skills:

Information overload? Start with our MovNat Beginner’s Guide.

2. Joint mobility and movement stability

When our joints get stiff, we are more likely to feel irritation and pain. This is because when we work at the end of our range of motion, we cause irritation (no matter how mobile you are). If our joints have less motion, then we work near that end range more often, creating irritation and pain more easily. Working gently and consistently on your joint mobility for your whole body can reduce the amount of time you spend near “end range”, preventing a lot of stiffness and pain.

Favorite Skills:

 

3. Spine mobility

Our spine SHOULD MOVE in varied ways. To protect our spine, we must make sure that we still have motion available. The spine is simply a series of joints, and those joints feel better  and are less prone to injury when they have full range of motion available. MovNat ground movements, in general, are amazing at getting into and progressing toward full spinal mobility. I also add in the Tripod Vault progression to show that we need a rounded spine in order to step onto a higher obstacle – that also translates to tying your shoe (try tying your shoe with a straight back, without crossing your ankle over your opposite knee)!

Favorite Skills:

4. Coordination and fall prevention

The most common way to injure your back, other than repetitive motions or positions, is to fall. This is especially true as we get older. Adding varied activities that challenge our balance and coordination can really help reduce our risk of falling as we age.

For balance, you can see the obvious one here – the Balance Series. But did you know that vaulting and throwing also challenge our balance and coordination in ways that translate to reduced falls? These two progressions force us to get into positions that are very different than those we are in most of the time. This extra challenge trains the brain and body to respond better to new and surprising balance challenges.

The other component of fall prevention is coordination. Honestly, the entire MovNat skill set challenges and improves coordination. MovNat teaches skills through the Formation of Technique: posture and breathing, tension and relaxation, sequence and timing. Altogether, these create coordination. Thus, coordination is really inherent throughout each movement domain. However, my favorite exercises to work on coordination for fall prevention are the walk/run progression and the rolling progression.

As we get older, we often stop swinging our arms when we walk, and we tend to walk with smaller, more rigid steps. The MovNat walking progression really emphasizes fluidity of movement, and works toward a “whole body walk”–using your entire body to coordinate a simple, common movement.

The running progression gets us to move faster (as does jumping, if your knees, hips and ankles can tolerate it!). The faster we are used to moving, the more likely we are to catch ourselves if we trip or stumble.

Lastly, I actually work on falling with my injury prevention classes. There will come a time when you don’t catch yourself when you stumble, and if you’ve practiced rolling, you are more likely to absorb the force of the fall by curling up and rolling. I hated rolling at first – it made me nauseated. But working through that, with compassion and patience, also helps train your vestibular (balance) system, which in turn helps with balance. Everyone should practice falling in a safe environment, so that we are ready if you fall in the real world.

Favorite Skills:

5. Safe lifting: The Lifting and Carrying Progressions

This one is pretty standard, and, honestly, is the thing most people already come to PT knowing. However, most people don’t practice safe lifting. They practice heavy lifting. For some of us, heavy lifting is part of what we love to do for fitness. But I hate lifting. I didn’t find any fun in it, even though I knew I should do it for my back.

MovNat lifting progressions are different, though. The emphasis is on the real-world applications of lifting, which make it more fun and motivating. You can work up to heavier objects (even adults), but you can also stick with light to moderate weights. We all have to lift at some point – we lift the dog food, lift and carry groceries, lift and carry our children, and (hopefully we don’t have to do this) lift and carry someone who is injured. The more prepared we are for these life demands, the less likely we are to get hurt when they arise.

One last thing to remember about lifting is that core strength is required for safe lifting, and for pretty much every other movement we do, especially if that movement is more demanding (faster, unexpected, heavier, or more complex). Core strength, as a physical therapy term, is NOT related to 6-pack abs. Core strength is the ability to use your core muscles (all the muscles of your abdomen, back, shoulders, and hips) to coordinate movement. Because of this, isolated (and I think boring) ab exercises are less effective than integrated core training, using natural, complex movements.

MovNat provides a framework which allows for a progressive challenge to our core strength. We use these progressions with all of our clients, from the most fit and capable to those who are just starting to work back toward movement and living a more independent life.

Conclusion

MovNat protects your spine by improving mobility, strength and coordination in your entire body through a movement framework which will carry over to all aspects of your life (e.g. the way you sit, the way you walk, and the way you navigate obstacles). A consistent MovNat practice reduces your risk of injury and increases longevity (the amount of time you live a higher quality of life) in a safe, progressive manner.

The most powerful injury-prevention aspect of MovNat is that it prepares your body for unexpected movement demands which can result in injury. For example, if you do lose your balance, you’ll have even more skill to regain it, or to fall well if necessary. And when you have to lift something heavy or awkward, you’ll have the skill and practice to do it safely. Plus, your body will be more resilient from the improved conditioning you’ve acquired from your practice. And last but not least, the aggravation, pain, and deconditioning that results from sitting in one position all day can be relieved by incorporating varied sitting positions, transitions, and other natural movements (e.g. I work on the ground for much of my day, with my computer on a low table).

The key is to start with the basics, restore your foundation of movement in all the different movement domains, and keep striving to progress during your practice sessions and everyday life.

About the Author

Dr. Jenny Ploss, PT, DPT, Level 2 MCT

Dr. Jenny Ploss, PT, DPT, OCS is a Level 2 MovNat Certified Trainer, 6th grade science teacher, and part-time physical therapist at Langford Sports & Physical Therapy. She has a passion for “prehab”–helping people with injury prevention rather than just post-injury treatment. She is an accomplished rock climber who hosts regular injury-prevention clinics and helps train some of Albuquerque’s strongest climbers, with an emphasis on form and longevity.

Jenny loves teaching MovNat for older adults, with an emphasis on fun, progressive return to independence and the ability to explore our world again more safely and confidently. She approaches her own training and life with play and variety, and she brings that same attitude to her classes and clients.

Note: Jenny will be co-teaching the Women’s MovNat Certification in Albuquerque, NM this year at Langford Sports & Physical Therapy. CEUs for New Mexico PTs are pending.

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