What to Do When Your Back Hurts

Yoga class
Research has found yoga to be a viable treatment approach for low back pain. Inti St Clair/Blend Images/Getty Images

What to Do When Your Back Hurts

A few weeks ago I did something that most adults do at least once in their lifetime- I hurt my back. Yes, the pain doctor who has been treating back injuries for 18 years succumbed to the same fate that afflicts millions every day.  So, if you are wondering about what to do when your back hurts, I can pass on some of my insights from the last few weeks. Back injuries are one of the most common sources of work-related disability and ongoing pain in our society.

In fact, Americans spend an estimated $50 billion each year on back pain. Not to mention, hurting your back can be just plain terrifying.

Don’t Panic- It Won’t Help

In my case, I tweaked my back pretty good while trying to work out at my gym. Because of a chronic problem that I have in one of my knees I like to do squats which can help build muscle strength around the supporting muscle groups that stabilize the knee joint. I typically exercise early in the morning before going to work, so there I was with the barbell and weights on the back of my shoulders, and as I squatted down I felt a click and a twinge of pain in my low back. Yikes! I told myself “don’t panic” as I put the barbell back but I could feel my back tighten up. I tried walking it off, but things just didn’t feel right. One tip for what to do when your back hurts is try to stay as calm as possible and breathe slow and deep to prevent the muscles and tissues from getting too tight.

Try not to judge and blame yourself or someone else for what just happened.

Try to Keep Moving

I resisted the temptation to just go lie down and rest, but at the same time I wanted to do things that would prevent my back from getting too inflamed and tight. “Maybe some light movement would be a good next step” I thought.

I got on an elliptical cardio machine and just started lightly moving my legs. The pain in my back pain was sharp, but it didn’t feel any worse on the elliptical. A friend popped onto the adjacent machine and talked to me for about ten minutes, and the social distraction seemed to help me relax a bit. Being able to stand upright, without having to bend, while getting the blood flowing through my body seemed like an ideal way to try to settle down what was going on in my back. I went to work that day with a stiff, sore back that would get much more intense every time I stood up out of a chair or turned a certain way.

For the next several days I noticed a few helpful things. One was that my back typically hurt the most when I first got up out of bed in the morning. If I would try to roll over in my sleep at night, this would result in an intense sharp pain. I also noticed that the longer that I sat in a fixed position during the day, the more my back would hurt when I tried to get up. While at work, my back would feel the most comfortable.

As a physician, I am constantly moving about from one room to another, and my partner’s wrist gadget had taught me that we walk at least a few miles each day in a typical work day at our clinic. By the middle of the day, my back would typically feel noticeably better, but then I would wake up the next morning feeling like things were not progressing as much as I hoped.

It was clear to me that in the first week after straining my back that I felt the best when I was moving about and had the most pain after sitting or lying flat for prolonged periods of time. A second tip for what to do when your back hurts is bed rest is probably not your friend.

Yoga

I often do a yoga class on Friday afternoons as a way of winding down from the week, and this coincided with day two of my back injury. I debated if I should go or would all the moving, bending, and twisting just make things worse? I decided to give it a go even though my back was hurting, and I was amazed at how I was able to do most everything without any aggravations of my condition. Yes, the lower back pain was right there, but I was able to do the poses and stretches with only minor modifications. In fact, when the class was over I felt really great and left feeling that if I could do yoga for the next few days that this would speed up the healing process. Unfortunately, life gets in the way, and I wouldn’t be able to do yoga again for another week.

Research has found yoga to be a viable treatment approach for low back pain. In 2011, a British study of over 300 back pain sufferers found that three months of yoga had a significant impact on their level of function and well-being, and that the results were sustained for up to a year. I think it is worth pointing out that I started doing yoga several years ago so I wasn’t learning how to do certain poses for the first time with a new back injury and my posture and mechanics are already probably pretty sound. I think starting a new yoga practice after a back injury is a different set of circumstances and one that needs careful monitoring by experienced teachers.

Another tip learned for what to do when your back hurts is to make sure to block out time each day for you to take care of you.

Massage

As my back pain continued to linger after the first week, I began to ponder different treatment options for how to get rid of lower back. I thought about acupuncture but eventually decided on getting a massage as a next step. The massage proved to be very enlightening as far as learning about what was going on in my body. Once somebody started pushing on my back, I quickly found out that the muscles and tissues in my back were much tighter and more sensitive than I had realized. On top of that, this irritation seemed to have spread from my low back, up my spine, and down into my legs. My gluteal muscles around my buttocks were particularly tight and in spasm, and my massage therapist felt that my glutes were clamping down as a protective mechanism for my back. It was easy to see how an injury in one part of the body rapidly affects other parts of the body, causing the pain to spread.

Massage therapy for generalized back pain may not sound like an earth-shattering breakthrough treatment, but it can generally be considered safe and there is scientific support for its value. For example, in 2011 a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found massage to be effective in both reducing back pain and increasing function. As for me, if my back pain continues to linger over the next week then I am strongly considering going back for more. My last tip for what to do when your back hurts is don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Stay tuned…

 

References:

http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/backpain/detail_backpain.htm

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/752649

http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=747008

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