Last year alone I saw several patients with lower back pain associated with kayaking, especially during the summer months. They ranged in age from 20-66 and included both men and women. With its increasing popularity, kayak fishing is performed almost year round and at all times of the day and even night.
Three things inherent in kayaking can potentially cause lower back problems. One is the prolonged sitting posture, especially if it is in a flexed or slumped position, another is inappropriate and repetitive spine rotation used during poor paddling technique, and a third is lifting the kayak awkwardly, whether off of a vehicle or during portage. In addition, human lumbar discs are stiffer and more hydraulic for 1 to 1-1/2 hours upon arising, being extremely vulnerable to bending and lifting forces. Therefore, kayaking first thing in the morning without loosening up can put us at risk for injury.
Sitting for more than 15 –20 minutes is all it takes for the discs and ligaments of the lower back to ‘creep’ or stretch into a stiff and potentially painful situation. The flexed or slumped position hastens this phenomenon. I have even seen kayakers slump poorly up against seats that were installed to keep them comfortably upright, thus defeating the purpose of having the seat back at all. Three things can be done to offset the creep phenomenon. The goal is to not allow the lower back to stiffen after the critical 15-20 minute period.
This can easily accomplished while even sitting in the kayak.
First, simply rock your pelvis back and forth while sitting upright in your seat. You are actually trying to sit up very straight by arching your lower back inward (sticking your belly out) followed by relaxing into your seat slightly causing a back and forth rocking motion.
Second, place your hands on the sides of the yak and by straightening your arms, lift your butte off the seat, like your were in the up position of doing triceps dips. Try to relax your lower back and trunk in this position, letting gravity traction your lower spine. If you now tilt or swing your pelvis forwards and especially backwards 8-10 times, you will reduce the ligament stiffening in the back further.
The third thing is to simply get out of the yak periodically when feasible. Some yaks like mine are so stable that you can kneel or even stand momentarily while on the water to stretch your back. As far as prevention, before getting into your yak, it is a good idea to do some effective lower back stretches.
Let’s face it, most of us are in the car for several minutes to an hour or so getting to a launch site. Most likely you have already surpassed the critical 15-20 minute ‘creep’ time while driving. The last thing you want to do is sit in a yak for an hour or two without stretching first.
Before sitting in your yak, simple stand with your hands on the lower back, palms down, and bend backwards 8-10 times. Your back may ache locally and feel stiff at first, but that is alright. Your back should loosen up after several repetitions. However, if you experience sharp lower back pain and leg pain when doing this, obviously stop because you have just identified a problem. Sitting in the yak may not be the right thing to do at this time.
Poor paddling technique can cause too much and too vigorous of a spine rotational motion. The lumbar spine is not built for rotation, however, any rotation that is done, must be performed through an upright and stabilized position to prevent injury. It is assumed that the reader understands proper paddle grip and paddling technique.
However, the specifics of spine stabilization during the stroke will be emphasized below. Successful form entails leg action pushing into the foot wells, a lower back ‘bracing technique, and contraction of the latissimus muscles. Too much reliance on the arms and shoulders results in rotator cuff injury, tendonitis, and pain.
A proper paddling technique employs the whole trunk and is powered by the ‘lats’ (the latissmus dorsi, or lats, gives the broad appearance to the back), the legs, and trunk rotation. The lats are the large muscles on each side that go from the upper arm and attach all the way down to the lower back and pelvic. To protect the back, the lumbar spine must be upright and not slumped. The lumbar spine is stabilized or ‘braced’ by tightening the abdominal muscles lightly.
Essentially the abdominals are contracted as if you were getting ready to brace yourself for a punch to the belly. With the spine held upright and ‘braced’ reach with your paddle and place it in the water as close to the yak as possible. Bend through your hips, not at the waist. This is performed as if you were trying to stick your butte out slightly as you reach. Your spine should be straight from your tailbone to the base of your skull. Turn slightly with your trunk to aid in the reach of your paddle. You are actually pivoting on your butt due to the opposite leg pushing into the foot well.
However, this turning must be done in the upright position. With your arm straight, the power of the stroke comes from your lats contracting to stabilize your arm as you push with the same leg and foot into the foot well. This pivots your pelvis on your butte. It is the turning motion of your trunk that pulls the paddle through the water, not solely the pull of your arm. Your arm pulls the paddle through the stroke just until the blade is opposite your hip before you lift it out of the water. If you have pivoted correctly, you are now in a position to repeat this process on the other side. ;; During the entire time, your spine is held straight, braced, and spine rotation is kept to a minimum because you are actually pivoting slightly on your butte due to leg action. This is a fairly basic paddling technique. However, the use of a proper upright spine posture and a gentle lower back bracing maneuver during the stroke will help safely channel harmful torque forces through a stabilized lumbar spine.
As far as lifting your yak, it’s not so much removing it from a vehicle that is a problem as it is bending over it to put it down or lift it up. Setting up seats and equipment while bending over the yak for several minutes also places your back in a vulnerable position. Again, bending should be done with a straight and stabilized lower back. The same bracing maneuver with abdominal contraction (explained above) should be done as you bend over through your hips, not your waist. You are essentially sticking your butte out as you bend over. The lower you bend, the more you try to stick you butte out.
Finally, prevention is a key to any problem, especially when we are talking about the lower back. I make it a point to teach my patients self-treatments and exercises designed to keep them out of my office and on the water having fun. For kayakers especially, they should train strength and endurance in there lats, trunk muscles (‘core’), abdominals, and legs. That’s a topic for a whole other article. Happy paddling.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.