Do you feel tired and grouchy because you’re lower back hurts? Are you worried you’ll always have to suffer with lower back pain?
Most people sometime in their life will have pain in their low back. Including Paul Anderson.
Paul is the genius behind The Piano Guys. However, the group might not exist if Paul hadn’t tweaked his lower back. At the time of the injury, Paul sold pianos.
Pain made it impossible for Paul to walk, stand, or lift anything – much less a piano. He was flat in bed with the pain. He tried many things over several months before he found how to relieve lower back pain.
While in bed, Paul learned how to make money on YouTube – and founded The Piano Guys. Working with a pain specialist, he learned to manage his chronic back pain through his mind-body connection.
Whether you lifted a heavy box this morning and twisted your back, or you’ve been suffering with pain for several months, this guide will help you understand your back and find relief from pain.
If you suffer with lower back pain, you’re in the majority! That’s right – about 80% of people will experience pain in their low back at some time in their life
Why is pain in this area so common?
The lower back is made up of five vertebrae (L1-L5) in your backbone. This part of your spine forms the support system for your upper body. This part of the spine is vulnerable to injury – especially with our modern lifestyle of eating too much and sitting too long.
If you injure your lower back, there’s a 20% chance this injury can turn into chronic pain!
Let’s start by discussing the kinds of pain you experience.
The more you know about your body, it’s structure, and how it functions, the better able you are to recover from injury, anatomy problems, and stress. It’s easy, however, to discount this mind-body connection. Please don’t do so. Education about your body overcomes fear and helps you heal.
Many main-stream institutions have discovered this mind-body connection to be so important that they devote time and resources to it’s study. Harvard Medical School, Columbia Medical School, and the Mayo Clinic all have entire departments devoted to mind-body healing.
Now, let’s actually talk about what to do to relieve low back pain.
After an injury, your first response might be to take a nice warm bath. Or to curl up with a heating pad.
Don’t do it! An ice pack put on your back for 20 minutes is the best remedy. At least for the first 24 to 48 hours. It quickly numbs the pain and reduces inflammation. If you don’t have an ice pack, try a package of frozen peas or corn! These packages seem to mold to the contours of your back.
Warmth feels good because it relaxes you. It also seems to make the pain go away for a bit. However, applying heat in the first few days will actually make swelling worse.
So remember – cold for 2 days. Then you can curl up with something warm or cold – whichever feels best. You can also alternate between cold and heat. Just be sure not to leave either on for too long. Generally around 20 minutes is most effective. And wrap your ice or heat pack in a towel so you don’t damage your skin.
Be sure to check with a doctor if you had an injury or accident in the past 6 months. You might have injured your back and don’t realize it. Also, if you have an underlying medical condition – or any of the following signs – please schedule a checkup:
There are also alternative oral supplements you can try which have shown to help with pain and reduce swelling.
Tumeric is the spice which gives curry its orange color and distinctive flavor due to curcumin. Several small clinical studies have shown that curcumin is helpful for pain relief.
When using curcumin as a pain relief supplement, look for a dose ranging from 500 mg to 2000 mg of curcuminoids. Typically curcumin is difficult to absorb. Taking curcumin with a bit of fat helps your body utilize it better.
Turmeric/curcumin supplements are generally safe, but they can give you an upset stomach. If you take blood thinners or blood-sugar-lowering medications, please consult with your doctor before taking curcumin.
Another supplement which may be helpful is CBD oil. This is an extract from the hemp plant. CBD is one of the compounds in marijuana. (It’s not the “get high” ingredient THC). CBD taken orally has been shown to alleviate anxiety and reduce some forms of pain.
Studies are ongoing on the types of pain CBD helps. Also some people don’t tolerate CBD very well and get nausea and diarrhea. It can also affect certain medications. For this reason it’s good to consult with a pharmacist before you start to take CBD.
The bark from the white willow tree has been used since 500 BC in China as a treatment for pain and fever. It contains salicin, which is chemically related to aspirin. White willow also contains tremulacin, which has been shown to alleviate inflammation.
White willow can be taken as a pill, powder, extract, or made into a tea. The usual dosage is 120 mg 1-2 times a day. White willow should not be taken with OTC drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or with anything which interacts badly with aspirin.
Essential oils have been used for centuries to relieve anxiety. They may also help with pain. Most people are familiar with essential oils diffused in the air. But you can also use them on your skin to ease lower back pain.
First lie on your stomach. Have someone rub coconut oil on your lower back. Dribble 3-4 drops of wintergreen and peppermint oils, 2-3 drops of eucalyptus oil and marjoram oils. (If you have Birch or Helichrysum oils,you can also add 1-2 drops of those.)
Place a hot damp towel over your back. Then cover with a dry towel and a blanket. Soak up the oils for 10 minutes. Don’t do this within the first 48 hours of pain as the heat will increase inflammation.
These particular oils provide a cooling effect, will relax you, and may help with inflammation and pain.
There are many over-the-counter creams, sprays, and patches, that help relieve back pain. Some just cool the skin. Some relieve swelling. And some actually block the pain. Be sure to read the ingredients; as many brands have multiple products with different ingredients..
When using pain relief products, always read the directions and warnings. Never apply to a wound or damaged skin, and do not use with a heating pad, as you could get burned. After rubbing a product in, wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
Menthol and Camphor give your skin a cooling sensation. However, they don’t really help pain or reduce swelling. Instead, they provide a nice calming diversion from the pain.
Menthol and/or camphor are found in IcyHot, Biofreeze, Bengay, Absorbine Jr., and other creams.
Methyl salicylate is also called oil of wintergreen. Methyl salicylate causes a cooling sensation as well. It also has a minor effect on pain and inflammation akin to aspirin (salicylic acid) because the two compounds are related.
Creams with methyl salicylate include IcyHot, Bengay, and others.
Capsaicin is the ingredient that makes chili peppers hot. In clinical trials, capsaicin has been shown to decrease pain by shutting down your pain neurons. However, OTC creams/patches contain just a fraction of the amount used in clinical trials, so they may not be as effective.
Products with capsaicin include Zostrix, Capzasin, and others.
Lidocaine is a local anesthetic. It blocks nerve signals in your body and is used by doctors to numb an area of your body during minor procedures. It can help with pain and itching, but does not relieve swelling.
Lidocaine is found in IcyHot with lidocaine, Aspercreme with lidocaine, and others.
Most people are familiar with OTC pain meds and pain-relieving creams. On the other hand, most people aren’t aware that simple stretching can be as effective as any over the counter treatment!
Your back is a complicated structure. This can make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing your pain.
Sometimes the pain comes from muscles designed to support your back. Sometimes it’s caused by your hip-rotator muscles (which connect to your spine). And sometimes it’s inflamed nerves connected to leg muscles (which run through your spinal column).
Until you understand what is causing your pain, try stretching all three areas (low back, hips, legs). Then focus on the stretches that give you the most relief.
Also, if any of the stretches below cause pain, immediately stop and consult with your doctor.
Also skip these stretches.
There is a teeny, tiny muscle in your hips called the piriformis. When it’s inflamed, it can cause pain in your hip, back. The pain can also radiate down your leg in what’s called sciatica.
When your back hurts you feel like sitting or lying down and not moving. However, that’s one of the worst things you can do! Walking, yoga, and strengthening your muscles are three of the very best ways to get rid of low back pain.
Walking is one of the best exercises you can do – especially if you do it every day. Walking increases the flexibility of your back and strengthens your support muscles. It also increases blood flow to your back and legs.
You might be hesitant to start walking if your back hurts.Here are some tips to start – and keep – a walking routine:
Several studies have shown that attending a 12-week yoga program for those with chronic back pain led to better back function and lower pain.
There are many different types of yoga. When dealing with back pain, look for a program that focuses on proper alignment and includes blocks or straps for modifications. Lyengar and Hatha yoga are good choices.
You can attend a local yoga class, watch Youtube videos, or find a yoga series on Amazon. Some poses are difficult to get right, so it’s helpful to attend a class or practice in front of a mirror. Here are some yoga poses for back pain. (Some of these are included in the stretching section above.)
“Lower back pain is the most common musculoskeletal ailment in the U.S., and can often be mitigated by strengthening the core musculature,” said Blake Dircksen, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist in New York.
This means doing birddogs, dead bugs, and clamshells all strengthen your core!
Your core consists of muscles in your abdomen, back, and butt. These muscles form a cylinder around your body and support it like a corset. By strengthening these areas, you’ll have more energy and be in less pain.
When exercising with back pain, however, it is important to be careful. You want to find which movements cause discomfort or pain and avoid those movements. If you feel sick, stop exercising and immediately see your doctor.
If you have a history of back injuries or disc problems, check with your doctor before starting an exercise regime
Besides stretching and exercising there are several other things you can do from the comfort of your own home to mitigate back pain. Releasing your fascia, raising your kinesthetic awareness, and meditation are three effective ways to treat pain.
Fascia is the connective tissue in your body. Think of it like thick glue holding everything together. It covers muscles, organs, nerves, etc. And sometimes it gets bunched up – and feels knotty. You un-knot it through Self Myofascial Release (SFR).
Kinesiology is the scientific study of human body movement. Kinesiology addresses physiological, biomechanical, and psychological mechanisms of movement.
Everyone moves a bit differently. Some people know exactly where they’re placing their feet when they walk. Others have limited spatial awareness and frequently walk into things.
A specific type of kinesiology for pain is somatic movement. Gentle somatic exercises teach you how to make changes in movement, posture, and body language to reduce pain.
Meditation is like weight-lifting for your brain. Strengthening the mind-body connection through meditation can change the way the brain perceives the input from the body. If you can change the way the brain perceives signals from the body you can actually change the experience of pain.
To meditate, you focus on something other than your random thoughts. This focus can be on your breath, on a word, or listening to a guided meditation. In fact, there are specific guided meditations to help reduce pain.
Meditation can help any type of pain, including herniated disc pain.
A herniated disc is when one of the discs between the bones in your spine slips out of place.
Sometimes this happens and there’s no pain. Often, however, the disc pushes on a nerve. Then pain – which can be sudden, or develop gradually. The good news is most herniated discs heal on their own.
The treatments listed above can relieve pain from a herniated disc. If these don’t help, visit with your doctor who can order images to see exactly what’s wrong.
Herniated discs are caused by aging and/or injury. Luckily pregnancy does not cause herniated discs. If you have a herniated disc and you’re pregnant, visit with your doctor. You may have osteoporosis or have suffered a back injury.
The good news is that when your baby finally arrives, your aches and pains leave. Until then, stretching, exercise, meditation, and other therapies listed above can help back pain. Talking with friends, your mom, or a new mother’s group can also help with pregnancy concerns.
Although back pain is common during pregnancy, women experience back pain more often than men. There are several reasons for this; structural changes after pregnancy and hormonal changes during menopause.
Your body goes through a lot of changes when you’re pregnant. Most of the time your body returns back to it’s pre-pregnancy state (well . . . close to pre-pregnancy anyway).
However, sometimes this doesn’t happen. Maybe your body has “shut off” a muscle group. You might nurse your baby and develop poor posture. Your diastasis recti might not knit back together. Or perhaps your pelvic floor shut down due to a long labor.
One of the very best resources for post-pregnancy body recovery is Core Exercise Solutions with Dr. Sarah Ellis Duvall. She’s a physical therapist with two kids. She provides tons of various exercises and work-arounds to help women relieve pain.
Post menopausal women have more back pain. When your body stops producing estrogen, it can cause osteoporosis. It can also cause the discs in your back to degenerate faster. Low levels of Vitamin D also contribute to these conditions. Osteoporosis and disc degeneration can cause back pain.
The good news is you can stop this damage with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and vitamin D supplements.
Hormone replacement therapy is just what it sounds like – replacing the hormones.
Bio-Identical HRT has been shown to have no adverse effects. Like everything, do your research. Then consult with a medical professional you trust. Some doctors are pro Bio-identical HRT. Others are against it.
Note that natural estrogen supplements may help hot flashes, they haven’t been studied as a prevention for bone loss.
Everyone feels better with a good night’s sleep. You’ve probably heard about good sleep hygiene, right? This just means having a bedtime routine. If you have a good bedtime routine and wake up due to back pain, it might be your sleeping position.
If you sit most of the day, you’re at an increased risk for low back pain because it makes your hip flexors tight. Which makes other muscles, like glutes, stay lengthened. Which makes them forget how to fire (dead butt syndrome). When this happens, smaller muscles in your back and lower body pick up the slack and cause low back pain.
To overcome low back pain from sitting, strengthen your glutes with exercises such as deadbug, forearm plank, and single leg bridges (which are listed above).
There are also some additional things you can do to help your lower back – and your neck – feel better while working:
There is a lot of advice out there. Some of it wastes your money. Some of it helps a tiny bit. And some things can actually make your back pain worse. Skip these three treatments:
Unless you fidget, wiggle, and move all day like a little kid, skip sitting on an exercise ball. Exercise balls for adults are meant as a piece of exercise equipment to strengthen your core.
Sitting on an exercise ball seems like it would help. But it’s like holding dumbballs all day. That would be tiring and counterproductive. It would actually make your arms weaker. And sitting on an exercise ball day does the same thing.
Special shoes sound great. And they are for some conditions. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive evidence that special shoes, shoe inserts, or back supports help lower back pain. The same goes for specially designed furniture.
Acupuncture works for some types of pain. It hasn’t been studied enough with lower back pain to determine if it’s effective or not. However, If you’re fond of needles, go for it!
If you’ve tried many of the suggestions on this list and still don’t feel better – or if you’ve had back pain for more than a few months – it might be time to consider outside treatment options.
Before scheduling an appointment with a licensed professional, however, check with your insurance to see what they do and don’t cover. Some insurance companies require a referral from your primary care physician.
Consider visiting a Chiropractor. Many people find relief of low back pain by going to a chiropractor. It typically takes 2-3 sessions a week for 2-4 weeks to improve.
Physical Therapy can quickly determine if you’re doing an exercise correctly. They can also apply heat, cold, or electrical stimulation to help your muscles fire better. They can teach you stretches and exercises to do at home (often with exercise bands).
Pain Management Centers have M.D.’s who can prescribe medications for pain. They also do minor procedures. One procedure is a trigger-point injection of cortisone which calms the muscles. Injections provide relief from 1-3 months.
Another common treatment for low back pain is radiofrequency ablation. A doctor destroys (ablates) the nerve fibers which carry signals to the brain. It can take up to 10 days for pain relief, and relief typically lasts 9 months to 2 years.
Orthopedic doctors perform surgery on the bones. This is usually recommended when you’ve had a serious injury to your back and the surrounding muscles.
There are several different lower back surgeries which can be discussed with your doctor. It can take 3 – 9 months to fully recover from back surgery.
As you can see, there are many ways to treat back pain. However, staying pain-free is the goal.
When you were little, you knew how to avoid back pain. You bent at your knees to lift a dropped block. You squatted on your heels to see bugs on the floor. And you spent all day running around, instead of sitting.
Unfortunately our bodies don’t fit our lifestyle. But there are things you can to to have a healthy back:
There’s a lot of information about lower back pain on the internet. And the more you know, the more likely it is you’ll find a permanent solution to your pain.
Just pick one of the ideas above and see how it works for you Then try another one. Soon you’ll no longer be in pain.
Like Paul Anderson from the Piano Guys, you can learn how to relieve lower back pain. You CAN live a life free of pain.