How to Stay Injury Free in 2010
By Bryan Fass
It seems like we just had the holidays a few months ago, and now here they are again. That also means now is the perfect time to begin planning your New Year's resolutions. Since we have all made and seldom kept the majority of our resolutions over the years, I thought we should all focus on just one.
For 2010, let's make a resolution or set a goal to stay injury-free. Why injury-free, you may ask? Simple. If we can stay injury-free for an entire year, we have a lot of additional options for our health and wellness. In our chosen profession, there is rarely light duty, so to stay injury-free means that you aren't running calls when you have run out of sick time. To stay injury-free means that you have not had to use vacation time because you are hurt. We do not work in the corporate world, so once we sustain an injury, many of us cannot go back to work until we are healed. However, with 10 percent of our workforce consistently out to a secondary injury and almost 50 percent of our co-workers suffering an injury in the last six months (Crawford), it seems apparent that injury prevention is a pretty good goal to shoot for.
From a sports medicine and corrective exercise science perspective, I would focus on a few simple daily activities to reach our goal:
1) Stretch. It seems like an easy thing to do — especially with down time between calls — but rarely is it done. It is impossible to stay injury-free if your body is unable to move through an adequate range of motion. Focus specifically on the hip flexors, pirformis, hamstrings, chest and latissimus muscles. Hold all the stretches for 60 seconds. Doing the stretches sporadically throughout the shift will make them more effective. I have written many articles in this column that demonstrate proper stretch technique.
2) Do some fun exercises on duty. Yes, I said fun exercise. It really is possible. Bouncing a reaction ball or agility ball in the bay between calls is a fantastic way to incorporate agility, balance, direction change, and anaerobic conditioning into your daily routine. A Frisbee also makes a great toy and does the same thing as an agility ball. Jumping rope or walking between calls will drastically increase your fitness, help you lose weight, and make you feel better.
3) Spine stiffening. The amazingly simple act of stiffening your spine or bracing prior to lifting, moving, or transferring will drastically reduce your risk of injury. To learn this technique, place a broom stick or dowel rod on your back. Hold the top and bottom with each hand. Make sure that the back of your head, mid-back, and sacrum all contact the stick. With the three contact points maintained ,your feet shoulder-width apart, and toes straight, 'hinge' your hips backward and slightly bend your knees. Be sure your bottom moves back first and the knees bend second and only slightly. If you have done this correctly, your abdominal wall will have fired and contracted hard. Try to walk around while holding this position. It will amaze you how hard your abdominal wall and hips must contract. When you lift, move, or perform any job task, try to pre-fire your muscles just prior to the task. Endurance is the key to maintaining and mastering this technique. Reps do not matter, but time under tension does, so practice. The stick on your back is also a neutral posture, so to learning to work and exercise in neutral means your body is better prepared for the strange positions and tasks we are forced to work in.
The three simple solutions I have presented to stay injury-free are truly simple. None of your goals will be achieved if you do not make them a part of your life. When I worked on the ambulance, many partners would roll their eyes at me as I performed some simple stretches while on duty. I would sneak in a stretch or two here and there and by doing so, kept my body primed and ready for the next call. Any time I had to lift, move, transfer, or simply work, I would 'brace' my abs and 'stiffen' my spine just prior to the task. This also applies wonderfully to fire and police. The ability to keep your abs braced throughout a task will drastically reduce the load on your joints and help you maintain a stable base of support.
There are a lot of very fancy and mass marketed fitness programs out there, and many of them do have a fantastic following with public safety employees. I caution you that if these routines are something you have chosen to do, please learn the simple techniques I have outlined above. I have lost count of all the responders I have rehabilitated because they sustained an injury from some of these advanced routines. I do not care what your athletic abilities are; if you do not possess the ability to maintain a proper brace throughout an exercise while maintaining adequate posture, your chances of sustaining an injury are very high.
2010 is a new year. Approach your health and wellness from a different perspective. To be injury-free means to feel good and do your job safely and successfully. When you are able to achieve an injury-free state, fitness, wellness, nutrition, and exercise start to fall naturally into place. Please do not wait for an injury to occur before you realize the need. Staying a step ahead will pay major dividends throughout the year and your career.