Our basic premise is: Your body is amazing. You get a do-over; it doesn’t take that long, and isn’t that hard if you know what to do. In these columns, we give you a short course in what to do so it becomes easy for you, and then you can teach others. We want you to know how much control you have over your quality and length of life.
Today we want to talk about how you can bring some happiness back into your life by eliminating back pain.
In many ways, back pain is a metaphorical gunshot wound to your body because, depending on its intensity, it can paralyze you and prevent you from doing everything—even walking, tying your shoes or using the toilet. In fact, 72 percent of people who sought treatment for back pain gave up on sports and exercise, and 46 percent of people say the pain was enough to give up sex—and not just for a day. And there’s nothing happy about that. Back pain is one of medicine’s true anatomical enigmas.
As common as back pain is, it’s often difficult—if not impossible—to diagnose what caused it. In fact, some of the diagnostic testing we use only makes the medical mystery more confusing. Some people with lots of symptoms have normal or near-normal MRIs, and some people with MRIs that would seem to suggest terrible back pain have absolutely no pain at all. For many sufferers, nutritional deficiencies promote inflammation and prevent them from making normal myelin nerve coatings, so even a little pressure from a disk or a twist results in shooting nerve pain. For these folks, instead of focusing on the mechanical problems (i.e., the disk), we’re better off resuscitating your anti-inflammatory powers and your ability to coat your nerves with appropriate B vitamins and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Fortunately, pinpointing the exact cause of a back breakdown isn’t what’s important, since most back pain can be alleviated with the right therapy.
Luckily, there are things you can do, too. We do not have space to go into the anatomy here, but we can still help. In general, less is more.
Develop Your Core. Sure, working out your biceps and calves may be nice for showing off at the pool, but if you want to stave off the crippling effects of a lower-back meltdown, the most important thing you can do is work the foundation muscles in your body’s core. These muscles—especially your abdominals, which oppose your back muscles—help provide the support, muscular strength, and stamina to prevent back injuries. Do core exercises, such as Pilates, three days a week to work your abdominals and lower-back muscles. And don’t forget exercises such as lunges and squats, which strengthen your core by placing them on a firmer foundation.
Stop Inflammation. If you experience one of those oh-my-Lord moments when your back gives out on you like a plastic bag stretched thin by too many cans, you know the first line of action: Grab the ice. Applying ice for 20 minutes at a time will reduce the inflammation occurring from the strain. After you remove the ice, the blood flow increases in a way that takes away toxic chemicals from your injured tissues. Use ice for the first 24 to 48 hours, then switch to heat for 20 minutes at a time (be it through pads, saunas, wraps, heating pads or fire-breathing dragons), which will help promote blood flow to speed healing. By the way, when you use ice, your back will feel better afterward as it works to warm itself up. When you use heat, it feels better during the treatment and then tends to stiffen up when you stop using it as the area cools down. Of course, you can also use anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation, and docs may prescribe a muscle relaxant or shoot local anesthetic into the muscle (trigger-point injections) to keep the darn things from spasming and feeling tighter than a cyclist’s shorts. For a natural alternative, willow bark, from which aspirin was derived, is often as effective as ibuprofen without the risk of irritating your stomach if you rub it on. Another way to help heal: Lie on your back flat on the floor with a towel in the small of your back and stretch out your back muscles. It takes 15 minutes to realign and stretch your back muscles with this position. If your back keeps tightening, it may be worth also trying massage therapy.
Get Up and Go. Constantly lying in your bed or on the floor with back pain is going to do one thing and one thing only: make it worse. The way to bounce back is to make sure that you’re up and around, moving your muscles, working them back into shape. We’re not suggesting that you sign up for the local rugby team if you just pulled your back, but walking around the house is more productive—and more healing—than sitting.
Pick It Up. Bending over might work if you’re playing offensive line for the Cleveland Browns. But in most cases, we all make the same mistake every time we accidentally drop a crumb, paper or binky on the living room carpet. We bend at the waist and pick up whatever it is we need. But basic physics would dictate that 90-degree flexing is the source of a lot of trouble. The 90-degree flex puts the most strain on your back. Instead, bend at the knees into a squat position and then pick the object up. This is another reason lunges and squats are good exercises: They keep the leg muscles strong so you can use good technique when picking things up. Or just walk around with a pooper scooper (a clean one, preferably) or one of those handy-dandy reach-assist things, so you rarely have to bend over.
Roll Around. Use your spare tennis balls for something other than Bluto’s game of fetch. Put one or two balls in a sock. Put the sock under the painful spot in your back and lie on the balls. It works like an ultra-focused deep tissue massage on the area, sans the hands of Sven. If you start with these few tips, pretty soon you’ll realize the key to being fearless is making your core strong, and knowing how to minimize your risks, so there is nothing to fear.
Michael F. Roizen, M.D., is a professor of internal medicine and anesthesiology, and chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.
Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., is a professor and vice chairman of surgery, and director of the Cardiovascular Institute and Integrated Medical Center at New York’s Presbyterian-Columbia University. Roizen and Oz are the authors of the New York Times best-selling YOU series, including recent releases YOU Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual to Extending Your Warranty and YOU On a Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management (Free Press). Their goal is to extend your body’s warranty with surefire anti-aging strategies that will, in their words, “give you more energy than a Labrador puppy.”