How to Fix Back Pain

Chains. Heavy. Also, this could be an entrance to Batman’s wine cellar. Keeping that sneaky Robin from drinking all the Merlot.

I am no stranger to back pain. There are more than few clients I see that have either had or a still dealing with the bane of back pain. And I’ve had my fair share of back issues in the past.

There is just something wrong about the evolution of the human animal. Wait, maybe it’s that the human animal hasn’t kept up with the fast-paced evolution of the world around it. The world raced from active manual labor (not that heavy manual labour was making great backs either) to days of prolonged sitting.

Alas, instead of cursing the world for what it has become and done to our lumbar spine and transverse processes, let’s instead see what you can do to feel better.

But, before you dive in, keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” answer to fixing back pain. Just because Pilates worked for Dieter, the guy you met and have known since high school when he came over as an international exchange student, doesn’t mean it will fix everyone else’s back.

While we’re at it, according to Dr. Stuart McGill, a man who has studied more backs than I have eaten potatoes, there is always a cause for back pain. Sure, sometimes you might have to dig deep to discover it, but it’s there. Whatever “it” is.

Ok, now that’s out of the way let’s have look at what you can do to fix your back pain.

Clear the possibility of a sinister cause for back pain

By sinister I don’t mean how your back got sore after watching Sinister, the 2012 horror movie featuring Ethan Hawke. Rather, if you’ve been suffering unexplained back pain for a while, go get a medical clearance. Just to be safe you’re not dealing with cancer or something. 

I hate to be the one always thinking the worst case scenario, but these things do happen. We might as well talk about it and hopefully catch cancers early.

Do you need a surgery?

Most people don’t.

Enter back pain expert Dr. Stu McGill. He recommends having a “virtual surgery”. Play a game imaging that you’ve just had a back surgery with virtual scalpels.

As is often the case after various surgeries, you have to rest from all the high impact activities you love doing. If as an example, you love mountain climbing and base jumping, lay off it for a week or two. Go for a walk. And don’t jump off anything at the end of it.

Does the pain go away? If so, you probably don’t need a surgery. Does the pain come and go intermittently? You probably don’t need a surgery. And this conveniently leads us to our next step in eliminating the evil back pain.

Eliminate movements that set off the pain

Keep detailed notes on when your back pain sets in. What did you do? Maybe you slept in a static Cirque du Soleil – position? Maybe you moved the grand piano down the stairs? Perhaps it’s the way you squat at the gym? Who knows, I am just giving you examples. 

The brilliance of diary shines when you “just can’t figure it out”. After a week or two of detailed notes you are bound to see patterns. My back was playing up for the last six weeks until I realised it’s the way I carry Elias, leaning into my lower back. Stop it, I say!

It doesn’t matter how much core work you do, or how often you frequent the massage parlor to “release” your “back”, if you keep moving like a jackass. 

Learn to move in ways that protect your back

Once you’ve established the triggers for your back pain, it’s time to start moving less like a jackass and more like a graceful human being.

As an example, if rounding your back causes you pain keep reminding yourself to move through the hips. Discover the hip hinge. Not only does it protect your back, but will allow you to hail the grand master gluteus maximus (that’s the mighty large muscle on your butt, you’re probably sitting on it right know) for lifting. 

This doesn’t mean that you should never move your spine. But if spinal movements are causing grief it’s wise to eliminate them until all that awesome anatomical shit in your back settles. Once you’re ready to re-discover your spine, you could start something simple, like the cat camel exercise.

Get stronger, fitter and more resilient

Here’s the stuff that most people assume is the holy grail of stopping back pain: core strength. Wrong! Sort of. Yes, learning to stiffen and brace the core plays a part (not “activating your TVA” bullshit), but it’s as much about building a overall strong and well moving body that is ready to take on the world.

This is the basic, non-sexy fitness and strength stuff that doesn’t sell any magazines (or lead to new email subscribers). Push, pull, hinge, squat, carry…

How you measure strength, fitness and resiliency depends on the activities that you love doing. There are differences between a grandma who wants to get back into gardening and fighting hedge overgrowth vs grandma wanting to join the special forces, ship to Afghanistan and fight the Taliban.

The take home message

There’s no one solution to fix all the back pain in the world. To figure out what works for you:

  1. Clear a sinister cause
  2. Eliminate the movements producing your pain
  3. Learn to move in ways that protect your back
  4. Build strength and fitness to have resiliency in your chosen activities (gardening vs fighting Taliban)

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