Your back is more resilient than you think
Working out how to reduce lower back pain can be a complex matter. X-ray scans have been known to show that many of us have imperfect, cracked, slightly immobile, asymmetrical, slightly misplaced vertebrae. And when these things appear on a scan they are not always associated with the pain you are feeling. This does not mean you should be careless with movement, but that you can have the confidence to use stretching and exercise to resolve issues and maintain back health as long as you listen to you body.
A lot of injuries are caused by moving areas of the body that are already in a state of extreme tension, so using regular exercise and mindful breathing with well-timed exhales to relax your body – whenever you can – will protect you. Athletes know that softening the body allows us to fall safely, even intentionally. As Bruce Lee said, we must ‘be as water.’
There’s more than one way to stretch a back
We too often focus on targeting only our lower back when stretching. The complex muscles that form your core and back include side muscles (obliques), deep abdominals (transverse abdominis), mid-lower back (latissimus dorsi), hip or psoas muscle/s and many more.
If you are resolving a back issue through stretching you will need time, more than anything, to do this. Give yourself a good 30-60 minutes per day to address the whole torso, not just one spot. Or, take up yoga or Tai Chi and naturally address the whole body to make the most of your hour.
Back failure is rarely due to ‘one single injury event’
It can be due to the slow degradation of at least three areas of your body caused by sedentary life, culminating in a ‘slip’ or a ‘spasm’ or final straw (ahem) that broke the camel’s back:
Lower Core Abdominals weakening from disuse
(Just above your groin, place your hand there and ‘cough’ to feel them)
Psoas tightening from excessive sitting
(a complex muscle region that starts at the front of your lower groin/leg and moves all the way around to your back, also referred to as hip flexors. This enabled us to stand up straight when we evolved and now we are doing our best to oppose it)
Glutei Maximi not engaging regularly (your bottom).
Whole body movement based exercise like martial arts or yoga teaches your body to address all three of the above in unison as you re-develop the crucial support system the human body spent generations evolving.
Stretching is only half the picture
Every time you stretch a muscle, an opposite muscle engages. When you bend your arm to engage your Bicep, your Tricep stretches. Extend the arm and the opposite happens. Both movements are of equal importance. The front of your body (abdominals) and back of the body (lower lumbar) need the same equal attention and movement.
Some yoga teachers miss the importance of bringing the vital core into play so please make sure you choose one who doesn’t.
Back pain is largely a mental game
Even the NHS literature on back pain in the UK highlights the importance of staying positive as the key to recovery. Gone are the days when we resigned ourselves to staying in bed with a bad back. Our lower backs are part of a larger body puzzle and we simply need patience, effort and optimism to discover we can put the pieces back together. And a large part of this is listening to your body and then providing it with what it needs – through mental and spiritual awareness. Don’t give up.
Move it or lose it
Muscles lose mobility as we age, taking us toward the ultimate stiffening at the end of our lives (rigor mortis). Exercise and water/nutrition are the counter weights for this process and keep us flexible and lithe. Improve core strength early, keep moving, and you won’t end up being that person in the old folks home who can’t stand up out of a chair without help.
*Interestingly, I have heard one expert assert that we are missing a trick by studying human biology on immobile dead bodies, and considers whether we study bodily processes more closely when they are alive and in motion.
I went to a great talk by one of TV’s sleep experts who said something that most of us already know – we are not getting enough quality sleep! Helping your back is all about relaxing tension. And sleep is the primary way we reset our bodies after a stressful day. You can definitely overdo exercise (even yoga!) if you are not also giving your body recovery time.
Importantly, I found that I needed deep sleep to heal after a lower back episode and this meant sometimes sleeping in a different bed to my partner (known as ‘sleep hygiene’)
After years of professional advice, I now sleep with a pillow between my legs when I can, stay off devices from 8 pm so that my Parasympathetic Nervous System can kick in and make me tired, and do all my hydrating earlier in the day so I don’t have to get up in the night.
Food/water intake affects your back
The discs in our backs lose and regain water regularly as natural exertion happens. Moreover, we all know the famous statistics about the percentage of our body that is water (60%) but muscles are even more – 79%. Our cells are constantly being replaced and it makes sense that we need to help them replace by feeding them with healthy hydration and food.
I spent over a decade learning how to heal my back and – annoyingly – only recently discovered that my water intake needed tripling (thank you Sports Therapist). I have also noticed that processed sugar gives me an inflammatory pain response and this seems to be a new area of exploration for science.
Ultimately, water and oxygen move free radicals out of your body everyday at the cellular level to prevent illness and fatigue, and how well they do that is totally dependent on your ability to exercise and what you ingest.
*If you want to work out how much water you need consult with a body worker (i.e. physiotherapist, osteopath, sports trainer etc) as how much will likely depend on your level of exercise.
Walking is underestimated as a back healer
It can be difficult to find the balance between keeping your exercise up in order to improve core strength, but keeping stress and adrenalin down in order to relax the areas of tension. One of the best things I did for my back was get a dog. She helps me maintain a daily practice of natural, back supporting exercise that doesn’t completely wear me out and dehydrate my vertebrae. And as we all know, walking is excellent for core strength. It must be, we have being doing it for 3 Million years!
Your core is absolutely vital to your overall health.
We evolved by moving our entire body at once through nature, with the core at the centre of that movement, ensuring we:
- Kept standing and walking
- Moved water and oxygen to all parts of our body
- Topped up vital nutrients through our colon
- Maintained gut biomes for overall health
- Empowered our pelvic floor muscles and carried babies
- Attuned our energy chakra to mother earth (aka listened to our gut!)
- And ultimately balanced hormonal and other systems
This is an opinion piece. Please always seek advice from a medical practitioner first regarding any health issues.
About Tiff Cameron
Tiff is a yoga teacher and wellness practitioner with a passion for self-healing. Her blogs are based on a combination of personal experience, research and coursework. For a list of references for this blog please contact email@example.com.