Struggling with back pain? Expert shares tips that professional athletes get

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Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Dr. Robert Klapper says to stop using treadmill as way to improve back
Dr. Robert Klapper has coined the term "agercise," meaning people who are 25 years old can go out and run a marathon and be fine, whereas a 55-year-old would be most likely better off walking a half hour in the pool.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Dr. Robert Klapper, an orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, has a surprising message for his patients experiencing back problems: "Stop exercising, you're killing yourself."

Klapper, who has performed surgery on pro athletes and Hollywood stars, as well as the average weekend warrior, said that for keeping your back in good condition, it's important to not just exercise, but to do the types of exercise that will improve your back condition instead of injuring it further.

For example: Professional golfers often experience back injuries because the act of swinging a club is inherently damaging to the spine.

"It's not like, 'Well, if I had a better swing, I wouldn't have these back problems," said Klapper. "No, it's the sport itself."

The back is like a stack of Oreo cookies, Klapper said, because the spine needs to be balanced. The paraspinal muscles keep the spine intact, but when people get older, or more fatigued and less flexible, the spine's support system begins to decay, causing discs in the spine - the filling of the Oreo cookie - to loosen and pinch or damage a nerve.

When people have an injury like a herniated disc, which causes both back pain and weakness in the leg, that is because the injury started in the spine but radiated down to the rest of the body, Klapper said.

"The disc, or the Oreo filling, irritating the nerve causes you to say 'My toe is numb,'" Klapper said.

To properly strengthen your back, Klapper said his favorite type of exercise is in the water. Not just swimming, but also walking in the water is beneficial.

"The weightlessness of being in the water. The resistance of trying to walk through the water. Straining the muscles in a way without injuring the joint itself," said Klapper.

Along with pool exercises, Klapper said he tells patients with back problems to bike ride, use the elliptical machine and cross train as a way to improve their spinal muscles. Back patients should avoid lifting weights, squats, stair machines and treadmills.

At the end of the day, Klapper said, back health is not about exercise, but instead "agercise." A 55-year-old is not going to be able to do the same kind of exercise as a 25-year-old.

"You have to recognize the art of medicine," said Klapper. "For me, as a surgeon for 33 years is, (the question is) who is my audience?"