photo of mourning doves

Perched atop a deer stand 15 feet up the tree, the 41-year-old construction worker squeezed off a rifle shot that wounded but failed to drop the buck. When the deer took off, the hunter clambered partway down the trunk and then jumped the final 5 feet. Bracing to land on solid ground, he first crashed through a thin layer of leaves and sticks. Because of that minor miscalculation, his leg muscles failed to cushion his spine from the impact. He felt a stabbing pain in his lower back, but in the excitement of the chase, the pain disappeared. He followed the blood trail nearly a mile through the Pennsylvania state game lands, and he finished off his buck with a shot to the heart.

At camp an hour later, his back started to stiffen. Sleeping on the cold, hard, uneven ground that night made the problem much worse. By the time he awoke the next morning, his back was so sore that he could hardly stand. With the help of his buddies, he managed to limp out of the woods to his car.

“When the patient came into the clinic the next day,” recalls physical therapist Brian Hagen, facility director at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Sports Medicine, “he was in very significant pain from acute lower back muscle spasm, which is the body’s way of ‘splinting’ itself to prevent further damage.” Hagen and the staff orthopedic doctors determined that the jump from the deer stand had essentially “jammed the sacroiliac joint,” which, in turn, damaged and inflamed the surrounding muscles and other soft tissues.

“We reassured him he wouldn’t need surgery,” says Hagen. Instead, Hagen suggested that the hunter come back after the acute spasm had a chance to calm down. During that interlude, he recommended alternating some light walking with rest, performing some gentle stretching exercises, and avoiding any bending and lifting.

When his patient returned, Hagen used electrical muscle stimulation to further calm the nerves causing the spasm. Then he performed a mobilization adjustment, akin to a chiropractic realignment, to restore motion, reduce pain, and allow the joint to move freely again. He showed the guy a series of exercises designed to correct imbalances, heal the damage, and help prevent future problems.

“Doctors used to recommend weeks, if not months, of bed rest for injuries like this,” says Hagen, “but there’s a ton of research now that shows that’s the worst thing you can do.” It’s true that you don’t want to push things too hard or too fast, but 95 percent of the time, the quicker you can get an injured person moving normally again, the better.

The strategy paid off. After only one week, the hunter was back at work. And after three weeks, he was completely pain free–and dedicated to keeping up with the prescribed exercises in preparation for the next year’s hunting season.

From a simple strain that leaves the lower back throbbing, to more severe injuries that can send lightning bolts of sciatica coursing down the legs, sportsmen are vulnerable to a cornucopia of spinal discomforts. Though there’s no data on hunting- or fishing-related back injuries, it’s been widely published that eight out of 10 men will suffer debilitating back pain at some point in their lives.

Hagen and other experts who treat back injuries in sportsman-heavy areas like western Pennsylvania attest that the outdoors–its irregular and slick terrain; the rigors of dragging a 150-pound deer through the woods–can be particularly fertile ground for back injuries. Upping the odds of trouble is the fact that hunting, for many, is an activity that happens only a few times a year.

Fortunately, experts in exercise physiology have made tremendous strides in understanding the vulnerabilities of the human spine– and designing ways to better protect and strengthen it. Advice falls into two categories: proper biomechanics (using your back the way nature designed it) and conditioning (adding strength and flexibility to the core muscles that stabilize the vertebrae).

“The human back has an S-curve shape that absorbs a lot of shock, almost like a spring,” explains exercise physiologist and back researcher Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., author of Building Strength & Stamina (Human Kinetics). “Without this S-curve, every step would jar our brains. It’s a protective mechanism for us, and we need good muscular conditioning to maintain it.”

Ideally, the lower back should be held in a slightly concave position. Either flattening out or overexaggerating this curve puts a strain on the underlying soft tissues. Your upper back needs to be slightly rounded outward. Again, allowing this part of your spine to become too straight or hunched over can weaken the shock-absorbing capabilities of the S and lead to pain. This is easy to understand in theory but not always so simple to apply. Sportsmen can safeguard themselves from much unnecessary back pain by paying special attention to trouble spots. Consider the following:

  1. SLEEP SMART Look for ground that’s relatively flat and soft. Try to emulate, as much as possible, your sleeping conditions at home. If you must sleep on the ground, experts recommend sleeping on your side. Dig a small trench under your hips and a larger one under your shoulders to keep the spine from bending laterally. Even better, bring an air mattress and a closed-cell-foam pad.

  2. THINK SYMMETRY When climbing or descending a hill, it’s best to go straight up or straight down, since this puts equal stress on feet, legs, and hips. Of course, if the hill is steep or the trail follows a slanted line, you’ll have to traverse it. The problem with taking a diagonal route is that one foot will always be lower than the other, leading to unbalanced stress on the spine. Equalize the stress by doing frequent switchbacks, if possible.

  3. FOCUS ON TRACTION When you’re walking in the woods, specialized sensors called muscle spindles gauge each stride and prepare your legs for their next contact with the ground. When you slip or step in a hole, these spindles are subjected to a stretch reflex that triggers a sudden muscular contraction that helps brace you for impact. If the core muscles surrounding your spine are too weak to absorb the shock, the result can be a back strain. Try to avoid slips and falls, obviously. But more important, don’t skimp on boots: A well-designed pair will give you better traction on slippery ground and provide more stability.

  4. KEEP YOUR BURDEN CLOSE Whether you’re carrying a deer rifle or a shotgun and an overloaded game vest, make sure to position the weight as close as possible to your center of mass. An 8-pound rifle moved a mere 4 inches away from your torso goes from exerting 8 inch-pounds of torque to 32 inch-pounds–a fourfold increase. Try to walk normally–don’t overcompensate for heavy loads by leaning forward or backward.

  5. KEEP MOVING The human body was not designed to remain stock-still hour after hour. Not only does this restrict circulation, but it can lead to muscle rigidity. When you’re up in a deer stand for hours on end, periodically wiggle your spine and flex your leg muscles. If it’s feasible, change your stance occasionally.

  6. DRAG CAREFULLY Perhaps the single most common cause of back injuries in hunters comes from dragging deer. In the excitement of the hunt, you may feel gifted with temporary superhuman strength, but your back remains very human. Try to use a cart or some other device to reduce the burden. If you must drag the deer, frequently change your grip and body position so that you’re not relying on only one set of muscles the whole time. Take frequent rest breaks–stop before you feel consciously fatigued. Beyond that point it might be too late to prevent injury.

  7. ICE IT If you feel a telltale back twinge that portends pain, you can minimize discomfort by applying ice. It’s important to do this within the one to three hours after the injury has taken place. The trick is to not overdo it. After 20 minutes, the body senses that it’s becoming too cold and starts a renewed attack of nervous alarm signals. Wait an hour to 90 minutes, then ice your back again. You can do this for the first 48 hours. It may not save you entirely from back pain, but chances are you’ll feel a lot better.

On a purely biomechanical level, the key to a resilient back is a combination of flexibility and conditioning in the muscles that support the spine. “When many guys hear the word exercise,” says Hagen, “they think they’ve got to work out two hours a day for the rest of their lives. In reality, 10 minutes every other day for a couple of months before a hunt can make a tremendous difference.”

Though exercise physiologists recommend innumerable stretches and calisthenics that are beneficial, here are five simple ones that, if practiced consistently, will cover all the bases. –J.T.

In terms of flexibility, the biggest bugaboo for the vast majority of hunters is overly tight hamstrings. Without some give in the system, a jolt to the legs goes straight to the lower spine. To make your hamstrings looser and more forgiving, sit flat on the floor with the right leg straight and the left sole resting against your inner thigh. Slowly slide your right hand down your right leg till you feel the stretch, hold it for a 20 count, then repeat on the opposite leg. Do each leg two to three times.

Get down on all fours and slowly extend your left arm forward along the ground. Then slide your right leg back, also still on the ground. Taking care to remain balanced, lift both limbs up until they’re parallel to the ground, and then bring them back down again. Repeat 10 to 20 times, then switch to your right arm and left leg.

In studies at San Diego State University, this exercise, which helps work the so-called oblique muscles (they brace the back by crisscrossing in an X pattern on either side of your abdomen), had one of the greatest impacts on preventing back pain. Lie face up with both knees bent and your feet a few inches off the floor, your fingers interlaced behind your head. Slowly curl up and remain in this “up” position, i.e., your shoulders and upper back a few inches above the floor. At the same time, extend your left leg forward to a straight position, and bring your right knee back as close as you can to your left elbow. Without lowering your legs back to the ground, switch their positions, almost as if you were riding a bike. It’s a difficult exercise, and it’s critical to keep the movements slow and controlled. Try to work up to 15 to 20 reps on each side.

Full-range sit-ups, though generally good for strengthening the abdominal muscles, can actually hurt your back by putting too much strain on vertebral discs. Instead, try this alternative. Lie flat on your stomach and slowly rise to a slanted plank position, supporting your body weight with your elbows and toes. Hold your body flat in this position for a 10 to 20 count, then rest and repeat two more times.

The stronger your leg muscles are, the more shock they can absorb. Provided your knees are healthy, regularly practicing the wall slide can boost your leg strength and endurance significantly. Stand with your back against a wall. Position your feet at shoulder width and 1 foot forward, then slowly slide down until you’re about halfway to the sitting position (to which you shouldn’t even come close). Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then slide back up the wall. Repeat two to three times.