WASHINGTON — The Olympics bring together the world’s best athletes every two years to compete on the international stage. And while we marvel at sprinters’ powerful thighs or butterflyers’ massive shoulders, there is one crucial component to every Olympic body that largely goes ignored until it fails and knocks someone out of competition: the back.
Mark Alexander knows this only too well. As a former athlete, he experienced some fairly severe back pain back in 2001 and 2002. As the physiotherapist — similar to an American physical therapist — for the Australian Olympic Triathlon Team, he’s worked hands-on with elite athletes enough to know that they often suffer many of the same back issues as your average office worker.
Lower back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, and Americans spend at least $50 million a year on back pain. But most of that is at the doctor’s office. After the appointment, patients are often sent home with instructions to just use a tennis ball, golf ball, rolling pin or some other substitute that didn’t achieve the same result as the tools used in therapy.
That’s why Alexander developed BakBalls, a portable self-treatment device designed to relieve back pain and stiffness, and improve posture. He created a device to be used by patients between rounds of therapy to help reinforce good habits and strengthen key areas of their backs.
“There was nothing on the market that was a professional product,” said Alexander. “Nothing was replicating the same sensation.”
BakBalls can be used in a sitting position, between a person’s back and his chair, to help support and improve posture, preventing slouching. They can be used on the floor to at the top of the spine or neck area, as well as on legs and feet, helping release tightness.
Alexander said he believes not simply in treating the symptoms once they occur, though. He also is an advocate for trying to root people out of inactivity, which can contribute heavily to weakening backs, even in the athletes seen on TV.
“The main issue is that our lifestyle is so sedentary,” Alexander said. “Even the life of an elite athlete is still very sedentary.”
What he means is that outside of the hours of training, even athletes spend much of their time sitting. This causes a weakening of the stability muscles that help keep us upright, including those in the lower back.
For regular folks, the combination of lack of exercise, prolonged sitting and poor posture can create a slow-motion disaster. Alexander compares it to a bucket with a very small leak in it, one that you don’t notice until it’s suddenly empty.
As for athletes, there’s often plenty of attention paid to developing specific muscle groups inherent to each sport, while the back often goes overlooked.
“Most teams are still heavily focused on the strength component, not focused on stability in the abs and back,” Alexander added.
But some teams have already caught on and invested. Both the athletic program at Army West Point and the St. Louis Cardinals use Alexander’s product, the latter for the past couple seasons. That allows them to manage issues as they arise among the players, without having to resort to physical therapy treatment, all while trying to instill better habits moving forward.
“You can get a hundred treatments a year,” said Alexander. “But if the cause is still there, you’re not going to get better.”