Did you know that one of our four Americans complains of low back pain, and it is one of the most common reasons people miss work or go to the doctor? There are many reasons for low back pain, including arthritis or an acute injury like “tweaking” your back doing a certain movement or activity.
Low back pain can also happen from chronic poor posture with slumped shoulders, wearing high heels, or spending long stretches of time in a seated position, like driving in the car or sitting at a desk.
What makes you feel pain is inflammation, the body’s response to injury. It’s the body’s way of signaling the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue. It’s a necessary process, but it hurts!
Many people reach for an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Tylenol or Advil, but in doing so, they are damaging their liver and kidneys, very important organs that act as filters in the body. Also, these medications mask the pain, allowing you to “push through” and risk making the issue worse without realizing it. Remember: pain is the body’s way of communicating that something is wrong, so rather than cover it up, try looking at it head on and addressing what’s really going on inside.
Some natural ways that you can alleviate low back pain include ice and heat. If the pain is due to an acute injury, you’ll want to use ice for the first 24-48 hours, and then heat after that. Even if you think heat feels good right at the start because it relaxes the muscles and covers up the pain, it’s actually exacerbating the inflammatory process.
Take a look at your posture, and notice if you slump your shoulders and round your back. Sit up straight in your chair, and when standing, lengthen your tailbone down toward the ground. Imagine you are wearing a big belt buckle (maybe you actually are!) and think about what you’d need to do to very slightly tip that belt buckle up toward your chin. Don’t overdo it, like a dog tucking its tail between its legs; it’s just a small tip of the pelvis. This lengthens the tailbone, thereby protecting the low back.
When lifting a heavy object, don’t bend at the waist. Instead, use your legs and squat down with a straight back and your abdominal muscles slightly engaged, then come on up with the heavy object in hand, and your low back protected and safe.
Lose weight. Excess weight puts stress on the spine, and you are likely to have weaker abdominal muscles if you have a big belly. So consider making some dietary changes for the better, and add a little exercise to drop some pounds.
Improve your sleep situation. Assess whether you might need a new mattress, and consider a medium firm mattress for best results. Also, side sleepers will benefit from sleeping with a small pillow in between the knees to keep the hips and low back in proper alignment.
Get up and move your body! Gentle exercise is great for low back pain, but don’t overdo it. Spines are meant to move, and exercise will also keep your blood and lymphatic fluid circulating well. Swimming, walking with low-heeled shoes, and biking are all great choices.
Strengthen the muscles that support the lower back with targeted exercises. Build up your back muscles by doing a “Superman” exercise: lie on your belly on a carpet or yoga mat with arms extended in front of you, and lift arms and legs off the floor (like Superman flying!) and hold for a few breaths. Make sure you are breathing; don’t hold your breath.
It’s also important to strengthen the abdominal muscles in the front of the body. The traditional sit-up might give you a nice looking six-pack, but those muscles don’t actually do much to balance out and support the low back. Instead, lie on your back with arms at your sides, one knee bent with foot flat on the floor, and the other leg extended straight. Slowly lift and lower the straight leg, and feel the muscles below your belly button strengthening. These are the ones you want to focus on.
Leg lifts; photo credit http://www.medicalnewstoday.com
Another great abdominal strengthener is to come down onto hands and knees, tuck your toes under, lift your knees very slightly (only an inch or so) off the floor, and hold for a few breaths (don’t hold your breath!). Again, you’ll feel those lower abdominals engage, the powerhouse of your core stability.
Make sure to stretch your body. Many of us have low back pain because we sit for long periods. This overstretches the low back. So even though you may want to take a forward fold, what would actually be more beneficial is a slight backbend. A passive stretch for reversing that rounded back position is to lay a pillow on the bed the long way in line with the spine. Lay on it belly up, so you feel the pillow pushing your belly button up toward the ceiling, making a slight backbend. Let yourself stay here for several minutes to open up the front of the body.
Yoga is fantastic to keep the spine healthy and address (or avoid!) low back pain. A more active backbend stretch involves placing your hands in imaginary jeans pockets (or real pockets, if you’re wearing pants that have them!), and leaning back for a very slight backbend. If it hurts, don’t go quite so deep.
A popular yoga sequence, “cat and cow,” involves flexing and extending the spine. Come down onto hands and knees. Drop your belly toward the floor and look up as you breathe in; this is your saggy-backed “cow”. Then, as you exhale, tuck your chin toward your chest and press your spine up toward the ceiling, which looks like an angry “cat” rounding its spine. Keep moving in time with the breath, flexing and extending, for a few minutes. Do this every day for great spine health.
Another great yoga pose is a reclined twist, which you can take as deeply or gently as you choose. Laying on your back, pull your right knee up toward your chest and extend your right arm out 90 degrees to the side. With your left hand on the bent knee, roll toward the left, so you are pulling the bent right leg across the body. Turn your head to the right so you are looking at your extended right arm. You may feel sensations in the low back, ribcage, throughout the spine, and in the shoulder of the extended arm. Breathe deeply and only pull the bent leg across as far as feels good for you. After several breaths, come back to center and switch sides.
One more area of the body that contributes to low back pain and benefits from stretching is the hamstrings, the muscles behind the thighs. Take a small hand towel or kitchen towel and lie down on your back on the floor. Wrap the towel around the ball of your right foot, and extend that leg up into the air. Feel the stretch behind the thigh and breathe deeply and slowly in and out. To make it less intense, bend the left knee and place that foot flat on the floor. After several breaths, switch legs.
High-heeled shoes definitely contribute to low back pain as well, as they create unstable posture and tightness in the legs. Wear low-heeled shoes with heels lower than an inch for a healthy back.
Turmeric, via its main agent curcumin, is a wonderful natural anti-inflammatory. You can cook with turmeric in the kitchen, or you can take a turmeric or curcumin supplement. In conjunction with black pepper, it works even better to ease low back pain, and tastes delicious.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, and many people are deficient both because of the changes in the standard American diet, and soil being depleted of minerals from certain farming practices. Magnesium can be taken orally, or absorbed through the skin in a bath. Magnesium bath salts are also known as Epsom salts, so follow your great-grandmother’s way of treating back pain and soak in a warm bath with Epsom. Added bonus: magnesium helps you sleep better, too.
You can also add magnesium through your diet. Magnesium-rich foods include dark chocolate (one of my favorites!), avocados, nuts, legumes (lentils, hick peas, peas), beans, seeds (pumpkin, flax, chia), fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, halibut), bananas, and dark leafy greens.
CBD, a non-psychoactive compound derived from the cannabis plant, is showing quite a bit of promise for anti-inflammatory pain relief. It can be taken orally as an oil or tincture, or used topically in a cream. Do both for maximum benefit.
After reading all these great natural ways to alleviate low back pain, you are now more empowered to address the pain when it happens, and hopefully, create some better habits for a happier, healthier spine.