It goes without saying that low back pain is a common ailment among a great many people across the country and the globe. It was estimated that approximately 80% of people will experience some form of episodic back pain at least once in their lifetime, many of which will likely have repeat incidents. Back pain sufferers know that the shock, throb or ache that resonates across or away from their spine is no joke.
It is typical that many back pain sufferers seek outside counsel for assistance. Many have a chiropractor, physiotherapist or osteopath to hopefully help alleviate symptoms. Unfortunately, it is also common that most folks are forced to become repeat patients as the issue fails to become resolved. The underlying CAUSE of the pain was not determined and therefore not treated accordingly.
Quick Disclaimer: That’s not to say your health practitioner is not performing a needed service as many chiropractors and physiotherapists implement some amazing treatment plans. Instead, it is important that practitioners treat and rehabilitate the root of the issue and not always the symptoms associated with it. There should be a long term plan in place to address back pain so the patient (you) can be asymptomatic as soon as physically possible. See your doctor or health care provider but don’t be afraid to ask the right questions.
So, what can YOU do about your back pain? Believe it or not, there’s actually a lot you can do to self assess and help alleviate symptoms (with or without an exercise science degree). It really comes down to knowing your body and what triggers your pain. Being able to rate that pain and scale it’s intensity will be crucial to relief down the road. From there, you must learn to move in ways that are spine healthy to help rest and desensitize pain. Seems simple right? Get ready, it’s time for some simple “Spine Hygiene” tips!
1) Assess Your Pain
First and foremost, you need to understand WHAT causes your back pain. The best way to do this is to keep a daily journal. Whatever you do throughout your day, pay special attention to any triggers that cause some sort of discomfort. Mark down exactly what you were doing, how you did it and the pain intensity (use a 1-5 scale). I’d even recommend writing down how long pain lasted and what you did (if you did anything) to alleviate the pain. This will give you some data over time to pattern your back discomfort and give some insight for you and your health care practitioner to better direct course of treatment.
2) Rethink How You Move
Once you have a better understanding of potential triggers, the next step is to avoid aggravating the affected area further. It’s all too common for folks to try and stretch or move in a way that may seem helpful at the time but in turn actually makes the issue worse. The reality is that the affected area becomes more sensitive every time you aggravate it. Think of it like picking a scab over and over again. You may think that you are helping things along but you may actually be halting the healing process. Certain stretches, pressures or movements may provide temporary relief due to nerve reflex. Although this may feel good at the time, it has been documented that pain returns with equal or greater intensity later on. This may be why you require weekly treatments from your chiropractors, massage therapists or physiotherapists.
Instead, the best course of action is to avoid triggers throughout your daily routine or re-pattern how you perform painful actions. This will desensitize your affected area (making you more pain tolerant again over time) and allow you more freedom to return to normal activities. Re-patterning your movements can be as simple as learning how to squat to lift objects or reach overhead. Learning how to hinge at the waist instead of at your back can do wonders for pain triggers. If you have questions on optimal movement patterns for your particular issue, consult an exercise professional (do your diligence).
3) Strengthen Musculature
If you’ve followed Steps 1 and 2, you should already (hopefully) be feeling a little bit of relief. Pain management and trigger identification are two of the more important components when dealing with back pain. Once you’ve figured out how to move daily with less discomfort, the next step would be strengthening and rehabilitating musculature surrounding the affected area. These typically involve exercises with trunk extension (or anti-flexion) to increase endurance and stability. In most cases, trunk flexion exercises, such as typical crunches or sit-ups, are discouraged as they involve bending of the lower back. The exercises listed below are what Dr. McGill, the godfather of spine hygiene, recommend daily for typical back pain sufferers. He calls them “The McGill Big 3”. I recommend trying 2-3 sets of 6 to 10 reps to help alleviate pain and strengthen your posterior chain. Click the names of the videos to see how to perform them.
- Bird Dog
- Modified Sit-Up
- Side Plank
There are certainly more challenging variations of these exercises as well as a whole list of other ones which will certainly aid your strength goals. Personally, I also would recommend glute bridging and standard planks as common staples in your daily routine. For more challenge, consider reverse hypers to help build your glutes and back without additional strain. For strength work, I highly recommend consulting a personal trainer, strength coach or exercise professional to coach and implement these exercises properly.
There you have it. Three simple steps that’ll instantly get your back pain under control. Like I said, do your diligence when consulting professionals for help and be sure to have a list of questions ready to go. Consider asking what your practitioner’s long term plan consists of. Ask what you should be doing on your own or how to gauge progress week by week. Simple knowledge and expectations can better put you in the driver’s seat of your recovery. So sit up straight and get to work. It’s time to get rid of that pesky back pain!
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