If your lower back is killing you … you should know you’re not alone!
Millions of people are scouring the internet, getting mixed advice and little or no relief.
Worse still, they don’t know why their back hurts in the first place, so it’s hard to know what to do to resolve it.
Many people are surprised to learn that back pain can be caused by their everyday habits – sitting too much, poor posture, repetitive strain, and unfortunately, even exercise.
Exercise: the thing that’s supposed to be most important to health and longevity. The thing you finally got around to committing to but can’t do because your back hurts so much. Exercise is important, but it has to be done right if you don’t want to injure yourself or make existing pain even worse.
Let’s talk about what pain means and what we can do about it.
Pain is the body’s warning signal that something’s wrong
Most people think of pain as an end in itself. Something that has to be dealt with. NOW. Please. What they may not fully realize is that pain is a symptom. You don’t want to deal with the pain, you want to deal with what’s causing the pain. Otherwise, all you can do is ease the symptom for a time while the root cause continues to fester. If you treat the cause, the pain will subside as well.
So if you have back pain, the logical first step is to try to figure out what your body is trying to tell you. It might be telling you that your posture needs work. Or that you’ve got to stop carrying that messenger bag on one shoulder. Or that you do too much heavy lifting without proper form. Or that you spend too much time sitting in the same position, straining your neck down at a screen and your dominant shoulder forward toward a mouse.
It’s almost definitely telling you that your physical experiences have left your body a little out of whack.
The human body does a pretty good job at recovering from injuries and adapting to different situations. And that’s a good thing. But we’re wired for survival, not pain avoidance. That means the body adapts and heals for the sake of survival, but in doing so, the skeletal structure may be compromised in ways that lead to mild or severe pain.
Unfortunately, humans have gotten into the habit of placating the pain through medication instead of trying to find the structural problem and fix it. They pop ibuprofen so they can keep up their workout at the gym, or they get a prescription for something stronger because even their duties at work are getting to be too hard on their backs.
Back pain can be so terrible and disruptive, it feels like you can’t do anything. You want to play with your kids. You want to do your work without constant aching and cringing. You want to jog again or go zip-lining with your teenagers or take a walk on the beach with your spouse. Even sitting on the couch hurts now!
You just want your life back.
Treating Back Pain the RIGHT Way
To truly resolve your pain issues, you’re going to need to take a multi-angled approach. Correct the structural weakness. Change your habits to guard against poor posture and repetitive strain. Strengthen the surrounding areas through low-impact exercises.
The absolute first thing to do if you have back pain is to get into a chiropractor – preferrably a Gonstead chiropractor – and get an x-ray. See where the problem is and what the problem is. No more guessing. A qualified chiropractor can identify the source of your pain and help you come up with a plan that won’t just treat pain but fix it.
With your chiropractor, you can also work out an exercise regimen that won’t cause further strain or injury.
Exercises That Are Bad For Your Back
You may remember doing sit-ups and pushups for middle school gym class. Those of us not blessed with an athletics coach or miraculous natural talent may also remember how terrible our form was.
For decades, anyone wanting to sport rock-hard abs would crunch out as many sit-ups as they could in a day. This is what we were told to do.
The principle behind sit-ups for core strength isn’t totally wrong. They contract the abdominal muscles. That is how you build core strength. But sit-ups leave out major muscle groups. More than that, your lower spine is suppose to curve forward, not backward. When the lower spine curves backward and is then repeated compressed against a hard floor or mat, you’re putting a ton of pressure on the discs. Results: injury and pain, not core strength.
CRUNCHES are hardly better. They don’t put the same amount of strain on your back as sit-ups, but they put the same kind of strain on your back. The backward curve pressing again and again into the floor is going to take its toll.
Crunches and sit-ups would be okay to do IF you have no issues with your back and IF you do the exercises with absolutely perfect form. Since almost nobody meets that criteria, these two exercises fall into the category of “exercises that are bad for your back.”
You’ve probably seen SEATED TWIST machines at the gym. Go ahead and stay away from those. The lower back was not meant to swivel that far.
DUMBELL SIDE BENDS are another bad idea. The weight tugs on the spine in an unnatural direction, creating strain in the lower back.
If you’re still doing TOE-TOUCHES, please stop. A straight-legged forward bend already poses a risk for the lower back, as it rounds it out backwards, putting it out of alignment with the hips. Then when the movement is done quickly – as in an aerobics workout – and with a twist (reaching for the opposite toe), the back is being asked to do things it wasn’t designed to do. Rounding the back and then twisting it to the side pops everything out of the natural form it’s supposed to be in: the spine is perpendicular to the ground, and it curves like a long S, forward in the lower spine and backward in the upper spine. If the S and the perpendicular position are compromised, injury will follow.
What About Best Rest?
Okay, this one’s not an exercise, but it bears mentioning that BED REST is bad for your back. A lot of people have heard that rest is important following an injury, but that doesn’t mean you are totally incapacitated. The best kind of rest is active rest. Lying down or sitting too much stabilizes your spine in the wrong position. Besides, the loss of strength and flexibility leaves the body with less support and mobility. With very few exceptions, light exercise is a better way to recover.
Exercises That Are GOOD For Your Back
How do you strengthen your lower back and core then? There are a number of exercises that are great for building up core strength and supporting the back. As with any health choice, listen to your body. If you feel pain, discontinue. Avoid trying complex, pretzel-like exercise positions recommended in health magazines. Without proper coaching, there’s a good chance of injury. Keep it simple with these fail-proof movements:
WALKING. Surprised? How is walking good for your lower back? Lots of ways. It improves circulation, which supplies nutrients to the discs. It helps you keep excess weight off, which always compounds lower back pain. It engages your core muscles in a gentle way that puts no strain on the back. Walking keeps your whole body flexible and functional. It loosens joints, engages muscles, and helps relieve tension all over the body. Walking and other light exercises increase endorphin production. Endorphins decrease pain by binding to the opiod receptors in the brain, acting as a natural pain reliever. Walking with a friend or beloved pet can further boost your body’s natural stress relief processes, as the movement and social interaction stimulate positive hormone production, leaving you feeling looser and more relaxed.
Things to bear in mind if you decide to try a walking regimen:
- Start slow and small. Don’t walk far enough or fast enough to get sore. Relax into it. If you don’t walk at all, try 10–15 minutes to start and see how you feel.
- Wear proper footwear. Find a shoe store with knowledgeable, trained staff. Try different shoes and do not settle. If the shoes bother your feet in any way, they are not right for your feet OR your back.
- Walk with good posture. Imagine a string pulling your torso upward so your spine is long and upright. Tuck your hips forward and engage your core. Lean your head way forward like a goose, then slowly move it back till it’s over your shoulders, shrugging your shoulders back as you do so. Maintain this posture as long as you can, and pause occasionally to re-check yourself.
YOGA. A carefully curated yoga routine can help alleviate back pain and strengthen the core. Stick to gentle poses like cat-cow, trunk twist, and child’s pose if your pain is severe. Marissa owns a yoga studio in Durham. Read her story to see how chiropractic and yoga work together: READ NOW.
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PLANKS. Planks engage the abdominal muscles and back muscles, stabilizing the spinal column and mimicking proper lumbar alignment. To do them right and protect your back: Start on your forearms to avoid shoulder strain. Keep your abs tight the entire time. Do not let your back sag. Square your hips with the floor. Have someone take a picture or set up a timed photo/video so you can check whether your back is straight. This is a better way to confirm your posture than using a mirror, because the mirror requires you to twist your neck in the middle of the pose.
AB TUCKS. If your core isn’t strong enough for planks, you can hurt yourself. Start with something smaller, like supine abdominal tucks. Lie on your back in a with your arms at your sides. Relax your body. Pull your abdominal muscles downward, toward the floor through your back. Your hips should tilt upward and your lower back will move closer to or press into the floor. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat a few times and see how your abs and back feel later and the following couple of days. If you’re not too sore and aren’t experiencing worse pain symptoms, it’s safe to try a few more repetitions.
HIGH STEPS. Stand up straight. Check your posture by tucking your hips forward and lifting your head. Keeping your posture tall and straight, your neck soft, and your hips straight forward, use your abs to lift one knee so that the back of your thigh is parallel with the floor and your calf hangs at a 90-degree angle. Lower your foot back to the ground, keeping your core stable and engaged through the whole movement. You can alternate, or repeat a few times on one side before switching to the other.
Take It Easy
Bottom line: if you’re trying to support and protect your back and strengthen your core, it may benefit you to think less about “exercise” and more about “gentle, controlled movement.” Make sure you move every day. Light stretching, walking, correcting your posture. When your back hurts, it’s no time to start a rigorous aerobics routine or sign up for an advanced fitness class. Even going to the gym can be risky if you’re going in without a trainer. Listen to your body. Talk to your chiropractor. As you grow incrementally stronger, you’ll start to feel like you can do the things you love to do again.
A consultation is not a commitment. Talk with Dr. Martin today.
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