Let’s start with my tragic backstory.
I suffered with crippling back pain for more than twenty years. I’m talking about being out on my back, unable to drive, barely able to walk, or work. I spent every moment trying to deal with the pain while doing my best to lead something resembling a normal life. Sometimes, I’d spend a few days in bed loaded up with painkillers and muscle relaxing drugs to get rid of it. Every few weeks, or, if I were lucky, months, my back would go out, and the entire process would start all over again. In between these events, I visited my doctor for advice, and had regular visits with a chiropractor, hoping that perhaps, this might help me get extend the time between when my back would invariably fail me again.
All this to say that I know your pain is real. I understand that it hurts . . . that you hurt. I know it’s not ‘just in your head’. Now, unless you have an actual physical back injury (a disc fracture or some other disease), I have a solution for you.
Some 25 years ago, I told my wife that I was done with back pain. I told her that I was never going back to a chiropractor and that I would never again spend days on my back in pain. I was going to cure myself. Needless to say, she was a tad skeptical. To be honest, I still don’t know what put all this in my head at that time, but suddenly, I had a plan.
Big Giant Caveat: Unless you have a physical injury to your back, or a degenerative disease of some sort (in which case, you should see a doctor, not a chiropractor), chances are your pain results from a kind of automatic survival response. You’re in pain, so the muscles in that part of your back tense up to protect the surrounding tissue and physical structure. Normally, this is a good thing.
Unfortunately, your body can overreact. The tension is impossible to maintain over long periods of time. Eventually, keeping all those muscles tight starts to hurt. Your response to the pain is to tense up even further. From time to time, you can’t hold that tension and you let go, which causes you even more pain, which causes you to tense up again. Round and round you go, from pain to tension, to more pain, to more tension. It’s the proverbial vicious circle.
It’s also the answer.
What you have to understand is that you are in a cycle of pain. The only way out — the only quick way out — is to accept the pain. You need to accept it in all its terrible glory. You must release the tension in your back. If it seems as though I’m making this sound easy, here’s the awful truth. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. You’re going to want to tense up again, but you can’t. You need to embrace the short term pain without fighting it, all the while fighting your body’s natural reaction to the pain, namely tightening up to protect the area in pain. When I say short term, it’s still going to feel like forever, but you have to do it to win this war.
Okay, a little side trip to help you understand. As adults, most of us can relate to being in a vehicle, on our way home or to work, and having to go to the bathroom. Because we’re grownups, we “hold it in” by tightening up the muscles that keep the liquid and solid waste in. Eventually, you get to your destination, race to the bathroom, and get some relief. Sometimes, if you’ve been waiting too long, it can be difficult to let it go. So you take deep breaths, relax those muscles, sometimes by sheer effort of will. You know, from experience, that you need to relax if you’re going to get relief.
Back to your back now. The same principle applies. To release that pain, you’re going to need to relax, and getting to that point may cause you additional pain. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that it will. Stick with it, though. Over time, it gets better. And the more you spend time learning to relax those muscles, the better you’ll get at doing so.
Let’s try an exercise. Clench your hand into a tight fist. As tight as you can. If you have long fingernails, please be careful; I really don’t want you to wind up with fingernail injuries in the palm of your hand. Now, hold that fist for a good, solid, sixty seconds. Try for 90 seconds if you can handle it. Count it out. It’s going to get a little uncomfortable, but that’s part of the exercise. While you count, notice how it affects the circulation in your hand, and feel that tension building. When you’ve counted out those sixty seconds, start to open your hand, as slowly as you can, little by little, and pay attention to the feeling.
If you held that fist tightly enough, and long enough, you will notice that it’s actually kind of hard to open your hand. The muscle tension you created by holding that fist tight for those sixty seconds is now holding you back as you try to release it. The longer you were willing to clench that fist, the more pain probably came with that tension as well. That feeling, from that exercise, is a microcosm of what’s happening in your lower back. The longer you hang on to that tension, the more pain you’ll feel, and the harder it will be to let go.
Still, you have to let go. Since we work with our hands all the time, it’s relatively easy to release the tension you created because you know instinctively how your hands feel. Think about it: you know those muscles so well that you can snatch a ball in mid-flight when somebody yells, “Catch!” Your back muscles aren’t as obvious to you so you will need to start paying attention to them.
Part of this back pain recovery is more than just the one time letting go. It’s a journey of sorts where you need to regularly check in with your back. Learn to know where those muscles are, and how they feel. Tighten and loosen them, just for fun, whether or not you feel pain. You want to become as familiar with those muscles, how they feel, and how they respond, as you are with the muscles of your hand. Reach behind with your hands and knead the area if it helps with locating them. Practice.
I sleep primarily on my back. Every night, when I go to bed, I stretch out and pay attention to whatever tension is there in my lower back. As part of my routine before I sleep, I take inventory of my lower back and force myself to relax. To let go. When you’ve lived with pain for years, it’s kind of amazing how much pain you’ll put up with, and how much you’ll ignore as you sit, or lay down to sleep. Don’t ignore it. Spend a few seconds and really pay attention. If it hurts, let it go, as quickly as you can, even if that ‘letting go’ hurts. You’ll sleep better and you’re more likely to wake up without a sore back.
These days, my reaction to the realization that I’m in pain has become nearly automatic. As soon as I feel those first sharp jabs of pain, my reaction is not to tense up, but to accept the pain and relax. And I do it all the time now. More than 25 years after saying I was done with back pain, I’m never in pain for more than a couple of hours, and then only rarely, because I’ve learned to relax. I don’t shy away from anything that might have previously stopped me, including lifting and moving heavy objects. I have taken the time to learn where those muscles are, how they feel, and how to direct the mental commands to relax in precisely the right area.
Yes, I know that I’ve repeated myself a few times, but that’s the point. Like that old advice about shampooing your hair, wash, rinse, and repeat, you’re going to have to do this over and over again until it becomes automatic. It took me around six months to get to the point where recognizing and dealing with bouts of back pain became an automatic response. It can probably work for you as well. Wash, rinse, repeat . . .
If you’re dealing with chronic back pain, I need not tell you how freeing being able to just get rid of it, nearly as quickly as it comes on, can be to your life. To your well-being. To your peace of mind.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have plenty of things to worry about, but my back is no longer one of them.