The New World Economics Guide to Curing Lower Back Pain
September 2, 2012
A friend was asking me about what to do about back pain. This is is
something I happen to know about. In late 2001, I developed extreme
lower back pain, due mostly to sitting oddly on the floor for
extended periods of time. (I was playing Starcraft.) Eventually
"something happened," and the worsening condition could no longer be
ignored. For two weeks, I laid on the floor, unable to stand, walk,
or sit for any length of time. I immediately went to a chiropractor,
bypassing all regular doctors and hospitals, who don't really have
anything to offer.
The chiropractor developed a schedule for relieving the immediate
pain. It involved four visits a week, including various treatments
to reduce muscle tension in the lower back area. The office was
three miles away, so I had to drive. It took maybe six or seven
minutes. This six or seven minutes of driving was so painful that,
when I arrived at the office each time, I would get out of the car
and lie on the parking lot next to the car -- it was dirty but I
didn't care -- for five to ten minutes, until the pain subsided
enough that I could walk into the building. Then, I would do it
again on the way home.
Over the next four years, I made roughly 150 visits to the
chiropractor, gradually reducing the frequency to three times a
week, twice, once, every other week, once a month and so forth. I
paid for all of this out of pocket. It was worth it.
If you are in a crisis situation like I was, you need to go to a
chiropractor, and you need to do it a lot. However, any good
chiropractor will tell you that a few minutes per week in his office
is not enough. You have to change everything you do, to relieve
whatever it is that caused the back problems in the first place. The
chiropractor can help get you out of a crisis situation and
establish the conditions for further healing, but the healing
process is mostly up to you.
If you have less dramatic back pain, I would still go to the
chiropractor. It would probably take a lot fewer visits, perhaps
once a week to start, but the basic process is the same.
After a few weeks, I could sit and walk enough to work, taking
regular rest breaks by walking outside the office. After a few
months, I could go hiking and do other outdoor sports that were not
too back-intensive, if I was careful. However, it was nearly five
years (mid-2006) before I even attempted to do ten situps in a row.
Today, I can say that I have made a 100% recovery. I can do hundreds
of situps and other back-intensive activities, and have no back pain
Simply going to the chiropractor is not enough. You have to change
everything that aggravates your back. Here's what you do:
Fix your bed. You spend eight hours a day lying on your bed.
It had better be OK. Standard mattresses (springs/padding) wear out
after about seven years. Yes, even the expensive ones. If your
mattress is more than seven years old, or even five years, then you
need a new one even if it looks OK. I junked my old mattress. I used
an air mattress for a while, which helped, but now I prefer a
memoryfoam mattress. Tempurpedic is the high-end brand here, but
foam is pretty simple stuff and the memoryfoam mattresses sold on
eBay for about $280 in full size are fine. You also need a good
pillow. I use a memoryfoam "cervical" pillow, which is thickest
under your neck.
Fix your car seat. You spend a lot of time sitting in your
car. Start by moving the driver's seat all the way forward, and move
the backrest to vertical. Put the lumbar support setting at maximum,
if you have one. If you don't have built-in lumbar support, then
maybe add a lumbar cushion. This will look and feel silly, but it
will also push your hips all the way back in the seat and straighten
out your spine. No more slumping while driving. After you get used
to this, over a few weeks or months, then you can adjust your seat
to a more typical position but which maintains your good driving
Don't sit on the floor. Chiropractors say they get a rush of
new business around Christmas because people sit on the floor for
extended periods to wrap packages. Sitting on the floor is quite
hard on your back. Don't do it for long periods of time, over thirty
Take your wallet out of your back pocket. Sitting on your
wallet can lead to a pelvis imbalance.
Fix your office chair. This is one of the most important
things to us office workers, or people who use their computers at
home a lot. There are a zillion suggestions about this or that kind
of fancy chair, or very tweaky adjustment of your chair, or
whatever. I have been through most of these, and didn't get much
results from them. What did produce huge results was to a) get a
standard adjustable office chair, and b) remove the back. Yes, just
take the back off, so you end up with a sort of stool with armrests
(or no armrests). This will prevent you from slumping against the
back. Adjust the height to something vaguely appropriate. That's it.
Don't waste your time on fancy ergo chairs and this sort of thing.
Just take the back off. If you want to get really fancy, some people
have bought used running treadmills on Craigslist (often lots of
them cheap there), and set up a standing desk. They put the
treadmill at a very low speed, like one mile per hour, and actually
walk slowly all day while doing their work on the computer. If you
can do this, it might be a good solution. Walking is very good for
your back. However, if that is too elaborate, just get a regular
adjustable office chair and take the back off.
Fix your easy chair. At home, you probably have a sofa or
easy chair that you use to watch television, read books, and maybe
take a nap. The best one I've seen for back health is the Perfect
Chair. It's expensive but worth it. I've had one for over ten years
now. However, as back-friendly as this may look, I find that it
becomes problematic after about three hours. I tried working from
this chair, but the office-chair-without-the-back is actually better
for long stretches. Add a lumbar cushion of some sort. Avoid any
chairs or sofas that cause a slumping posture and convex lower back,
which is basically all of them.
That should take care of most of the daily-habit stuff that is
causing your back problems. Now let's talk about more therapeutic
sorts of rehabilitation procedures.
Drink lots of water. Almost everyone these days is
dehydrated. People don't notice because they are so sedentary.
However, if you get at all thirsty from a three-mile run, then that
means you didn't have enough water in your body to start. (If you
have enough water in your body, you can do a three mile or even ten
mile run without getting thirsty.) The discs in your back are like
sponges. If your body is dehydrated, the discs dry out and the bones
in your spine compress, squeezing the nerves emanating from your
spine. The solution is to rehydrate your body properly. Drink an
additional two liters of plain water daily for two weeks. Avoid
diuretics like coffee, tea and alcohol.
Stretch. Tension in your muscles in your butt and lower back
can pull your spine out of alignment. Various hamstring-type
stretches will also stretch your lower back and butt area. Also, you
can do yoga "cat stretch" type poses, where you move your lower back
from convex to concave and back again. I find that twisting-type
stretches also help. You might find that as little as two minutes of
a hamstring-type stretch gives noticeable relief. If so, do it more.
Use a back inversion device. Look into various types of
gravity boots, inversion tables and other inversion machines that
allow you to hang upside down from your legs. I used a "back
revolution" device. It helped. I like to do twisting stretches while
Walk. Sitting and lying down are bad for your back. Walking
is good. Walking builds up the muscles around your back, and the
gentle motion promotes flexibility of the spine. Your back will
often adjust itself into proper alignment with some easy walking.
You can feel it move. Walk without a pack, and no longer than feels
comfortable. Walk a little every day if you can.
Take many breaks. If you are sitting at a desk for long
periods, take five minutes every hour, or even every half hour, and
take a short walk. Just a few hundred meters is enough, maybe
combined with some quick hamstring-type stretches.
That's it. If it worked for me, when I was unable to sit or walk, it
should work for you too.
Addendum: A couple people mentioned Dr. John Sarno, a former
back surgeon, who concluded that many people's lower back pain
problems were related to "Tension Mytosis Syndrome," or, more
generally speaking, stress. In other words, your mind. A good
introductory book is Mind
Over Back Pain, available at Amazon. I think that back
pain can also have more physical sources, in my case sitting in
funny ways, as was shown in X-rays of my spine showing various
contortions. But, many people's issues may be primarily
stress-related, in which case, a different approach would be good.
Certainly, there are enough people who have reported fantastic
results that it is worth a look.