Among the hundreds of health conditions we can face, back pain is one of the most mysterious of them all. It can be structural in nature, caused by genetics or traumatic accidents. It can be due to chronic stress and come out of the blue. It can be linked to functional deficits from faulty occupational habits, bad posture, arthritis, stenosis... the list goes on and on.
I’ve worked at a chiropractic clinic for the past two years and have seen almost all of it. Fortunately, most of my clients are aware of the main components of spinal care: getting professional help, sitting less, moving more, improving posture, practicing sleep hygiene, and addressing life’s stresses. There are, however, a few more I’d like to add to this list. These are strategies that have worked for both myself and my clients and deserve more spotlight in the health care world.
If you’ve ‘tried everything’, I’d encourage you to give these 3 habits a shot. If you’re free of back pain, I’d still recommend them as a prevention tool for everting future complications. Before we continue, please remember these 3 things…
I’m a practicing kinesiologist at a chiropractic clinic…I’m not a doctor.
This may not work for everyone, so please proceed with caution. If you have any questions or concerns, speak to your health professional.
This is just a tiny piece of the puzzle. Effective health care interventions involve a holistic perspective. You must address all areas of life and put in the work consistently for the best results.
Ok, let’s dive in!
3 Ways to Abate Back Pain When You’re Out of Ideas
1) Self Decompression (Traction)
Yes, gravity is a thing. When we go about our daily lives, especially the ones filled with excessive sitting and standing, we can ‘compress’ the spine. Simply put, this causes narrowing of the space between each vertebra which can lead to postural issues, neck and back pain, numbness, tingling, and more.
This first habit is a two-parter. First, ensure that you’re taking breaks from sitting every thirty minutes. Why? Sitting puts more pressure on your spine than nearly any position. This is exacerbated when we begin to creep into poor posture with prolonged periods of sedentary behavior.
Part two is to consider a self-decompression practice. If you can’t afford to spend the Benjamins for traction at a clinic, this is the next best thing. Try each of the poses below and see which one feels right for you. The hanging position will take more strength (especially with the grip), so be aware that it’s not for everyone. There is also a third strategy that involves elevating yourself onto a counter or desk by using the strength of your arms. It can be found here.
Find the pose that suits your situation and start with 2 x 60 seconds every day. As you feel comfortable, you can increase the sets and duration. Please note that this will be most effective for the lumbar (lower) spine, and will likely not resolve any issues within the cervical (neck) area. Even so, this is a fantastic practice for anyone who feels like they’re stiff/sore and have dealt with back pain in the past or present.
2) Addressing What’s Going in Your Body
As I was mentioning earlier, back pain management should take on a holistic lens. What better way to embody this philosophy than to be intentional with what you’re putting into your body! I often forget the influence that nutrition has on musculoskeletal/neurological health. If you’re eating right, you’re much more likely to abate the minor, acute symptoms of back pain due to lower inflammation within the body.
What goes in your body has a direct connection to your spine health.
Hydration is also crucial here as it is directly correlated to the health of your spinal discs. These discs are designed a lot like jelly donuts — they have a strong outer ring of fiber with a softer, more gelatinous substance in the center. This gelatinous center (known as the nucleus pulposus) is made up primarily of water and is what provides the majority of the cushioning for your spine. If you’re failing to intake enough water, this structure can begin to wane and cause problems such as herniated discs and pinched nerves.
When it comes to bad habits…please, please, please don’t smoke. Studies show a clear connection to smoking populations and an increase in back pain prevalence, so be warned. The rationale for this is that smokers have a higher chance of co-morbidities (related to elevated back pain), and they often have impaired blood flow which can lead to nutrition deprivation.
3) Changing the Story You Tell Yourself
I strongly dislike saying that it’s ‘all in your head’ when it comes to back pain, as this is simply not true. What needs to be addressed, however, is the disabling influence that is rooted in poor health care practices and faulty language by professionals. If you’ve ever been told by a doctor or chiropractor that you have a condition such as ‘scoliosis’ or ‘stenosis’, you know how scary and disheartening this message can be. Whether it’s true or not, (oftentimes an initial diagnosis is not the direct cause of the pain), the damage has already been done. We begin telling ourselves a story that we’re broken or damaged and this can greatly decelerate the road to recovery.
Here is an excerpt from a past blog post of mine that includes the work of Bob Brady, PT. The reality is, our current health system is in desperate need of a paradigm shift around pain and its management.
As the technology for imaging has improved over the years, our ability to see the internal parts of our bodies in great detail has improved. In the management of most low back pain, the detail with which we can see the structures of the spine has turned out to be a curse. The reason for this is because there is not a strong cause and effect relationship between what is seen on imaging and the patient’s symptoms.
Now the unfortunate thing with most people in the medical profession nowadays, is that they do not read this type of research. Because of this, imaging is ordered way too early and way too often with the belief that we will be able to find the exact cause of a person’s symptoms.
Treatments, whether it be medication, injections, or surgery are then recommended to “correct” something that is likely not the cause of the problem. The other negative to this type of approach to “diagnosing” the cause of low back pain, is that now you have a label. The reality is, bulging discs are the equivalent to wrinkles on the face. As we age, our body changes naturally.
Researchers are now saying that these things we see in the spine as we get older are basically “grey hairs on the inside.” We would not expect that we would have head pain because our hair is turning grey, so we should not expect that just because a spine shows some age-related changes that we should have pain!
Once the patient gets a hold of an image or diagnosis, the damage has been done. This shiny new label can lead to a spiral of fear, shame, avoidance behavior, and ultimately the dependence on pharmaceuticals or invasive interventions.
I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t believe the things your health provider is saying. They can be extremely useful in directing you down a path of recovery and getting to the bottom of back pain. What we must realize, however, is that we cannot cling to a diagnosis and expect it to help us. The more stressed and obsessed you get with certain terms like ‘herniated discs’, the further demobilized you’ll become.
So how do we approach this situation?
My best advice to you is to never lose hope. Regardless of how much pain you’re in or how bleak your diagnosis may look, you must stay positive. Yes, this is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Start journaling. Find activities that you love to do and can still tolerate. Lean into your friends and family. You’ll be surprised at just how much you can still do with back pain when you remove your mental state as a barrier.
I’ve seen some scary back pain situations over the past two years, and I can confidently say that you control your destiny to a certain point. Those who stay committed to taking care of their mental and emotional health virtually always recover quicker and further than those who lose hope.
If you’re battling with back pain and have run out of ideas, give these three ‘hidden habits’ a shot! No matter how bleak your situation may feel, there’s always something we can be doing to push ourselves forward along the path of recovery.
As I close, my best advice to you is to keep health care holistic. Move often. Eat right and drink up (water, that is). Sleep well and keep your schedule consistent. Prioritize ergonomics in your workplace. Most importantly of all, never lose hope. The stories we tell ourselves have a gigantic impact on health outcomes. If you can stay positive amidst the precarious rollercoaster that is back pain, you’ll give yourself the best shot at better days ahead.