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Top tips for managing lower back pain

Lower back pain is probably one of the most common complaints that GP’s are presented with and statistics suggest 60-80% of people will experience it at least once in their lifetime. If you are unfortunate enough to experience this, at any age, here are my top tips for managing that pain and staying as comfortable as possible.

1. Stay warm!

This might give you flashbacks to when you were younger and your parents wouldn’t let you outside without a coat but it’s worth paying attention to. If your back is exposed to the cold air (especially in winter) you’ll probably end up shivering and tensing up. If your back is already tight, the muscles are potentially in a spasm and the shivering definitely isn’t going to help. Tuck your t-shirt in (it’s fashionable, I promise) and layer up. During winter rugby training sessions I frequently layer up about 3-5 t-shirts on top of my skins so that my back stays warm but my arms are free. I take off a layer if I get too hot, but my back always stays warm.

Hot water bottles are also a great option to periodically use - just make sure it’s not boiling hot or directly on your skin! Heat treatment promotes blood circulation and this can speed up your healing process. If nothing else though, we are more relaxed when we are warm. The same can be said for a soak in a hot bath or in the jacuzzi at your local gym if you’re lucky enough to have access to that kind of thing! I also use Deep Heat (or whatever supermarket alternative I can find). Arguably the effects of this is more placebo than actual, however it works for me and I don’t see the issue with placebo effects of something like that. Just make sure you spot test it first if you’ve got sensitive skin!

2. Avoid tight waist bands

In my own pain management over the years I have noticed that a particularly tight (and narrow) waistband on trousers/shorts etc tends to trigger my lower back pain. I hadn’t thought much of it but recently spoke to our lovely physio at York RUFC, Jude, who confirmed she had some experience of this with clients that were suffering back pain. A few clients have also reported the same issues with particular pairs of leggings/shorts that they have worn during exercise and just thought they were imagining it! So make sure your clothes fit properly. If you’ve put some weight on over lockdown or due to inactivity because of back pain, there's no shame in buying yourself some new clothing - you might find it helps you get back into exercise!

3. Change your posture regularly.

A constantly changing posture is a healthy posture. This is probably more relevant than ever before considering most people are now working at home due to Covid-19. Without the commute to work, you might find you haven’t left the house during the working day and this lack of activity will feed into your physical (and mental) health. Sitting at a desk all day will likely leave you feeling stiff and achy - especially if you’re prone to slouching. If this sounds like you, try setting a timer every 30 minutes on your phone and do a lap of your home or some squats/hip bridges etc - basically just move for a couple of minutes! You could also try sitting in different positions, standing or sitting on an exercise ball. These changes in your posture will help keep you feeling loose and hopefully ease up some back pain.

4. Give your mental health priority too!

Chronic (and even short term) low back pain can have a real negative impact on your mental health. It is exhausting if you are struggling with pain every day as it affects the things you can do, your social life, ability to take part in sport and how effective you can be at work etc. So take that into account and look after your mental health. This might mean getting outside for a walk in nature, or simply sitting on a park bench and watching the birds - you’ve still got to walk to the park! You could try practising meditation - there are plenty of apps available for this if you find it a daunting prospect. Or just taking the time to treat yourself to a bubble bath, face mask or spa treatment. Whatever is within your means, just find time to relax and be still.

Of course if you are suffering from any kind of anxiety or depression, talk to someone about it. There is absolutely no shame in it - we all suffer from time to time - and the sooner you see someone about it, the quicker you’ll take your first steps to addressing it and getting better!

5. Seek out professional help from a physiotherapist and a personal trainer

If you’ve been seen by a doctor and they’ve said that it is safe for you to begin exercise to treat your back pain then you should ideally seek both a physiotherapist (either NHS or private) and a personal trainer - ideally someone who has experience working with clients suffering from back pain. Resistance training, if done properly with good form and the right exercise prescription can result in a huge reduction in back pain (depending on what the cause is). Your program should seek to address any imbalances or weaknesses identified by a physiotherapist and gradually build your strength up with movements you can perform pain free. Remember, there’s no rules that you have to do every single exercise you can think of. If for example squats or deadlifts are causing you pain, don’t do them! You can build your lower body strength with other exercises so there’s no point in pushing through pain just because your old PT said squats are essential for everyone.

From a strength training point of view, most people benefit from increased core and glute strength. This can be achieved through weight training but pilates is often very effective for people suffering with lower back pain - you’re best choosing something you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with it. As with most things, a combination of treatments is generally most effective. This might include physiotherapy, resistance training, increased cardiovascular training and meditation - one thing is unlikely to fix all!

If you visit a chiropractor please keep in mind that they should be educating you on how to treat yourself or give you strengthening exercises to reduce your symptoms. If you find you have been visiting a chiropractor for weeks on end with no long term improvements then it’s time to go elsewhere. Most often this type of treatment offers very short term relief from symptoms but doesn’t last longer than a week. This opinion usually upsets new clients who have been seeing the same chiropractor for months at a time, however it is something I see far too often. If you keep needing to go back, you’ll keep spending money. Obviously this won’t apply to all chiropractors so just choose wisely and don’t be afraid to go elsewhere if you don’t feel like you’re getting the education you need to help yourself long term.

Back pain sucks. It’s physically and emotionally draining but it can be managed and you can take steps to remove it entirely from your life. I have experience working with a variety of clients presenting with low back pain - if you want to have a chat about how I can help you, drop me an email at Equally if you want any recommendations for physiotherapists in the Yorkshire area I would be happy to help - drop me an email!

Please note that this post is purely for very general advice to aid symptom management. It should not take the place of a diagnosis or treatment by a GP or other registered professional. Always seek advice from your doctor regarding pain, especially if it lasts more than a few days. By voluntarily undertaking any exercise or following any advice displayed on this website, you assume the risk of any resulting injury and Ruth Ellen Coaching cannot be held liable.

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