5 steps to relieve back pain and correct posture
If you experience back pain, you're not alone. Over 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives, mostly due to bad posture and exercise habits. If you're looking for more than just temporary relief for your back pain issues, read on.
Chronic back pain can range from mildly annoying to completely debilitating. Many people experience back and shoulder pain due to poor posture, stress, being overweight, injuries, and genetics. It can also be all of these causes at the same time, leading many to believe that their persistent pain will remain an affliction for the rest of their lives.
In my mid-twenties, I began to experience lower back pain from sleeping on my stomach and sitting at a desk working everyday. At that point, it was more of an annoyance than a true health issue, so I blamed it on my crappy mattress and dealt with the mild pain that came from standing for too long. Years later, in my mid-30s, it had progressed to something more extreme. Concerts, parties, work trips, any event where I had to stand for more than an hour became excruciating. You could find me at intermission bent over on my knees, stretching out my lower back for a few moments of blissful relief.
I discovered I had a condition called lumbar lordosis, or an overarching of the lower spine, coupled with anterior pelvic tilt. These conditions usually go together. If you’re a stomach sleeper and you’re not supporting your hips up high enough, using a pillow or another device, this will eventually lead to lumbar lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt. This condition doesn’t just affect the lower back and pelvis. Since these muscles are stretching and working more, they put strain on other muscles in your back. If you’re “shrimping” over your desk during the day, like I was, and sleeping on your stomach, it’s basically a recipe for upper and lower back pain.
Long before I knew about my spine and pelvis alignment issues, the first thing I started doing for my back pain was yoga. I’ve done yoga for years, and it has helped tremendously with my back pain, and also stress, but it never solved my issues. It was always more of a temporary reprieve that helped for a few hours to a few days, but then my back always went back to being a tight mess no matter how much yoga I practiced. I blamed this on stress, which I do tend to carry in my neck and shoulders, but I learned quickly that there was more to that too.
When I discovered I had alignment issues, I went about creating my own workout program. This program, which I am still currently using, focuses on strengthening areas of the back that are weak, stretching all areas of the back regularly, and range of motion corrective exercises. This program, along with mindfulness about posture, is slowly reversing my years of bad habits and musculoskeletal issues.
When I began my program, I discovered how tight my hips, abs, and obliques were, and also how weak my legs and glutes were. And so began my journey to a healthy, pain-free back. I knew I had done years of damage and that it may take months or even years to reverse, but I set about making lifestyle changes.
1. Begin a strength building program
I am not a personal trainer, fitness expert, or physical therapist. I can only tell you what worked for me, and the hope is that as a general guide it will work for you as well. However, you should find what works best for you and your specific issues by doing your own research and consulting with a physical therapist or physiotherapist.
I started by doing one full month of insanity workouts 5 days/week plus 5 days/week yoga before adding in the following lifting routine. By that time, I had gained some strength in my legs, glutes, and abs. I do a combination of plyometrics from Insanity along with the following lifting routine 3 days per week with a day in between (e.g. Mon/Wed/Fri):
- 5 sets of deadlifts
- 5 sets of bench press
- 5 sets of chest/pec fly
- 5 sets of leg press
If you have lordosis and/or anterior pelvic tilt, deadlifts are the most important part of the routine. It builds up the glutes and the erector spinae muscles. I found that my erector spinae muscles were nearly non-existent on my lower back. After a few weeks of deadlifts, I had noticeable results and greater strength in this area.
If you’re worried that a weight-lifting routine is too much for you, just aim to do as much as you can for now. Instead of deadlifts, get a kettlebell or lift some heavy suitcases and carry them across the room. Just make sure you’re keeping good form and you’re lifting the correct amount of weight for your fitness level. I started by lifting my bodyweight for deadlifts, 150lbs, and worked my way up as my strength increased.
Diet is also very important when beginning a strength-building routine. You will be hungry and your body will require extra calories. Supplementation may be necessary if you can’t get enough nutrients from food everyday. If you need extra protein, check out Isopure products. I’ve found that whey protein isolate is much easier on my stomach.
2. Do yoga / stretch and corrective exercises everyday
I cannot stress this enough. I personally find that if I skip a yoga day, my pain is significantly worse the following day. I normally do a quick floor session with some twists when I wake up to get my back a bit loose for my workout and then a longer session at the end of my day after work. I do my corrective and ab exercises after my long yoga session in the evening.
The yoga I normally practice is a Ground & Release class by Jessica Richburg on YouTube. If you’re just starting out, she also has some very good Yin yoga classes that are great for beginners. What you’re really looking for here is a routine that’s going to stretch out your back, legs, and neck really well.
For corrective exercises, I’ve found the following routines very helpful. You’re looking to strengthen your core and keep your spine aligned at all times.
I’ve also found over the years that not all yoga mats are the same. I used a cheap off-brand for years until someone introduced me to a real yoga mat. It’s all about the material and the tactile feel it provides. You want a sticky rubber feel so you don’t slide around on your mat while you’re downward dogging. It should also stick to the floor so you’re not sliding around on your actual mat like it’s a magic carpet. You want to feel grounded and secure on your mat, no shifting whatsoever.
Manduka makes excellent yoga mats in a broad price range. We have a couple of these at home and they are far superior to the thicker foam-type mat I began my yoga journey on. I prefer the Eko Light series, but all of their mats look like they are high quality and have great reviews.
3. Be mindful of your posture
You absolutely must be mindful of your posture during the day. If you’re a desk jockey, no more shrimping at your desk. Get a standing desk or take many, many standing breaks. You could also do some squats between meetings. Good posture isn’t just about sitting with your spine straight. You also need to move around and flex your spine. In other words, don’t stay in the same spot for too long. If you end up forgetting to move around, try setting some hourly timers to remind you.
Whenever you are standing, flex those glutes and thighs a bit to bring your pelvis into alignment. This is extremely important and helps to relieve pain by taking weight off of your lower back. Your back is used to carrying a lot of weight. What you’re trying to do is put that weight on your legs and glutes instead. Glute amnesia is real, folks. You need to teach your body to activate your legs and glutes to prop up your spine instead of putting all the weight on your actual spine.
When you’re sitting on the couch or a chair, make sure your spine is straight. If you need to, use a pillow to support yourself. Within a few weeks, you won’t have to think about so much and it will become second nature.
Here are some great standing desk options from Fezibo. I have the 60in version and it’s been fantastic so far. It does everything it’s supposed to, has programmable levels, and is very affordable compared to the competition.
4. Find a sleeping position where your spine is properly aligned
I will not lie, it was extremely difficult for me to stop sleeping on my stomach, and to be honest I still do it sometimes because it feels so dang good. But now it only feels good for a few minutes before it starts hurting, which is a good thing. It means my alignment is no longer out of whack. It takes discipline and mindfulness, but you can teach yourself to sleep on your side or on your back. Personally, I cannot sleep comfortably on my back, so I’ve transitioned to sleeping on my side with a pillow between my legs for proper alignment, knees slightly bent.
If you absolutely cannot give up stomach sleeping, you can still properly align your spine. It just takes some finagling with pillows or whatever you have that can prop your hips up a bit. Just make sure your spine is relatively straight and your back isn’t arching too much. Try to confirm this with your partner or by taking a photo of your back while laying down. Also, rotate your mattress often to prevent mattress dips.
Your pillow choice is utterly important here. If you’re going to switch to sleep on your side, you may find a nice body pillow is helpful to keep you from rolling back onto your stomach. As for standard pillow choices, Three Geese makes an excellent pillow for both side and stomach sleepers.
5. Fight through the pain
The first couple of months is the most difficult. Any of these kind of changes will be painful at first, especially if you’ve done years of damage. You might think to hell with this, my pain isn’t even improving, and you’ll be right. Your back will be sore from working out, and you may not even be able to tell the difference between that and your normal pain. But beyond that, your back muscles need to reset, and this will take time. It will not be comfortable during this time as your back muscles, spine, and hips reseat themselves into a healthy position. But it will be worth it.
I found my daily back pain getting better while my sleep back pain became worse during the second month of my program. This did eventually dissipate as my back muscles strengthened more. If you need some help with sleep during this period, I found success supplementing Magnesium and Magnolia Bark.
Keep checking your progress as you go, and please, always consult with an expert before beginning your own exercise program.
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Nicholas DeRose is a health advocate, writer, and researcher. He is passionate about helping others in their journey to wellness by providing evidence-based information and tips that are proven to increase quality of life.