Low back pain can happen at any time. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, an accident here, a wrong move there, everyday things can end up causing you weeks, months, or even years of excruciating pain, leaving you unable to do simple, everyday things that need to be done.
Nobody plans to throw out their backs, but yet, 80% of Americans will suffer from low back pain at some point in their lives. Why does it happen? Well, unfortunately there is no single box that we can check with the right answer. People are unique and so is their experience with back pain. What we have figured out, however, are some of the more common things that can either help, or hinder, our recovery from low back pain.
Low back pain sucks and so we put together a list of some of the top Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to low back pain.. Hopefully this list can give you some new ideas on how to help yourself heal faster, or help you try and prevent something from happening in the future. Here are some of our top tips for dealing with low back pain.
Sit for long periods of time without moving
Many of us are spending long hours hunched over our computers and laptops as we try to navigate the whole “work-from-home” thing. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have snagged a fancy ergonomic chair, but most people are still sitting at breakfast tables, basic desks, or kitchen counters while trying to get their work done.
The fact of sitting puts pressure on the discs in your spine and this pressure only gets worse the longer you sit. If you do have to sit for long periods of time, try to make time to walk or stretch. Set a timer for every 20-30 minutes and get up and walk around the house (or even better - outside!) or just do some stretches in your apartment.
We recently saw a great idea from a physical therapist who suggested doing cat cow stretches in your seat. Getting up and about is always the best thing you can do though. Not only does it help with pain and stiffness, but it is also good for improving your blood flow. Regular breaks also provide your brain and eyes with a rest from staring at your computer, adding to the benefits. Walking and stretching are great ways to quickly alleviate low back pain, but make sure you are doing these at regular intervals as the pain can also come back as quick as it disappeared.
Exercises that can strain your back
Exercise is a great way to help prevent low back pain by strengthening the muscles that support your spine, but not all exercises are equal when it comes to helping with low back pain. Exercises like sit ups can put a tremendous amount of strain on your spine, especially if you are starting off with a weak core, like a lot of people with chronic low back pain. Dead lifts are another exercise that can compress your discs if you have poor posture or if you haven’t been trained in how to do them without rounding your back.
Strengthening your core is a great way to help reduce future low back pain injuries, as well as helping to speed in recovery from existing injuries. Instead of a full-on sit up, try a half crunch which will give you the same benefits without the injury risk. If you are lucky enough to have access to gym equipment, instead of a traditional deadlift, use a leg press machine which can take your back out of the equation.
Perform activities without stretching
When it comes to low back pain, having weak back and abdominal muscles definitely doesn’t help. While exercise is one way to strengthen your core muscles, stretching is another component that can make a big difference in how our muscles support our back. Regular stretching of the muscles, tendons and ligaments that support your spine, is often a cornerstone of back exercise programs. Physical therapists and spine specialists will often prescribe stretches designed specifically for neck and back pain.
Just 10 minutes of regular stretching each day, either when you wake up, or before you go to bed, can make a big difference in your mobility and your sleep quality. Stretching before doing a strenuous activity can also help reduce your risk of a new injury. It can be hard to slow down and do the necessary prep sometimes, but it can save you time, pain, and money in the long run.
Slouch at your desk during the day
Whether you work from home, or from the office, the fact is that 86% of workers sit at a desk for their employment. With so many people involved in jobs that require long hours being logged at a computer, or on our phones, many people experience pain in their upper backs and necks as a result of staring down at their computer or phone screens all day. When we hold our posture in the same position for too long, or we have poor posture from slumping in our chairs, it can wreak havoc on our low backs.
Again, setting a time as a reminder can be helpful in checking on your posture regularly. Every 20 minutes or so, have your reminder go off and see what your posture is like? Reminding yourself to sit up straighter can help to build better posture for the long term. Your body should be positioned along an imaginary straight line, and your arms should be at a 90 degree angle. Make sure that your shoulders are level and that your pelvis isn’t rotating forward. By sitting up straight you can feel the small of your back lengthen and stretch out, relieving the pain that comes from slouching.
Rest too much after an injury
One of the most common myths associated with low back pain is that you should rest after an injury. Doctors do not recommend bed rest for low back pain. If you don’t have any signs of a serious cause for your low back pain (see our blog on when to worry about low back pain and red flags for low back pain) you should actually try to stay as active as possible.
Bed rest, once the first line recommendation for treating low back pain, actually has a limited role in relieving low back pain. In small doses, bed rest can be helpful as a response to standing or sitting for long periods of time, but bed rest as a treatment for an injury is not very helpful and can actually make back pain worse. If you do feel the need to rest, do so for a few hours, but try to limit your time. The National Institute of Health says that taking to bed for more than a day or two can make your back pain symptoms worse, instead of helping.
So now that we have covered some of the things that you should avoid doing, in order to reduce your risk of incurring a low back pain injury, let’s look at some of the things that we can do, proactively, to keep our backs in the best shape possible. They say prevention is always better, and easier to do, than fixing something that is broken.
Yup, we decided to put this one in here again! That’s how important stretching is for low back pain. Stretching is great for reducing tension in your muscles, and that includes the muscles that support your spine. Stretching will also help you improve your range of motion and your mobility.
A great stretching and strengthening workout plan should target the back, your abdominal muscles and your gluteal muscles. The gluteal muscles are often overlooked but they actually play a key role in supporting the back when you are standing, walking or sitting. Everyone knows to target your core, but adding in these additional muscle groups can add extra support to your back. When your muscles are strong and supple, they are far less prone to injury, whereas tight muscles limit your mobility and can increase your risk of low back strains and sprains.
Here’s a little known fact: stress can increase low back pain. It’s true. Stress can impact our low back pain in a few different ways. The good news is that researchers have found that a program called Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can actually out perform certain traditional medications when it comes to treating low back pain.
Mindfulness is a practice where people are taught to focus on things that are happening in the present moment, and accept their thoughts and feelings as they arise without judgment. Studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation have the ability to shift your thoughts away from the pain that you are experiencing, on to something else that is more within your control. By doing this, individuals are able to focus on more soothing things, decreasing their discomfort. It’s not that the pain itself necessarily decreases, but rather that you are able to learn to manage it more effectively.
Meditation has the additional benefits of helping to reduce the stress, anxiety and depression that often accompanies low back pain.
Eat a healthy, ant-inflammatory diet
This one is a tough one for most of us, but when it comes to low back pain, what we eat (or don’t eat) can play a big part in our condition. Research has shown that foods that are rich in antioxidants have the ability to lower inflammation in our bodies. Inflammation plays a part in muscle pain, including conditions like low back pain.
If you are like many people, the word diet can create a sense of panic. The good news is that, while it would certainly be helpful to give up some of the foods that we know cause inflammation (think processed foods, refined sugars and carbohydrates) just adding anti-inflammatory foods to our diet can still make a big difference.
Deeply colored fruits and vegetables like blueberries, blackberries, spinach and beets are all high in antioxidants. Certain herbs and spices like basil, garlic, ginger and turmeric are delicious additions to flavor your regular meal - or you can try cooking something a little different and see what you think. Nutritionists like to recommend programs like the Mediterranean diet when they think of anti-inflammatory foods, so including protein sources like salmon, sardines and herring are all great options.
Strengthen your core muscles
When it comes down to low back pain, your core is everything. Your core is responsible for supporting the entire weight of your body so it needs to be as strong as possible. When the muscles around your lower back are weak, your body relies more on ligaments and connective tissue for stability, which is not how our bodies were designed and this can lead to pain.
Scientists have found that doing any sort of exercise is beneficial for relieving low back pain. Adding exercises that target your core can help to support your back and your neck, giving a little extra helping with the prevention part of low back pain. Boosting your core strength has show to help with low back pain, and even decreases the need for medication management of the condition.
One of the most important things that people with low back pain can do is to stay as physically active as possible in daily life and exercise regularly. Things that have been proven to help include exercises to strengthen the core muscles, as well as certain exercises used in Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga.
The natural response to pain is to do less, but actually the opposite holds true when it comes to low back pain symptoms. Not only does exercise help muscles relax and increases blood flow to the area, but exercise also generates endorphins, which are our bodies natural painkillers. This makes exercise a great first line treatment for low back pain.
Hopefully you are not currently suffering from low back pain and you keep some of these suggestions in your mind the next time you are planning on doing some spring cleaning, sitting down for a long day of work, or hitting the road for a well-deserved break. With just a few little tweaks to your daily routine, hopefully you can keep low back pain at bay and enjoy all your favorite activities.