As a young committed female bodybuilder, my fitness journey has been a cornerstone of strength and determination. Yet, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of unprecedented challenges, where no aspect of my athletic pursuit was left untouched. Beyond the well-documented respiratory symptoms, I, like countless others, grappled with the unexpected emergence of musculoskeletal issues, including the persistent specter of back pain.
In this article, I aim to provide a holistic perspective on the intricate relationship between COVID-19, the perilous cytokine storms, and post-COVID back pain and arthralgias. Moreover, I will delve into the deeply firsthand experiences of grappling with post-COVID back pain, its limitations, and the arduous yet inspiring journey of getting back into the gym. As part of this comprehensive exploration, we will also explore the role of anti-inflammatory foods in supporting recovery and maintaining peak performance.
Post Covid Back Pain and the Unraveling of Inflammation
Understanding back pain's multifaceted nature has always been vital for bodybuilders. It can stem from muscle strains, overexertion, or even an overly zealous workout regimen. But what has emerged as particularly intriguing is the profound influence of inflammation on the intensity and persistence of back pain. Inflammation, the body's natural response to injury or infection, plays a pivotal role in the development and exacerbation of back pain.
Given the growing evidence of COVID-19's ability to induce inflammation, grasping the intricate connections between the virus, inflammation, and its effects on our backs has become an imperative part of our athletic journeys.
Such profound residual inflammatory effects have caused scientists to research other inflammatory diseases including, but not limited to: Rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, hepatitis, HIV, Epstein Barr, and even untreated bacterial infections such as Lyme’s disease. All these disease processes can also contribute to post-illness related back pain.
COVID-19, Cytokine Storms, and Musculoskeletal Symptoms
The COVID-19 pandemic imposed a relentless array of challenges on athletes, and like me, many have been unprepared for the virus's impact on our bodies. Beyond the realm of respiratory distress, a haunting range of musculoskeletal symptoms has been a shared experience. For those who have faced the perilous cytokine storms—a hyperactive immune response to the virus—the consequences have been pronounced.
The cytokine storm unleashes a torrent of proinflammatory molecules, including interleukins and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), potentially affecting not just our health but our back muscles, ligaments, and joints. Even in cases with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19, the remnants of this immunological tempest can manifest as persistent joint pain, muscle aches, and the dreaded back pain. This back pain can last weeks, sometimes months, due to these lingering inflammatory molecules stemming from covid.
Understanding this intricate connection between COVID-19, cytokine storms, and the musculoskeletal system has become an unwelcome yet integral facet of our athletic experiences. Unforeseen side pain: It is important to note that side pain radiating to the back may be related to a separate condition called costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs. Costochondritis often occurs due to the strain of persistent coughing often seen with covid symptoms. Although painful, this type of inflammation is treated with rest, anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS or CBD), and splinting the affected area when coughing.
Personal Experiences with Post-COVID Back Pain Limitations
As a bodybuilder, resilience is at the core of our pursuits. Yet, the journey through the aftermath of COVID-19 and post-COVID back pain introduced a unique set of limitations. The firsthand experiences of fellow athletes are a testament to the resilience we embody.
Megan, a fellow bodybuilder and runner, contracted COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic. Her once-vigorous workouts were replaced by the torment of back pain. Simple tasks like picking up weights or maintaining proper form became excruciating moments in the gym. Running became unbearable in the weeks to come due to shortness of breath, side pain, and back pain. However, her dedication to her fitness journey was unwavering, but post-COVID back pain presented a daunting hurdle.
For Arnold (and yes, his name is actually Arnold), an American war hero and seasoned bodybuilder accustomed to heavy lifting, post-COVID back pain was a formidable adversary. His struggles with the simplest of exercises, such as deadlifts and squats, were disheartening. The pain that enveloped his back seemed insurmountable causing mental health issues including both depression and anxiety for weeks to come.
My Personal Challenge
I, too, faced my share of post-COVID back pain limitations. The once-fluid movements during workouts became rigid and painful. The weights I could once lift with ease now seemed unattainable.
The psychological toll of confronting physical limitations challenged my commitment to bodybuilding and contributed to depression, anxiety, and profound insomnia. The combined mental and physical post-covid effects proved to be far more challenging than even my earlier grueling marathon training as the pain and residual effects seemed relentless.
Returning to the Gym: A Journey of Resilience
For bodybuilders and athletes, the gym is a sacred space—a realm where we push our limits, sculpt our bodies, and define our identities. Yet, the return to the gym after battling COVID-19 and wrestling with post-COVID back pain is a journey marked by resilience and determination.
The journey back to the gym was a slow and gradual process. Initially, it involved gentle movements, stretching, and mobility exercises aimed at easing back into regular training routines. The author James Clear said it best in his book Atomic Habits, that the key to developing a habit can sometimes simply begin with showing up daily. For most suffering from post-covid back pain, the key was simply showing up at the gym and giving our best, stretching and moving forward gently through pain.
Consulting Experts and Embracing Adaptation
For some, seeking guidance from healthcare professionals and physical therapists was a crucial step. Their expertise helped in crafting customized rehabilitation plans tailored to our specific needs. Detailed stretches and modified movements such as switching from heavy weights to resistant bands allowed for active rest in the recovery process. Embracing adaptability became a cornerstone of our gym journeys. We modified exercises, reduced weights, and focused on form to prevent further injury.
Psychological Resilience: Overcoming the psychological hurdles posed by post-COVID limitations was equally crucial. Many of us sought support from mental health professionals to navigate the emotional toll of physical setbacks.
Incorporating Anti-Inflammatory Foods
While the journey of recovery and return to the gym is marked by personal resilience, the role of nutrition often goes underestimated. Proper nutrition can play a vital role in managing inflammation and supporting overall health. Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into our diets is a proactive step toward reducing inflammation and promoting recovery:
*Turmeric: This vibrant spice contains curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory compound. Whether added to dishes or consumed as a supplement, turmeric can help reduce inflammation.
*Fatty Fish: Omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. These healthy fats support joint health and help reduce post-COVID arthralgias.
*Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, and other berries are rich in antioxidants that combat inflammation. They can be incorporated into smoothies, yogurt, or enjoyed as snacks.
*Leafy Greens: Kale, spinach, and other leafy greens are packed with vitamins and antioxidants that reduce inflammation. Including these greens in salads or smoothies can promote overall health.
*Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are high in healthy fats and fiber, which have anti-inflammatory properties. They make for excellent additions to our diets as bodybuilders.
*Ginger: Like turmeric, ginger contains compounds with anti-inflammatory effects. Incorporating ginger into teas or recipes can be a delicious way to reduce inflammation.
Treatments for Post-COVID Back Pain
The journey through post-COVID back pain is multifaceted, and treatment approaches must be equally comprehensive. For athletes and bodybuilders, alleviating pain and regaining physical function is paramount. Here, we explore a range of treatments that encompass both conventional and holistic approaches, as well as the potential role of CBD in managing post-COVID back pain.
Conventional Medical Treatments
In some cases, healthcare providers may recommend medications to manage pain and inflammation. These medications can include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or, in more severe cases, prescription pain relievers. It is essential to work closely with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate medication for your specific situation.
Physical therapy plays a pivotal role in post-COVID back pain recovery. Skilled physical therapists can design tailored exercise programs to strengthen the back, improve flexibility, and address muscular imbalances. These programs can help rebuild strength and function.
For individuals with severe back pain and inflammation, epidural steroid injections may be considered. These injections deliver steroids directly to the affected area, providing targeted relief. They are typically administered by pain management specialists.
In rare cases where conservative treatments prove ineffective, surgical intervention may be necessary. Surgical options may include procedures to address herniated discs or other structural issues contributing to back pain. Surgical decisions should always be made in consultation with medical professionals.
Holistic and Alternative Approaches for Post-Covid Back Pain
Chiropractors specialize in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal disorders, including back pain. Spinal adjustments, manual therapies, and lifestyle recommendations are typical components of chiropractic care.
This therapy involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to alleviate pain and promote healing. Many individuals find relief from back pain through repeated acupuncture sessions. This therapy is often combined with essential oils and has offered both pain relief and mental relaxation for some.
Massage can help relax muscles, improve circulation, and reduce muscle tension associated with back pain. Skilled massage therapists can tailor treatments to address specific needs such as inflammatory healing through increased lymph node drainage. Self massage utilizing the QL claw is a great way to alleviate muscle tension in the comfort of your home or gym.
Yoga and Pilates
These mind-body practices emphasize flexibility, core strength, and proper alignment. Regular practice of yoga and Pilates can improve back health and reduce the risk of pain recurrence. The minimal impact of both yoga and Pilates on muscles can provide an alternative to heavy weights in the gym.
CBD and Alternative Therapies for Post-Covid Back Pain
CBD has gained attention for its potential to alleviate pain and inflammation. It interacts with the endocannabinoid system in the body, which plays a role in pain regulation. Some individuals have reported relief from post-COVID back pain using CBD products such as topical creams, oils, or capsules. It is a great adjunct or alternative to the use of acetaminophen and NSAIDs for pain relief. (Read for more info on CBD dosage chart.)
Megan’s Experience with CBD
Megan, a fellow bodybuilder, incorporated CBD oil into her post-COVID recovery regimen. She found that CBD helped manage her back pain, particularly when used in conjunction with physical therapy and other holistic approaches. However, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider before using CBD to ensure it is suitable for your specific needs.
Meditation and Stress Reduction
Chronic pain often goes together with stress and anxiety. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation can help manage stress levels and reduce the perception of pain. Meditation is often overlooked on the road to recovery from inflammation. Taking ten minutes a day in quiet meditation has been shown to improve stress levels by reducing blood cortisol levels in the body. It also has been shown to activate a relaxation response in the body known as the parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts the “fight or flight” response, leading to relaxation in the body, lowered heart rate, and reduced blood pressure. Meditation can also directly reduce inflammation by having a profound effect on the reduction of inflammatory markers. It enhances emotional regulation, boosts immune function, and enhances overall well-being. It can be a cornerstone in an integrated approach to treating post covid back pain.
Certain dietary supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, have been studied for their potential to support joint health. Consult with a healthcare provider before incorporating supplements into your regimen.
Moving Forward with Resilience
The journey through post-COVID back pain can be daunting, but it is one marked by resilience, determination, and adaptability. As athletes and bodybuilders, we are no strangers to overcoming challenges. The amalgamation of conventional medical treatments, holistic approaches, and potential use of CBD offers a multifaceted approach to pain management and recovery.
It is essential to remember that every individual's experience with post-COVID back pain is unique. What works for one person may not work for another. Therefore, it is crucial to work closely with healthcare professionals who can provide personalized guidance and monitor your progress. As we continue to adapt and persevere, we find strength in the collective experiences of athletes and individuals worldwide. Our resilience serves as a testament to the human spirit, and together, we navigate the path towards healing, recovery, and returning to the gym with renewed vigor.