DEALING WITH BACK PAIN
Based on statistics that I’ve read, back pain is the number one cause of disability. Back pain affects around 80% of Americans, and we spend over 50 billion dollars to combat this problem. I couldn’t find a study on people that are crazy enough to race 7 other people on 20″ bicycles, but I would imagine back pain is just as prevalent in “seasoned” BMXers. Today we want to go into some of the potential possibilities of what may be causing back pain and then explore some ways to help.
LOOKING AT THE BODY AS A WHOLE
When we think of back pain, quite often low back pain to be more specific, we tend to assume the problem is our back. Traditional health care practitioners will often treat where the client feels pain. The problem with this is, many times what is actually causing pain isn’t where you feel the pain.
I like to make the analogy that if your car’s suspension is not aligned properly, the tires will wear out quickly. The tires are not the problem, it’s the suspension. You can put on a new set of tires but they will just wear out like the last set did.
Often times, where you are experiencing pain, is not the actual problem. If your low back is feeling tight, chances are it’s caused by joints above or below your low back (ribs, hips).
WHERE DOES BACK PAIN COME FROM?
Since the body is super complex, I don’t think anyone really knows for sure. Could it be from bending over at work? Yeah. Could it be from being bent over riding your bike? Yup. Or could it be that you are stressed out and you happen to be hyper-aware of pain? Totally could be.
The funny thing about back pain is that sometimes it’s clear cut like you have a disc herniation and it’s pressing on a nerve. Where it get’s weird is that when you run people through an MRI you will see that many people have very similar herniations and yet many feel no pain. What’s up with that? The brain and the nervous system is what’s up with that. More on this a little later.
FIXES FOR BACK PAIN YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE TRIED
If you have had back pain, you probably have been giving many different recommendations from family and friends. Some are almost cliche at this point. Chiropractor, inversion tables, stretching, yoga, a new mattress, your shoes, a butt load of pain killers, etc. All of the above solutions work for some people and none of these work for others.
SOLUTION #1 – BETTER MOVEMENT
For some people, just moving a little better can totally change the way their back feels. Maybe they are moving more from their lumbar spine and not enough from their hips and that’s what’s pissing off their low back. Or maybe they have a limitation in mobility which is causing them to rotate through parts of the body that are not designed to rotate.
Would ya look at that Squat?! If your back is bothering you and you Squat like this woman (with her ribs and pelvis not facing each other because the spine is quite extended) then fixing this would be a good place to start.
Alright, try to focus guys. Remember when I mentioned rotation? If your ribcage is not in the right position, you can’t rotate well through your upper back. Instead of doing a bunch of stretching, you might get much more out of a very simple thing… exhaling fully.
This will help your ribs to get into a better position and allow your upper spine to rotate the way it was meant too and allow your Lumbar spine to calm down. Check out the video for some more on these two big things.
SOLUTION #2 – CHILLAX
Remember when I mentioned the brain and the nervous system earlier? This is where chillaxing comes in. Chillaxing is a highly technical term. It means you need to chill the F**K out and relax!
More importantly, we need to shut down our fight or flight nervous system. This is so important in so many crucial aspects of our wellbeing, particularly pain. Through the technology in our phones, we can actually monitor the state of our nervous system. Heart Rate Variability or HRV can read the rhythm of our heartbeat and give us a score. This is great because if your score is low you might need to do some chillaxing rather than balls out training.
If you don’t believe that this can affect the pain you’re feeling in your low back, here and here are a couple studies that I found. If you don’t feel like trying to read the links, I’ll sum it up for you. One study found that kids with chronic pain have significantly lower HRV scores than healthy kids. The other study showed a people with lower HRV scores to be more sensitive to a certain level of pain compared to people with higher HRV scores.
There are many methods and products out right now that can help you to chillax. A favorite of mine is breathing slowly. It’s free, easy, and works pretty quickly.
Slow Breathing – Find a comfy spot. Lay on your back or stomach. Close your eyes, plug your ears, breathe in through your nose slowly, quietly, and gently for 3 seconds with your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Exhale through your nose or mouth for 6-10 seconds extra slowly. Pause for 3 seconds and repeat. Do this for 5 – 10 minutes and tell me how you feel afterwards.
HeartMath – This is a product I’m really interested in trying. Basically, from what I understand, it is an HRV monitor that evaluates the fluctuations in real time. Through games and interactive exercises, you teach yourself to respond in situations with more clarity and emotional balance.
Aerobic Exercise – Many people don’t realize the benefits of training the aerobic system. The trick is to find a way that you enjoy raising your heart rate that does not further trigger your back pain. So jogging or the rowing machine may be out of the question for some people. Find a way to get your heart rate up to somewhere around 180 BPM – your age. I’m 36, so my target would be around 144 bpm.
SOLUTION #3 – POSTURE
Standing and sitting with better posture is something we have all been told. Stand up tall, pull your shoulders back, yadda, yadda, yadda… This probably isn’t the best advice. Posture isn’t necessarily a thing you can actively control, and if you try to, you may be doing more harm than good.
Posture is more of a reflection of the balance of our internal systems than just a muscles that are tight and weak (as previously thought by some (me)). If you want better posture, we need to address those internal systems. Once again, our central nervous system is in control. The information our brain is getting from systems regulating visual, vestibular, and proprioception is ultimately what dictates our posture.
Unlock your knees
I notice myself locking my knees in pictures all the time. When I lock my knees, it forces my pelvis to push forward of my center of gravity. Then my pelvis rolls forward and my low back is extended. One simple fix is to just unlock my knees slightly. I can immediately feel my back and calves relax. Try it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
If your back bothers you after a long day at work or a trip to the mall with your wife, it could be the way you are standing. Unlock your knees, exhale, and feel the weight shift from the balls of your feet more towards your heels.
Feel your left heel
Another thing that many people will do is to put most of their weight on their right foot. The way humans are built tends to bias us towards our right side. This happens while walking and standing. This is what I call the Ms. Supercross pose that I referred to in an earlier article.
Ms. Supercross has hardly any weight on her left foot. A simple fix of telling her to feel her left heel will cause a weight shift back and gravity will be spread more evenly.
SOLUTION #4 – YOGA
I suggest yoga for two reasons.
- Yoga makes you slow down and control your range of motions. Many people think of yoga as a way to stretch muscles. In my opinion, stretching doesn’t do much until you add in breathing and challenges to your motor control.
- Typically yoga sessions finish up with some slow breathing with calm music while getting a back rub. This is a great way to chillax and raise your HRV score.
You don’t have to do yoga to reap these benefits. You can add elements of these 2 reasons to your daily programs. Find time to breathe deeply. Take your joints through a large range of motion while controlling your own body weight. Shut down at the end of your workout with something to bring your heart rate down and relax.
SOLUTION #5 – SEEK A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL
You can take a crack at fixing your back pain first, but if the simple fixes don’t seem to work… it’s time to call the doctor. You don’t want to put it off thinking it’s just a disk issue when it turns out to be a tumor or whatever. Get cleared by the doctor first and then check out a really good physical therapist.
You want to find a PT or chiropractor that watches you move. They should analyze the way you walk. They should assess the movements of your body from head to toes. I highly suggest Postural Restoration trained providers. If you have tried many things and you have not found relief, it’s time to try something different, feel better, and get back to riding hard!