Why do so many of us have back pain?
We (as a society) throw huge amounts of money at back pain. There’s new gadgets, research, more effective drugs, better surgeries and dozens more practitioners out there all touting to be the next big thing in curing back pain, yet back pain remains as prevalent as it ever was. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.
So why is it that back pain is still such an issue?
- Everyone is different. Gosh, wasn’t that a groundbreaking statement. Yes, well, forgive me for stating the obvious but, it’s true. If we treated your back pain the same way we treat everyone else’s, we’re not going to get very far, as unfortunately everyone’s backs behave differently (and misbehave differently!) That’s why all of these treatment that work for everyone else don’t necessarily work for you- because your back is different to theirs and you need to find the approach that works for you! P.S. This is why whenever someone asks me if I get bored “cracking backs all day” I can answer with a resounding NO! a) Because I don’t “crack backs” and b) because I have to not only work out what’s going on and diagnose it correctly but also work out how best to treat it based on what’s happening and what you want! It’s not quite as simple as handing over a pill and sending you out the door. Blimey, how boring would that be!
- We’re treating it far too literally.
This is the big one! So many treatments out there focus on treating the area of pain as though that’s the cause of the pain. Pain in the lower back, treat the lower back. Monkey see, monkey do. Do you follow? Well, there’s two problems there. Firstly, if it was that simple to treat back pain, it wouldn’t be such a massive problem. Secondly, if we isolate our treatment and just focus on the spine, we are ignoring everything the spine connects to (and you don’t need a genius to tell you that the spine connects to everything!) As such, treating just one thing in the giant jigsaw that is your back pain is going to end up in tears and a lot of wasted time (and money). Of course we need to treat the site of pain (duh, that’s where it hurts!) but pain in itself only tells us there’s a problem, not where the problem is or what it is. Treating the site of the pain is lazy- we need to look at everything inside your body that impacts on the area of pain and could, as a result, be affecting it. Then, we need to look at everything outside your body (like your job, hobbies, environment) and see if that’s having an impact too!
As a really simple demonstration of this, do me a favour- Google “Cervicogenic headache.” Done it? What does it say? That it’s pain referred to the head from structures (i.e. soft tissues and joints) in the neck. So as you see, you could take a paracetamol or sit with an icepack on your forehead but as this isn’t the source of the pain, it’s not going to do much good in the long term. A good clinician needs to look further afield to find out what’s actually causing that pain.
Have a look at the image below- see how forward head carriage can cause dysfunction in your back and thoracic extensors?! What a waste of time it would be just treating the back and not addressing the forward head carriage (i.e. the issue that’s actually causing the pain!)
So if back pain is really so tricky to treat, what can we really do about it? Here’s two super simple tips.
1) Get in touch with mother nature. No, we don’t mean making skirts out of hemp and running naked through the wilderness (although feel free, if that’s your thing). We mean take your shoes and socks off and feel the ground.
The nerves in your lower back run all the way down to your feet for a reason! Your feet provide feedback to your brain that not only tells your brain where you are in space, but they also provide invaluable feedback to help stabilise your body. Stick some bulky trainers on to stop your feet from being able to feel the ground and those feedback signals sent to your brain get confused, which leads to instability. When the brain feels unsafe, or unstable, it’s going to make things hurt and reduce the amount of movement in the area.
(While we’re on the subject, where most people go wrong is that at this point, right when they have less movement, they strain against it to push the body beyond that threshold. As soon as you go beyond where your body is happy to go, the body has a habit of going into shutdown- it tenses up and produces pain to stop you from doing it again!)
Simply put- the more skin in touch with the ground, the more sensory input your brain gets, which it in turn feeds forward to your spine, giving you more stability and in turn reducing pain.
You’d think, given it’s something you’ve been doing your whole life, that you’d know how to breathe by now. But I bet you don’t! Do yourself a favour- for the next 24 hours, try and pay attention to how you’re breathing when you’re moving. My bet is that you hold your breath when you’re performing dynamic movements. Why? Read on, dear friends and all shall be made clear.
Breathing is closely related to spinal stability. If you think of your body as a barrel, the diaphragm is the top, and the pelvic floor the bottom. The diaphragm regulates our intra-abdominal pressure and contributes massively to our spinal stability. So when our spine is unstable and weak, we hold our breath to perform movements. This is an ill-informed attempt by our brain to increase our intra-adnominal pressure and maintain spinal stability because it’s worried that if we don’t, we’ll become unstable and get injured. Pull that belly button in towards your spine and breathe OUT as you perform dynamic movements- this will engage the good ol’ core musculature and take the pressure of your diaphragm and stop relying on the diaphragm alone to provide spinal stability. 24 hours, focusing on your breathing, that’s all I ask. Being mindful and aware is key to changing your habits.
In a nutshell, part of your treatment programme is going to involve teaching you how to breathe!
So there you have it!
Now you understand why back pain can be such a nuisance to treat. Fortunately, you’ve got those two simple steps to reducing your back pain. Doesn’t that sound like a great catchphrase?! Honestly though, if I could give one (okay, two) pieces of advice to every person I see in clinic, it would be those. Create some healthy habits to help your spine and I guarantee you’ll see an improvement.
Until next time…