By Max W. Cohen, MD, FAAOS, of Spine & Scoliosis Specialists

As the weather heats up across the country, so does everyone’s physical activity and in turn, so do the chances for neck and back injury. Here are important tips about how to stay safe and healthy—prevent the risks for spine injuries—while being active this summer.

Dangerous Waters—Diving and Water Skiing

Diving into shallow water can result in devastating and irreversible injuries to the spinal cord.

Spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord, a bundle of nerves that runs down the back from the base of the brain to the waist, is damaged or severed by trauma. This can occur during a dive into shallow water if the diver’s head strikes the bottom, causing the vertebrae that encircle the spinal cord to collapse. If the spinal cord is damaged and is unable to transmit nerve impulses to and from the brain, paralysis occurs.

When the entire weight of one’s body is hits the bottom of a pool or rock, the force transmitted to the cervical spine is incredible. Consider that most of these accidents occur in water that is less than 3 feet deep, and you see why the result is often severe damage to the spinal cord.

These accidents, which are completely preventable, leave an individual dependent on machines for the rest of his or her life. As many as one of every 10 injuries to the cervical spinal cord is caused by a diving accident, and victims are predominantly male.

Water-skiing is another water sport that can cause spine injuries, more specifically an axial loading injury such as a compression fracture. Due to the high speed of water skiing, any fall can lead to an injury to the spine if it occurs at an awkward angle. As such, more experienced water skiers will try to fall in a rolling fashion, therefore, avoiding direct or axial loading (top loading) of the spine. To stay safe on the skis, we recommend slowly building up confidence and expertise before trying more advanced maneuvers. It is also important to establish good communication signals with the boat driver before getting into the water, so he know when it is time to slow down.

Safety on the Golf Course

Whether you’re a once-a-month golfer or one who hits balls every day, there is a good chance you’ve experienced some kind of discomfort in your low back as a result of swinging a club. 

A host of tour players including Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods have complained of back pain this season, even missing tournament play because of it. Indeed, research has consistently identified low back injuries as the most common injury affecting golfers. Most seem to agree that the rapid and intense shear, rotational and lateral forces placed on the lumbar spine (low back) as a result of the golf swing are in some way responsible.

Maintaining proper muscle balance through the core develops stability in the back. This process helps us to avoid disc herniation, a debilitating disorder that affects many golfers, both professional and amateur. Strong core muscles provide the support that prevents the vertebral tissue from becoming irritated by rotation that affects alignment. The back muscles are either, poorly trained or highly inactive during your swing. Consistent abuse leads to wear and tear injuries that could be prevented with proper exercise.

Working in the Garden

On a warm, sunny summer morning, you bound out of the house, eager to get busy digging, planting, weeding, and taking all the other steps to keeping your garden going. All day you keep at it, standing, stooping, leaning, kneeling, and crouching. The next morning, every muscle aches and you need time to recover before you can even think about gardening again.

The ligaments that line the back of the spine overstretch a bit when we round forward for long periods of time, like when weeding. This means you want to work in a fl at or neutral back as much as possible, which means sticking out your butt. Every time you bend forward, whether you’re on your knees or feet, hinge at your hip joint and do not round your back. It helps to think of your torso as a solid unit rather than an articulating spine. Remember to lift with your legs, not your back.

Max W. Cohen, MD, FAAOS, the founding physician of Spine & Scoliosis Specialists, is the only doctor in the Triad with double fellowship training in spine and scoliosis surgery. He has treated tens of thousands of patients and performed thousands of surgeries since he began practicing in 2002. He completed his training at Cornell University’s prestigious Hospital for Special Surgery, the top-ranked orthopaedics hospital in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report.