Almost everyone will experience at least one episode of back pain in their life, and many of us will have several bouts or even chronic back pain. While acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic can help, it’s worth having some tools you can use on your own, wherever and whenever the need arises.
I’ve been helping people get out of pain for the past 20+ years, and have discovered many useful strategies for back pain. Today I’ll share five of my favorites.
But first, a little theory. I’ve found that teaching my patients about the mechanisms behind pain often produces an instant reduction in their discomfort. A fundamental principle of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that all pain involves some sort of stagnation. Whether it’s stagnant digestion, stagnant blood flow, stagnant lymph, or even stagnant thinking and emotions, stuckness is counter to wellness. Good health, on the other hand, always entails flow – a free-flowing adaptability to challenges, free movement of blood, other fluids, muscles, tendons, and joints, and freely feeling and moving through thoughts and emotions. So everything I recommend below entails opening up stagnation and restoring free movement again.
1. Keep Moving Your Body. After an injury, we’re often told to rest (which has some value), but total immobility usually slows down the recovery process. In nearly all pain, there is muscular tightness and restricted circulation. This stagnation is even more obvious in the case of swelling (e.g., a sprained ankle), where lymph has pooled in the area and gets stuck there. Safely moving the affected area promotes clearing of pooled lymph, elimination of cellular waste and debris, an influx of fresh blood – and a reduction of pain.
In biomedical terms, pain is an alarm that’s trying to warn us of danger or injury – like the pain that arises when you touch a hot pan. But it’s not an infallible system. It can be trained (or mis-trained) to give us a strong pain signal even when we’re not in danger. It can also get “stuck in the ON position” – not turning off the pain even though we’ve resolved whatever the issue was.
Experimenting with ways to safely move the painful part of your body without causing pain is a useful means of retraining the nervous system to deactivate the alarm and lower its sensitivity.
Also, it’s always a good idea to move around frequently throughout your day, since a sedentary lifestyle – and the postural stress it causes – is a major contributor to back pain.
2. Heat + Topical Herbs. Another way to promote circulation and alleviate pain – and especially useful when movement is restricted or not possible – is through the application of heat and circulation-enhancing herbs. Heat application promotes dilation (opening) of blood vessels. It doesn’t have the numbing effect that cold can, but in the long run it’s a more useful treatment.
It’s especially effective when applied in combination with external herbs or essential oils of plants that also enhance circulation. Many of these can be found in our Muscle Melt products. Some of the most popular are peppermint (or its most active constituent, menthol), eucalyptus, cinnamon, fresh ginger, and capsaicin (chili pepper).
It’s always a good idea when using a heating device to check frequently to make sure you’re not burning yourself, since sensitivity to heat may be impaired due to the pain, pain medications, and/or the external herbs.
3. Stretches + Hydration. Dehydration often plays a role in pain. The suppleness of our tissues and the free flow of – well, everything in the body – depends on water. Especially if you combine dried out muscles with a sedentary lifestyle or exertion without first warming up, you’ve got a recipe for pain. I like to have patients combine hydration with stretching, to help get the water into the affected tissues. There are lots of stretches that can help, depending on the particular nature of your back pain. These are six that tend to be the most helpful.
a. Cat-Cow. On your hands and knees, slowing alternate back and forth between a fully rounded spine and a fully arched spine. Taking a five seconds to move from one position to the other. Repeat ten times.
b. Cobra. Lying face down on the floor, place your hands palm-down under your shoulders and slowly arch your back. Hold, then slowly release back to the floor. Repeat ten times. You’re primarily using your back muscles to lift yourself, with the hands just there for stability. You don’t need to strive for a big stretch here – just enough muscle engagement to warm up the lower back without causing any pain.
c. Child’s Pose. Kneel on the floor, touch your big toes together, sit on your heels, spread your knees as wide as your hips, then lay your torso down between your thighs. Rest your arms at your sides, palms up. You can lie in this position for as long as it feels good. Breathe slowly and deeply.
d. Lying Side Twists. Lie on your back with legs extended. Bring one knee up toward your chest, then take it across your body, aiming past the opposite hip. Your knee may or may not rest on the floor. Hold for ten seconds, then come back to center and repeat. You can also try placing the knee higher and lower to direct the stretch to different parts of your back. Generally, with a high knee (even with the opposite hip, for instance) you’ll target the lowest part of the lumbar spine. With a lower knee (even with the opposite knee, for instance), you’ll target more of the upper lumbar region and lower midback.
e. Lying Glute Stretch. Lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, cross your left ankle over your right knee. Then interlace your fingers to grasp your right knee (either inside the bend of the knee, holding onto the hamstrings, or – even better – grasping over the front of the knee) and pull the knee toward you. You may need to use your left elbow to press against your left knee to push it away and intensify the stretch. Make sure your left foot is extended (dorsiflexed) toward the left knee. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides.
f. Hamstring Wall Stretch. Lie on the floor near a flat wall. Scoot your butt as close to the wall as you can get it. Gently raise your legs and place them with unbent knees flat against the wall (scoot your butt a little bit more forward if you need to). Tight hamstrings often contribute to a tight lower back and this hamstring stretch tends to be easy on the lower back. Rest in this position for 30 to 60 seconds.
4. Breathe Through It. In TCM, our vital energy – Qi – is considered to be circulated by the breath. That is, breathing moves energy. It’s part of why we sigh when we’re stressed – or relieved. Intentionally breathing “through” a painful area can often quickly reduce pain. Imagine that you’re drawing your inhale through your back, and then exhaling the pain out through your back.
Meanwhile, practice non-resistance. Don’t fight the pain. Just for this moment, allow it to be here, stop struggling against it, and stop telling yourself something is “wrong.” In fact, see if you can even invite the pain to just be here. And breathe.
5. Visualize Movement. There are many useful visualization practices for alleviating pain. A basic place to start is to imagine movement happening in the painful part of your back. Visualize blood coursing through the area, see energy or light moving in and out of your back, “watch” your cells shutting down the inflammation, making repairs, and soothing irritated tissues. Inhale white, healing light, and exhale dark, stagnant pain out of the area. Find a visualization that works for you. I sincerely hope these techniques work for you and that very soon you’re pain free and getting back to what you love.
Dr. Peter Borten
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