Help, I hurt my back!
How do you get out of debilitating back pain? Are you scared because the pain is so intense and you are afraid to move? Let these tips provide a launching point and foundation to begin again. I wanted to write a blog about how to get out of acute back pain because back pain has been affecting my close family and friends lately. Since I can’t always be present to help, because of distance or time, let this information serve as a safe starting point. It can also be a sounding board for other well-meaning “advice” you may receive, whether from other professionals or the internet. There’s a world of knowledge available out there, but you want to be sure the information is right for you.
Sometimes acute back pain is sudden, like the time I did a medicine ball slam and felt an immediate spasm of pain in my back. Other times the pain is delayed, like when you spent all day gardening and awaken the next morning with searing pain. No matter how it begins, the bigger question is how do you get out of it? Here are a few of my tried and true solutions. While they will not work for everyone, they will often help reduce or alleviate the symptoms until your body has time to heal. It will take time. The acute phase of pain can last for 10-14 days. If you have shooting pain going down your leg, then I would recommend seeking immediate medical help. If your pain is localized to the back, then read on. Some of these tips may help you right now and reduce the intensity and duration of your symptoms.
One of the first things I do when I am in acute back pain is lie down and breathe. Simple, yet so effective. I lie flat on my back, legs in the air (they can be supported), and I take a bunch a deep, 360 degree belly breaths. I am attaching a video of what it looks like here. There are a few things this accomplishes. First, it stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the nervous system. You will feel a sense of calm wash over you as you continue breathing. More oxygen is circulating through your body and cells as you take deep breaths, and blood flow brings healing and life to injured tissue. Second, you are activating your diaphragm, abdominals, pelvic floor, and gluteal muscles. These muscles all act as a natural back brace to stabilize and protect your spinal system. If you’ve ever had intense back spasms you know that they can be very painful. These spasms are typically localized to the spinal extensor muscle groups and sometimes the abdominals. By breathing, you are both relaxing and activating the rest of the spinal support system to stabilize your body and distribute protection of the spine. Distributing support throughout the system usually alleviates pain. Third, by breathing you are creating space in the spinal column and creating separation between the vertebrae. Gravity and poor posture, when combined with load and repetitive movement, creates compression and sheering forces throughout our spinal system. This leads to breakdown over time. Breathing counteracts the effect of those forces and helps with restoration, healing, and prevention of back pain.
Another effective solution for back pain is ice. You can dunk yourself in an ice bath or lay on an ice pack. Most people think heat is a good solution, but I have found ice more effective in the acute phase. Heat can sometimes stimulate more spasms or throbbing pain. Ice will numb the pain in a short amount of time. The phases you will go through are cold, burning, aching, then numb. If you’ve ever jumped in the frigid pacific ocean than you know those phases well! I’d choose ice over painkillers any day. No nasty side effects on your liver. Just don’t give yourself frostbite and take breaks to allow the skin to return to its normal temperature. Contrast treatment through icing and reheating tissue helps the body naturally pump waste away and bring in fresh blood flow to an injured area. This allows the tissue to receive the tools (or cells) it needs to heal.
I recommend to limit the amount of time you sit when you are in back pain. Try to get up and stand, decompress the spine, or walk around every twenty minutes. Sitting is a tough posture to maintain when you are in pain and can progressively worsen symptoms. Try to stay ahead of pain by moving at frequent intervals. Once pain kicks in it is harder to calm down. It is better to anticipate and move before it begins.
Another solution is to release the tension in your gluteal muscles to reduce tugging through the low back. Since our body is a system and everything is interconnected, tension in the gluteals can increase strain on the low back and pelvis. One of the ways I teach clients to release the glutes is using a LAX ball. You can watch this video on how I show clients to release their glutes here. I recommend spending at lease 2 minutes, but it may take longer to allow the body to relax.
The final strategy is to find a position of most comfort so you can get in this position and KNOW that your symptoms will calm down. I can always find one for my clients and this is key for their pain relieving strategy. The only kicker is that every person is different. Your position of comfort may be someone else’s back pain trigger. You have to test it out to figure out your own strategy. For example, your position of comfort may be lying on your stomach and that position may make another person’s back pain worse. Take yourself through some basic movements and discover what feels better or worse. Try lying on your side, stomach (with a pillow under the belly), and on the back flat (or with legs supported). One of these positions should dial down your pain. Use this to discover your pain relieving strategy and position of comfort. Find a position you can get into and know that you will feel your pain lessen and calm. You will need this to survive as your back heals. As I said above, it’s easier to relieve pain at the onset than after it is full blown. Use these strategies to calm symptoms quickly and early on before allowing pain to intensify. This will help you to navigate episodes of acute back pain.
If you have found these tips helpful you can subscribe to my channel on youtube (sportsptlab) for helpful exercise videos or follow me on social media (my instagram handle is @kr1syk3s or @sportsptlab).