I used to love to __________, but now my back hurts. This may be the most common phrase I hear not only in the clinic but on a day-to-day basis when people find out I am a physical therapist. Fill in the blank, you've heard it too. Maybe you've even said it. But it does not have to remain the case! It IS possible to get back to the activities you once loved, if you're willing to make a few changes to get there.
Deep Breathing Chronic pain often causes shallow chest-breathing patterns because we spend a lot of time tensed up bracing for things to hurt. This instinctive reaction can actually perpetuate the problem! Taking deep breaths in through the nose and trying to exhale for twice as long can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to decrease pain and improve relaxation. Next time you find yourself thinking, “My back is killing me,” try inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 7 seconds.
Decompress Whether you spend most of your day sitting or standing, your spine is constantly resisting the forces of gravity. Taking just 3 minutes to lay on a firm surface (the floor is ideal but couch or bed will work) with hips and knees both bent at 90 degree angles with your legs supported by a chair or pillows gives your back a much-deserved break. Your back will thank you!
Log Roll Flopping into bed and using momentum to rock up out of bed can be excruciating with back pain. Be kind to your spine and intentional with your movements. To lay down, begin by sitting up on the edge of the bed, lower your upper body onto your side using your arms, bring your feet onto the bed so you are then fully on your side and roll onto your back from there if you choose. To get up from laying on your back, bend both knees and roll onto one side, lower your feet to the floor while pushing up with your arms, slowly reversing the process for getting into bed.
Golfer’s Lift This is a great technique if you have pain picking objects up from the floor or any low surface. If you’ve ever watched a golfer pick the ball up out of the hole, he or she will often keep the standing leg straight, lift the back leg behind while reaching down with the opposite arm to pick the ball up. This technique helps keep the spine straighter while engaging more glute muscles to raise up. Try this when you lift wet clothes up out of the washer to place in the dryer!
Exhale with exertion during movement. To many who suffer from chronic back pain, this may sound counter-intuitive. When you are used to holding your breath to brace for pain, that becomes your habit with any difficult movement. Instead, try breathing in BEFORE you move and breathing out as you go to lift, push, or pull whatever you need. This activates your deep core for a more stable foundation to protect your spine
The above tips are great starting points for managing and relieving chronic back pain. However, these are just tools in your tool box and not long-term cures. Do not lose hope! Many causes of chronic back pain are treatable through non-surgical means by working with a trained physical therapist. Simply because your back has always hurt does not mean that it always has to. The first step in experiencing change is being willing to make it.