I know how miserable back pain can be. But, I also know from years of personal experience managing injury, inflammation, misalignment and aching for myself and others that spinal health is largely about the little things that add up. Simple exercises, ways we approach our day, and healthy habits can make a big difference. Whether you have back issues on a regular basis or just some discomfort during less active winter months full of movie watching and holiday travels, these quick fixes for pain can work for you! A happy back = A happy body.
Foam rolling is the equivalent of taking a giant-sized rolling pin to your body and working it out like a ball of cookie dough. Rolling out the kinks in myofascial tissue will help you feel better than gobbling up a handful of those warm cookies. I’m totally serious, people!
You see, our muscles are all surrounded by fascia which is strong, thin, connective tissue that responds best to pressure in order to release tension and knots (whereas muscles respond best to stretching). If part of our fascia is too tight because of one of two extremes; improper recovery from hard exercise or not exercising enough, then the muscles underneath will not be able to move as effectively as they should. Dehydration can also cause this tissue to become rigid and stick too tightly to underlying muscles. You might not immediately feel the negative repercussions, but over time tight fascial tissue can result in your hips getting out of alignment, IT-band syndrome, low back pain, and more.
The key is to use a foam roller much like a rolling bin when baking. Start with long rolls, using your body against gravity on the foam roller, and then find the areas that need a little more attention. It might hurt a lot at first if you’re really tight (just being honest), but that will subside the more you do it. Plus, the tighter you feel, the more your body is telling you that it NEEDS this! Onward you roll!
Apply Hot or Cold
Using heat or cold-pack treatments is a classic and super easy way to deal with nagging discomfort. The key is to know when to use each temperature. There is some debate about this in the medical community at large, depending on what culture and philosophy your doctor comes from, so take my advice with a grain of salt if you want.
I generally advise clients to use heat for aches that are chronic and cold for acute injuries. For example, if you have an aching low back that gets worse over the course of a few weeks but you can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the pain, then I suggest using a heat pack on it overnight or while you’re lying down for a period of time. If you have a sudden onset of pain like waking up in the morning with a piercing pain radiating from your neck to your temples or a shooting pain in your shoulder after lifting something, then I suggest you use ice. In both scenarios, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you’re concerned and the pain seems to linger or worsen.
Turn to the “McKenzie Method”
If you have low back pain that is chronic or acute (especially if you have sciatic pain), then finding a good physical therapist who can evaluate you via the McKenzie Method for low back pain is a great idea. The initial evaluation and first visits may not feel quick per say, but you will gain all sorts of fast, easy-to-perform-at-home exercises that will save you time and discomfort down the line.
Stretch Hip Flexors and Hamstrings
Stretching these two muscle groups is one simple and effective way to rid yourself of tightness in your back. These muscles pull on the hips and spine and can thrown things out of whack when they are too tight. Both the hamstrings and hip flexors can get tight from sitting for long periods of time or exercising without enough follow-up stretching. Effective stretching can be done in less than five minutes. Hold each hamstring in a stretch for a full minute or slightly longer for maximal benefit (less than a solid minute of stretching may not help). Do the same thing for each hip flexor and you’re on your way to feeling sweet relief.
Correct Sitting, Lying and Standing Posture
The entire spine gets misshaped when we sit, lie and stand hunched over with our shoulders. The human spine’s curvature has specifically adapted to work with gravity, so when we take it out of its optimal position, it can no longer properly do its job. Also, when we are constantly tucked into a ball while sleeping or leaning forward at our desks, our musclces begin to develop a memory for being stretched out in the back and tight in the front. This will lead to all sorts of discomfort and issues down the line, plus it depletes from a tall, attractive posture (and by tall I mean upright – not necessarily sky-high height).
Correcting posture can actually feel uncomfortable, just like getting started with foam rolling. But, the more uncomfortable we are when standing with our shoulders back and heads held high, the more of a red flag our bodies are waving in front of us. Our bodies are screaming at us to get things back in order. It may be uncomfortable but it’s way easier than dealing with the fallout of bad posture over time. All it takes is reminding yourself to do it. Not too complicated, right?
Sleep with a Pillow Between Legs or Arms
Sleeping with a pillow between your legs or hugging it like a giant teddy bear in your arms can help “stack” your joints so they maintain better neutral alignment over the night. When you think about it, we are in bed for a long time every day. If we get 7-9 hours of sleep every night and are tucked into a ball, have one leg thrown over the other, or all our body weight on one shoulder the whole time, we are bound to eventually feel a little “off.” Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your legs can help alleviate some types of hip and low back pain. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between your arms can help some types of thoracic and shoulder pain. Plus, it just feels snuggly. 🙂
Perform Chest Openers
Chest opening stretches or “heart-opening poses” in yoga are wonderful ways to make sure that the muscles of the chest stay stretched out and the ones in our backs stay tight enough. A lot of back pain comes from poor posture and all the movements we do like reaching forward which create tight muscles in the front of our bodies and loose ones in the back. Tight muscles are not the same as strong ones and loose muscles are not the same as flexible ones. So, it’s important to balance out our forward-reaching activities with a simple opening of the chest for 30-60 seconds a few times a day. A great time to do this is when you need to take a deep breath to think at work or when you are in the middle of chores at home. It can be as simple as standing in a door jam, holding onto the frame, and moving the rest of your body forward a couple steps. This can make for a nice deep release in the chest.
Exercise Large Back Muscles
Large back muscles can be targeted through lat pull downs, rows, pull-ups, reverse flies and rotator cuff exercises. Just spending a couple minutes on these muscles every gym visit can add up to a lot. That is, if you aren’t already working them out. It’s best to perform these exercises once your back is in alignment so make sure you’re using other techniques if you’re experiencing a lot of discomfort or pain.
Exercise Long Back Muscles
The long muscles in our backs can be targeted through all sorts of spinal extensions, typically best done lying face down on a mat and lifting our limbs, or from a standing position using exercise bands or cables. Again, a little can go a long way. It’s tough to remember that exercises like these are just as important as the ones that produce a mega sweat session, but they are. Just as important. If you’re feeling at a loss for how to get started on these, attend a beginner’s Pilates class and make notes of the exercises they do for the back. Try to repeat them at home or hit up the class again!
Adjust Lifting and Carrying Form
Everything we do, from carrying little ones and groceries to lifting our luggage and briefcases, impacts our spinal health. When we repeat the same motions again and again on just one side of the body we risk throwing ourselves off in terms of both alignment and strength. Try to remember to switch baby from that favorite hip to the lesser-used one. Try to walk to work with your purse on the opposite shoulder sometimes. Simple things like that. It’s what makes or breaks us.
Use Lateral Movement
Lateral hip movement (and rotation, by the way) helps to stabilize the hips and take pressure off of the back. We do a lot of forward movement but not a lot of side-to-side, and it’s just as essential for our health. One of the best ways to tackle this type of movement is via clam shells and other lateral hip lifts which target the outside of your booty (aka the glut medius and glut minimus). All you have to do is put yourself in a side-lying position and lift the top leg up and down in various ways to elicit a burn in the outer compartment of your rear end. When you feel the burn, keep going! It’s good for you.
Inflammation sucks. It just makes everything miserable, including our backs. So, try to help your joints by eating a balanced diet with all the good stuff; leafy greens, berries, other fruits/veggies, whole grains, healthy fish, lean proteins, beans, nuts, you get the idea. People who are trying to heal from illness or injury will especially benefit in the healing process by eating as healthy as possible.
Also, drink plenty of water to keep joints lubricated and get a balance of exercise and adequate rest. The healthy basics really do a lot reduce inflammation.
Yours in health and wellness,
Great article! I too am a huge fan of foam rollers and eating foods that are “anti-inflammatory” in nature. And I love your emphasis on specific exercises and stretches we can do to take control of our pain issues. You are absolutely right; the “little things” really do add up to big changes in the body.
Thanks for the feedback on the article! It sounds like you are well-versed in several areas of health too! Aren’t foam rollers THE BEST? I love them. Use one every day.
Hope this message finds you well this holiday season! Enjoy!
Best in health and wellness,
9 years ago, I became disabled and had to stop work. My spine had almost become useless and was pinching nerves to my legs. I went to the V.A. and they recommended I move near a major V.A. to get surgery up and down my spine to just stabliize it. I refused.
I had heard of a diet based on lettuce, carrots and celery with some chicken and other items.
and I took Vitamin D and Calcium.
It tooks a few years, but, My spine has improved dramatically. I no longer experience pain.
With what I’ve accomplished thru excellent diet, I hope to someday to be able to exercise and see further improvement.
I’m 1,000% behind what a good diet can do in one’s life.
Walter – wow!! This is exactly what being healthy is all about; healing the body of all kinds of pains and illnesses. You are absolutely right that eating nutritious foods does wonders for all kinds of bodily discomforts. I’m so glad you shared your story here and that eating well helped you out of such a tough place of pain. Keep up the amazing efforts on behalf of your health! Cheers!
Yours in health and wellness,