Most of us will experience back pain at some point. Working from home and the reduced mobility in the past year did not help our back. We can do our best to prevent back pain, but what can we do to manage our pain and keep it from coming back?
Back pain can be caused by one or a combination of factors including a herniated disc, 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 (98pc) back pain is not severe and should go away in six to twelve weeks. However, if your pain does not improve, you should see your GP or physical therapist. Here are some ways you can manage your back pain and reduce its recurrence.
1. Put on your walking shoes
Low-impact exercise such as walking has several health benefits and can reduce the recurrence of back pain. You should try to walk up to 30 minutes of moderate intensity five days a week. Each person has a different starting point, but you should try to build your time and intensity over several weeks. Listen to your body: your protective instincts 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 relieving pain, so choose one that you enjoy, can afford, and that suits your lifestyle. Walking is free, low risk, and a great way to relieve your back pain.
2. Move yourself
When you have back pain, you need to increase your activity level to avoid flare-ups. This means that you will maintain a constant level of activity and avoid sudden spikes in your exercise or daily life. Consider breaking down physical tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. It may take longer, but your back will thank you. Repetitive physical activity such as vacuuming, ironing, painting, wiping, and gardening can often make things more difficult for people with low back pain. The point is not to avoid these activities, but to take the time to break down these tasks and increase your level of activity.
3. Mindful movement
There are many great free resources online that offer helpful activities such as gentle stretching, restorative yoga, and Pilates. These exercises allow you to incorporate guided movements into your weekly routine. Depending on your back pain and your current physical condition, you should start with a beginner’s course that involves an easy, slow 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. Often times, people lack strength and control around their pelvis and lower back. This means that you may need a gentle build-up to more complex exercises and would benefit from a progressive exercise program that a recognized physical therapist can help you with.
4. Music chairs
Persistent postures that you hold for a long time, such as sitting or driving a car, can increase stiffness. A stiff spine can turn into a painful spine. Change your posture every 25-30 minutes at work or at home to avoid pain and back stiffness. This is especially important for those who find standing up from sitting difficult and painful. Walk around while you’re on a business call, move your phone to another room to get up regularly, or leave the remote next to the TV so you have to get up to change channels.
Stephen O’Rourke works at the Poynton SpineCare Institute
Stephen O’Rourke works at the Poynton SpineCare Institute
5. Sleep health
Sleep is an important element in treating back pain as it gives our bodies time to recharge, recover, and prepare for the next day. Sleep also helps reduce stress and anxiety, which can both trigger pain and affect how we deal with it. You should aim for a regular sleep rhythm of around eight hours. Eight is the magic number!
There is no such thing as a magical sleeping position or mattress, it’s about comfort and quality. Sleep disorders are common in people with low back pain. Give yourself the best possible chance of 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 are tight. Heat opens the blood vessels, brings more nutrient-rich blood to the area, and helps with healing. Your body can interpret danger when it is in pain. Heat has a calming and calming effect on your body, which in turn helps to relieve 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. Use of medication
Pain management medications are not a long-term solution to lower back pain because they do not help speed recovery or prevent the pain from returning in the future. However, it can help improve your sleep or allow you to continue doing work or personal activities. Pain medication should be used in conjunction with other treatment strategies and only as a short-term option. Exercise is a much safer and cheaper option for long-term back pain management.
8. Fear of movement
People with back pain often avoid or change the way they move to compensate for their pain. This allows them to adopt poor movement patterns. Our backs are designed to move, bend, twist, and lift and are much stronger than you think. There is growing evidence that the world of manual handling and “keeping your back straight” may not be the best way to move or lift. Likewise, the idea of good or bad posture is a thing of the past.
Anxiety and avoidance of movement increase your back pain and stiffness, reduce the possibilities of movement and strengthening of your back and can increase the intensity and duration of your back pain. We all move differently, so find a path that suits you. Plus, it’s safe to sag and slump. Sometimes it increases our back pain and cramps if we adopt what we believe to be the right “posture” throughout the day.
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 huge influence on how we interpret and deal with pain. Fear of movement, fear of “damaging” your back, and feeling depressed or stressed can all affect our pain pathways and increase our sensitivity to pain. So, if you only address the physical factors of your pain, you are only doing half the job. Try to better understand the triggers of your back pain in order to manage them more effectively. Stress, anxiety, and fatigue can all trigger and aggravate our pain, so make sure you are in control of your mind as well.
10. Setting up the home office
The pandemic has restricted our opportunities for informal movement, forcing many of us to work from the kitchen table. It is important that you replace your usual commute with lunchtime walks or activities throughout the day.
It is also important that you apply good ergonomic principles when setting up your home office. Your screen should be at eye level and you should have a well-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 can be adjusted to your height and allows you to work standing up all day can also be a good idea.
Avoid long periods of sitting or working from your laptop on the couch or in bed. Your employer may provide you with an online ergonomics assessment to check your home office setup or to provide more suitable office furniture.
Stephen O’Rourke is Senior Spine and Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist, The Poynton SpineCare Institute, Dublin