Most of us will suffer from back pain at some point. Working from home and having limited exercise options over the past year hasn’t helped our backs. We can do our best to prevent back pain, but what can we do to manage our pain and prevent it from coming back?
Back pain can be caused by one or a combination of factors, including herniated discs, arthritic small joints in the back, poor muscle strength and control, emotional stress, nerve irritation, or poor bone health, to name a few. Almost all (98 percent) back pain is not serious and should go away in six to 12 weeks. However, if your pain does not improve, you should see a doctor or a licensed physical therapist. Here are some ways you can get your back pain under control and reduce its recurrence.
1. Put on your walking shoes
Low-impact exercise like walking has several health benefits and can reduce the recurrence of back pain. You should walk for up to 30 minutes at a moderate intensity five days a week. Each person has a different starting point, but you should aim to build up your time and intensity over several weeks. Listen to your body: your protective instinct will kick in and your mind will tell you to stop, rest and protect, but exercise is key. No type of exercise is more effective at managing pain, so choose one you enjoy, can afford, and that fits your lifestyle. Walking is free, low-risk, and a great way to relieve your back pain.
2. Pace yourself
If you have back pain, you need to adjust your activity level to avoid flaring up. That means maintaining a constant level of activity and avoiding sudden spikes in your workout or everyday life. Consider breaking down physical tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. It may take longer, but your back will thank you. Repetitive motion tasks such as vacuuming, ironing, painting, mopping, and gardening often make people with back pain worse. It’s not about avoiding these activities, it’s about taking the time to break down these tasks and increase your activity level.
3. Mindful Movement
There are many great free resources online that offer helpful activities like gentle stretching, restorative yoga, and Pilates. Theses allow you to incorporate some guided movements into your weekly routine. Depending on your level of back pain and your current physical condition, you should start with a beginner’s class that involves a simple, slow-paced approach. You shouldn’t feel any acute pain during or after your workout and if you do you need to ask yourself if this is the right level of difficulty for you. People often lack strength and control in their pelvic and lower back areas. This means you may need a gentle build-up to more complex exercises and would benefit from a progressive exercise program that a licensed physical therapist can help you with.
4. Musical chairs
Persistent postures that you hold for a long time, like sitting or driving, can promote stiffness. A stiff spine can become a painful spine. Change your body position every 25-30 minutes at work or at home to avoid back pain and stiffness. This is especially important for those who find getting up from a seated position difficult and painful. Walk around while you’re on business calls, put your phone in another room so you get up regularly, or put the remote next to the TV so you have to get up to change the channel.
5. Sleep Health
Sleep is an important element in treating back pain as it gives our body time to rest, recover and prepare for the next day. Sleep also helps reduce stress and anxiety, both of which can be triggers for pain and affect how we cope with it. You should aim for a regular sleep schedule of around eight hours. Eight is the magic number!
There is no magical sleeping position or mattress, it’s all about comfort and quality. Difficulty sleeping is common in people with lower back pain. Give yourself the best possible chance of getting a good night’s sleep by limiting screen time, ending the day, and using relaxation techniques, meditation apps, or audiobooks.
6. Apply heat
Heat can relax your lower back muscles, especially when they’re tight. Heat opens blood vessels, bringing richer, more nutritious blood to the area and aiding in healing. Your body can interpret danger when it is in pain. Heat works to calm and soothe your body, which in turn helps reduce your pain. You can apply heat by placing a warm (not hot) hot water bottle, wrapped in a cloth to avoid direct contact with your skin, against your lower back for 10-15 minutes.
7. Taking medication
Pain management medications are not a long-term solution for back pain because they don’t help speed recovery or prevent the pain from coming back in the future. However, it may help improve your sleep or allow you to continue engaging in work or life activities. Painkillers should only be used in conjunction with other treatment strategies and as a short-term option. Exercise is a much safer and cheaper option for the long-term management of back pain.
8. Fear of moving
People with back pain often avoid movement or change the way they move to accommodate their pain. This allows them to adopt bad movement patterns. Engineered to move, bend, twist and lift, our backs are a lot stronger than you think. There’s mounting evidence that the world of manual handling and “keeping your back straight” may not be the best way to move or lift. The idea of good or bad posture is also a thing of the past.
Fear and avoidance of exercise increases your back pain and stiffness, reduces your back’s ability to move and strengthen, and can increase the intensity and duration of your back pain. We all move differently, so find a way that works for you. Plus, it’s safe to bend over and sag. Sometimes when we engage in what we consider “good posture” all day, our back pain and cramps are exacerbated.
9. Manage your mind
Back pain is completely normal in most cases. As we saw above, many factors influence why you have back pain. However, the mind is a powerful machine and has a major impact on how we interpret and deal with pain. Fear of exercise, fear of “damaging” your back, and feeling low or stressed can all affect our pain pathways and increase our pain perception. So if you only deal with the physical factors of your pain, you’re only doing half the job. Try to better understand what triggers your back pain so you can treat it more effectively. Stress, anxiety, and fatigue can all trigger and increase our pain, so make sure you’re managing your mind, too.
10. Set up home office
The pandemic has limited our opportunities for informal exercise and forced many of us to work from the kitchen table. It’s important to replace your usual commute with lunchtime walks or daytime activities.
It is also important that you follow good ergonomic principles when setting up your home office. Your screen should be at eye level, and you should have a good supportive chair that allows your feet to rest flat on the floor with your hips well back in the chair. Investing in a sit-stand desk that adjusts to your height and gives you the ability to work standing all day might also be a good idea.
Avoid sitting or working on your laptop on the couch or in bed for long periods of time. Your employer can provide you with an online ergonomics assessment to review your home office setup or provide more appropriate office furniture.
Stephen O’Rourke is Senior Spine and Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, The Poynton SpineCare Institute, Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/10-expert-tips-to-alleviate-reduce-and-prevent-back-pain-40683366.html 10 expert tips to relieve, reduce and prevent back pain