I’ve always been an active person. I started waterskiing at just 4 years old. By the time I was in high school, I was competitive in waterskiing, snow skiing, dancing, gymnastics, field hockey, softball, and cheerleading. Sports and physical fitness were a significant part of my life, to say the least. As I got older, organized sports became less important, but I continued to work out and was adamant about staying in shape.
In 2013, a friend lovingly talked me into running a Tough Mudder. If you’re not familiar, this is a roughly 13-mile race, sometimes up the side of a mountain, with nearly two dozen extreme obstacles throughout the course. In this case, I would have to climb to the peak of Mount Snow in Dover, Vt., six times while crawling through a pool of electric wires, monkeying my way across a mud river, and swimming through a vat of ice water known as the Arctic Enema. Sounds fun, right?
Not being a runner (I actually loathed running), I committed to a serious training regimen which involved running more than 30 miles a week. What started as a daunting task that I dreaded with every step quickly turned into a love affair that had me wanting to run faster, harder, farther.
A year or so later, while training for my first half-marathon, I noticed a nagging feeling in my lower back. I spent a few days trying to stretch it out before heading to a chiropractor. The doctor snapped me back into place, but the relief was short-lived. Every time I tried to run, or do any sort of physical activity, I found myself in the same boat: burning pain, unable to sit for long periods, and forced to fall asleep with a pillow under my legs and an electric heating pad on my back. I was 33 years old, and as far as I was concerned, way too young to deal with back problems.
The pain lasted about six months before I decided to see an orthopedist. When I walked in for my first appointment, I expected him to fix me on the spot. He ordered a round of X-rays but warned me against my expectations.
When the X-rays came back, the doctor explained that I had a mild case of arthritis and prescribed a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is a fancy term for Advil. The doctor went on to say that there was nothing significantly wrong with my back. In fact, he said my spine was “picture-perfect.” The news was extremely frustrating. If there really was nothing wrong, why was I in so much pain? I felt I deserved an answer.
About a thousand or so Google searches later, I learned that I’m not alone. Around 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lives. Of those, 10 percent develop chronic low back pain, which lasts 12 weeks or longer. What’s worse, at least in my opinion, is that many of us will never understand the exact cause of the pain or be offered a guaranteed fix. That’s not entirely surprising when you consider that our backs are comprised of dozens of muscles, nerves, and bones, all of which are working in concert to keep us upright. Sometimes, the simple wear and tear of everyday life is enough to wreak havoc on one’s spine and surrounding muscles.
I spent the next year or so in denial, demanding additional information, seeking a second opinion, trying physical therapy, heading back to the chiropractor, and getting a few steroid injections. I searched high and low for a silver bullet that would magically erase the pain, but I came up empty every time. On top of it all, I watched a lifetime of sports and physical fitness ripped out from underneath me. The pain was bad enough, but the loss of a once active lifestyle was heartbreaking. I knew there had to be a better way.
Just Keep Walking, Walking, Walking
In summer 2015, I stumbled upon that better way. Unable to run or participate in any strenuous activities, I found myself walking a lot. At work, I would do laps around the parking lot during my lunch break. At home, my dogs reveled in late night and early morning strolls. I didn’t realize it right away, but the pain and discomfort slowly started to subside. Walking didn’t erase the pain completely, but it did provide significant relief, so much that I now recommend walking to just about anyone who says they have low back pain.
It turns out that there’s a good reason why walking helped ease the pain. According to experts, walking not only strengthens the muscles in your legs and back, but it also helps strengthen your core muscles, which are key to a healthy back.
Core is King
Most people know that core is king when it comes to a healthy back. For me, this became quite evident after I began experiencing the pain firsthand. My gut reaction was to stay put and move as little as possible, hoping not to cause further aggravation. But the more I read, the more I learned that strengthening my core would help support my back, and thus, relieve the pain.
When I think of core exercises, the first thing that pops into my head is sit-ups. If you’re experiencing low back pain, the last thing you want to do is sit-ups, so here’s a short list of core exercises that I found helpful:
Low back extensions or swimmers
Elbow to knee crunches
Stretch It Out
Another great way to relieve low back pain is with good, old-fashioned stretching. There are a number of stretches that are especially helpful for this particular condition. Here are a few of my favorites:
Knee to chest
Lying knee twist
Anything But Sitting
At the height of my problem, I could not sit down for more than a couple of minutes without writhing in pain. I remember meeting friends for dinner in Saratoga Springs last summer. I grabbed a table on the restaurant’s outdoor patio and got a text that my friends were running late. After 20 or so minutes, my friends arrived and I was in agony. I tried to enjoy their company but could not get past the pain. Needless to say, dinner was an uncomfortable experience for all.
If you have low back pain, try your best to avoid sitting for long periods. This can be difficult if, like me, you have a long commute or a desk job. If that’s the case, try putting a lumbar support cushion in your vehicle or in your office chair. If possible, see if your company will accommodate a standing work station. CDPHP® was kind enough to provide these to employees who wanted them. For me, it has made a world of difference.
If you do have to sit for long periods of time, make a conscious effort to sit up straight and engage your core muscles. It’s sometimes helpful to put a note on your computer screen as a reminder.
Mind Over Matter
Pain can be consuming. I didn’t know this until I began dealing with it every single day. I had always been a very positive person, but after several months of pain, I noticed a change in my personality. It began to penetrate my personal and professional life. I lost confidence. I became anxious. I even caught myself snapping at people I really care about. I remember waking up one morning and thinking that there’s no way I can deal with this for the rest of my life. The reason I’m telling you this is because you can get through it. The mind is a very powerful thing.
Once I accepted the fact that my back was not going to magically get better, the pain became more tolerable. The hardest part was admitting to myself that my 30-something body could no longer do things I once cherished (gulp). That took a lot of courage.
Instead of training my body, I learned how to train my brain. I took up meditation, which taught me to acknowledge pain, then move past it. Ironically, I found that training my mind was way more difficult than any race I’d ever run or sport I’d ever played.
As the adage goes: Everything happens for a reason. I’m not happy I have back problems. And I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. But I’ve learned that pain is relative and with a couple deep breaths, a walk, and a stretch, I can get through this. And you can, too.