long-term sore muscles in back side under ribs

So I’ve got a strange pain that feels like a pulled muscle in my mid to lower back on the left side that has been coming and going for the last 6-8 weeks, and just won’t really go away, and this is totally different than anything I’ve ever had before from other sports.

I started unicycling around 10 years ago and took a while to really get into it. The last three years I’ve been unicycling on average about 3-5 times/week, muni 2-3 days/week almost year round, so I’ve built up strength in my core and back muscles as well as improved my skills.

As probably everyone who has tried muni I am quite accustomed to the burning back muscles as you improve, but this is different.

But for about 6-8 weeks now I have had another kind of pain and/or sore muscles. Most likely it seems like some kind of muscle tear or something although I can’t recall a particular fall or strange movement that might have caused it. And I’ve never had muscle tears in this region before (usually legs, arms).

The pain is in my mid to lower back on the sides along and under the ribs. It kind of comes and goes and the times when it is most painful is during the night when I’m lying in bed and I roll to one side and it starts aching. I’ve probably had 2-3 nights in the last 6 weeks where I had trouble sleeping for a few hours because of the pain. Strangely it then kind of goes away for a while and then comes back. I can kind of “produce” the pain by tilting my head and shoulders as far as possible to one side and thereby stretching my side and making it round. Although I frequently have sore muscles in other areas of my back from unicycling that I can feel with touch, this muscle soreness seems to be deeper and I can’t tacticaly “feel” it with my fingers. It seems to be more under my ribs. Most of the time it’s kind of a faint and dull pain but accaisonally it is a short sharp piering pain (usually only at night). Strangely it seems to be worst not in the 1-2 nights following a hard intensive ride (when normal muscle soreness should last 1-3 days with day 2 being the peak), but seems less correlated with big rideas and is more like a few days after.

So anyway, my question is if anyone has experienced something like this? And of course if I need to do anything (like rest and take a break from strenuous unicycle rides for a while) or if it will just go away?

As I said I am pretty fit and my body is pretty used to unicycling a lot. I think the most significant change and likely the main contributing factor is that I have really improved my climbing skills in the last few months, particularly on the big wheels (off-road 36 and 29+). Compared to a year ago I am now riding up steep technical terrain on the 29+ and 36 that I could not ride on the 26 a year ago. This takes alot more “body English” or “Funky Chicken” or whatever you want to call it. I have gotten better at both the using momentum and powering up and the slow speed pedal-by-pedal lurch uphill. Both require lots of side-to-side movement and a lot of muscle strength from all parts of the body.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking that it will just go away as my muscles adapt to the stress and get stronger, but now after 6-8 weeks I’m rethinking this.

Other potential contributing factors:

  1. Volleyball: after a five-year break I also started playing volleyball again last September (roughly once a week) and I frequently have sore muscles from this. But I think volleyball uses more the big muscles in the upper back and shoulders and not so much the side muscles. However, it is an additional stress of unicycling multiple times per week and volleyball.
  2. Commute change: Last month I changed jobs and now live much closer to work, so my 15kmx2 commute on the 36 has turned into a 1.5kmx2 “play” commute usually on the 29+. In other words, instead of riding 100-120km/week on the road on the 36, I am now riding the 29+ and practicing idling and jumping on my commute. However, I’m pretty sure the initial pain under the ribs started before this.
  3. In the past I’ve had some issues with my lower back (S1/L5) but this feels way different as it’s much hgher and way far away from my back near the outer ribs. It could however somehow by related. Since I started unicycling my back issues have pretty much dissapeared and I attribute the improvement to the movement and strenthening of the back from unicycling.

I guess I should note that 1-3 times per week I do really strenuous muni rides of 3-5 hours after which I am totally fatigued. As my skills have been improving and I’ve been riding the big wheels more and more (riding 29+ most of the time, 36 sometime like today when it was dry and 26 only when it’s way wet/snowy) I think the overall capability of running my body into the ground has improved (i.e. a few years ago my back muscles all over would start burning after 1-2 hours so I couldn’t do any monster long rides). After my rides I frequently feel so wiped out like at the end of running marathon or major bike race (In theory I guess it’s possible to be just as taxing on the body). Am I just riding too hard too frequently and too often? Ok, I’m older now but other sports I used to do 4-6 days per week before overtraining, although also made sure to have “slow recovery” days which it seems hard to do on the unicycle (you either pedal hard and make it up the hill or you walk; no shifting down and taking it easy). Is unicycling (muni in particular) somehow different? It doesn’t seem like it should be but as I’ve said I’ve never had anything like this before.

So either it is going to eventually go away and I guess it was just a muscle tear and my body needed time heal and adapt to the increased stress… or it’s not going to go away??

Sorry for the long post, but maybe someone’s experienced something like this before?

Your problem reminds me vaguely of something that happened to me as a teenager. My floating ribs, especially toward my lower back and sides, became acutely sensitive to pressure. I only felt the pain when rolling around on a wrestling mat or being thrown, or maybe if some large object -such as someone’s head- was jammed into my ribs. If I poked myself in the lower ribs with a thumb, there was no pain at all! X-rays didn’t show any broken bones, and the pain was equally intense on both sides, so no one thought I had a fracture, but I had to skip a whole tournament because of this mysterious pain, and that was very frustrating. It definitely did not affect me while sleeping, though, so I don’t know if what I have said is helpful to you, and in any case, no one ever figured out what was wrong and it never came back.

See a doctor.

From your description, it sounds like you might have an irritated nerve somewhere in your back that’s causing the sensation of pain elsewhere. Sciatica usually means an inflamed nerve causing phantom pains in the legs, but I’ve felt it in my hips and lower back at times too. Not being able to locate any sore tissue by touch and being able to affect it by adjusting your head and shoulder position are familiar to me.

The big thing I’ve found is to stop doing the thing that’s irritating the nerve, keeping in mind that it takes much less stress to re-aggravate it once it’s become aggravated than it did to cause the injury in the first place. Muni always includes a lot of “body English” as you observe, so maybe you could try dialing back on that and other activities that include a lot of violent upper body movements and see if it makes any difference. It doesn’t mean giving it up forever, but go easy for a week or so and give it a chance to heal without on-going stress and see what that does.

And yeah, you’ve gotten to the point in life where tissues become less elastic, the spinal column settles some, healing slows down, etc., so don’t rule out age as a factor. Also, our lives get busier and more complicated and we don’t always eat or sleep as well as we should. If the pain keeps you awake, I’ve found that naproxen to fight inflammation is good at bedtime because it lasts through the night. Experimenting with pillows and sleeping posture has also been fruitful for me.

Good luck with it.