Many officers actually create muscle imbalances, increase the risk of injury out on the street by training incorrectly.
FEATURED IN TRAINING
You have only a half-hour left on your shift when you get the call. You hit the lights and siren as you speed to the destination. The dull, chronic pain you ve felt in your lower back from sitting in the cruiser the past three hours leaves your mind as the adrenaline starts dumping into your bloodstream. You reach the scene, jump out of the vehicle, sprint and wrestle down the offender. Another arrest with a successful outcome. But a few minutes later, the familiar pain in your lower back returns, and this time it s much worse.
Scenarios like this are all too common in the law enforcement profession. Officers painfully go through their careers and into retirement with all types of joint pain: low-back, shoulder, knee, ankle, hip and neck, to name a few. In fact, the quality of life for police officers once they reach retirement is poor compared to the average population. I used to think living with pain was just a normal part of the job, says Brian Marvin, a recently retired, 30-year law enforcement veteran and lead instructor for Police Kinesiology Company.
Unfortunately, this is the mentality of many officers, but the truth is, pain comes with a high cost. Departments and agencies spend millions of dollars each year in worker compensation claims, and the quality-of-life issues for officers are substantial. The good news: There are things we can do to prevent and manage the pain, its debilitating effect on careers and the economic strain on departments and agencies.
The problem is our profession is resistant to change and new ideas that come from the outside. Once I realized there was science out there that could help me manage and eventually eliminate my pain, I welcomed that change, says Marvin. The same science that has helped thousands of professional athletes prevent and rehabilitate injuries is now being adapted for law enforcement. Recent advances over the past 10 years in the fields of kinesiology (the study of human movement), exercise science and sports performance training are changing the way athletes and other career fields approach job preparation and training.
So, Why Does It Hurt?
First, you must have a basic understanding of the physical requisites of the job. Job descriptions within law enforcement vary, but these are some of the most common activities for a majority of those out on patrol:
Quickly getting in and out of the cruiser;
Sprinting short distances;
Physically restraining offenders;
Pushing stalled vehicles;
Carrying heavy firearms;
Crawling through windows;
Climbing multiple flights of stairs;
Moving while wearing a vest and duty belt; and
Sitting and driving for extended periods of time.
These physical requisites of the job require adequate physical preparation. And although officers are getting hurt performing these tasks, they are not the root cause of the injuries and the subsequent pain that follows. In my own research and after speaking with hundreds of officers, I have found two main reasons that so many officers suffer from chronic pain: 1) a lack of physical preparation, and 2) the wrong kind of physical preparation.
A lack of physical training can cause muscle weaknesses, incorrect movement mechanics and eventual orthopedic injuries to the joints when performing basic job-related tasks. The use it or lose it principle applies here. A lack of physical training eventually brings about weakness in the muscles and connective tissue of the body. This makes an officer more susceptible to injury when a situation dictates the use of physical force or skills that require physical exertion. The muscles and connective tissue provide support to joints, and if they are not challenged regularly through physical training, they atrophy and grow weak. This compromises the entire stability of the joint complexes and structurally weakens the body. The problem is compounded when the officer must carry the additional weight of a duty belt and vest. This will commonly begin to manifest itself in the form of chronic pain in the knee, hip and low back.
The subsequent weakness can also have a very negative effect on the way an officer moves. Compensations in the way a person moves are directly related to muscle weakness. We ve seen officers who can t get up off the ground or stand upright from a seated position without severely compromising efficient movement skills. Even getting up out of the cruiser is a chore for many. This makes me wonder how the officer could utilize the defensive tactics or firearm-retention skills they ve learned if they were in a fight with a bad guy.
The wrong kind of physical training can prove just as problematic as a lack of physical training. Many officers, in a good-faith effort to physically prepare for the job, actually create muscle imbalances and increase the risk of injury out on the street by training incorrectly. Example: A patrol officer who spends a lot of time driving a cruiser can suffer from chronic shoulder pain due to the position of the officer s shoulders while holding onto the steering wheel during periods of prolonged sitting. This body position tends to round the back and bring the shoulders into a forward position. If the officer is performing a lot of bench pressing exercises and not performing exercises for the smaller muscles of the upper back and rotator cuff, a muscle imbalance will most likely occur. This imbalance will cause the muscles of the chest and shoulders to pull the shoulders forward to an even greater degree and weaken the muscles of the upper back. This will restrict shoulder mobility and increase the likelihood of shoulder injury when performing movements like reaching behind the seat for a firearm. Chronic shoulder pain now accompanies the officer while sitting and driving in the cruiser for long periods of time.
How Can You Manage & Prevent Pain?
I usually take a poll at the injury prevention courses I instruct and ask the officers, By a show of hands, how many here have had an on-duty or off-duty injury involving the low-back, shoulder, knee, ankle, hip, wrist or neck that required rehabilitation? A majority of the officers raise their hands. The second question I ask is, How many are still performing their rehabilitation exercises? Almost every time, the hands go down. Once a person has been injured, the chances of repeat injury to the same joint or muscle group is very high. The best way to prevent re-injury is to keep performing the rehabilitation exercises, but officers are just not doing them.
This is where the science comes in. Rehab exercises are not just for those who have had an injury. Strength and conditioning coaches who work with athletes know there s a high probability an athlete involved in a particular sport will get certain injuries. The same holds true for cops. Certain injuries tend to occur because of the physical requisites of the job. Officers can perform the rehabilitation exercises regardless of whether they have been previously injured as a way to prevent these common injuries. We call this type of training prehabilitation. Many of the same exercises performed to rehabilitate and strengthen an injured muscle group can prevent an injury.
In the sidebar Pre-habilitation Exercises (p. 44), you ll find some practical exercises that will help prevent many of the injuries associated with police work. The exercises are simple, yet very effective, and can be performed anywhere without any equipment.
Officers who understand the job requires adequate physical preparation don t have to endure a career or retirement filled with chronic pain.
A lack of physical training or the wrong kind of training can cause muscle weakness, incorrect movement mechanics and muscle imbalances, leading to eventual chronic pain and orthopedic injuries. Performing simple prehabilitation exercises two or three times a week can help prevent and minimize job-related injuries to the low-back, shoulder, knee, ankle, hip and neck. This will help improve an officer s job performance and quality of life, and reduce the economic drain on agencies and departments from high rates of workman s compensation claims.