Back pain can be frustrating and limiting, especially if it becomes chronic (ongoing) beyond a few weeks. Recently a few people have asked me for advice, often after an incident has triggered back pain. And the good news is, things will generally get better in a few weeks, with some direct action and a helpful mindset.
The reason for this post this week is because it’s Back Care Awareness Week in the UK. The focus for the official campaign week is ‘Caring for carers’ in recognition of the huge amount of care and support they provide to family members, friends or neighbours, and that due to the nature of their work (lifting, helping walk, moving, doing all the shopping etc), a staggering 70% report suffering from back pain.
As well as physical challenges they also have emotional stresses. These can combine to create ongoing back pain.
The good news, whether you are a carer or not, is that we can help improve our back pain experience, particularly if it’s mild to moderate. We can take a broad perspective to fundamentally change our way of thinking about pain and the linked areas of biology, our minds and social and personal experiences.
(Obviously, if you have a serious incident or have any reason to suspect something major is wrong, you should go to your Dr or other health care service.)
What can you do about back pain?
The number one piece of advice is to keep mobile and to manage as much movement as possible, including if you are experiencing a new incident of back pain. You probably won’t want to do extreme stuff and may want to reduce your regular exercise regime, but walking about, pottering around the house, and a few basic moves will keep things mobile. Try to intersperse periods of sitting with moving about for 5 minutes.
One Scottish NHS department for muscular-skeletal issues shared a useful infographic which explains how you can adapt your regular exercise for if you are experiencing pain, rather than abandon it altogether.
Second, reducing your stress inputs as much as possible can actually reduce your pain experience, even if that sounds far fetched. I have blogged about this previously and held workshops on stress and anxiety, and the link with chronic pain. There is growing awareness that the higher our stress levels, the worse our pain experience. The management of our stress can be imagined in terms of a pot or what I call the ‘stress bucket’.
The stress pot/bucket
We can manage or cope with minor and major stresses throughout the day, IF we have enough forms of release. If you have a bucket with holes in and keep pouring in stressful things, some will come out of the holes. If you don’t have holes in the bucket it will soon over flow. We don’t want that! That is when you’ve reached your capacity and can no longer cope. The holes in the bucket are things that you like doing that make you feel good and reduce your stress levels: playing with grandchildren, going for a walk, gardening, bird watching, knitting, playing online games, painting, meditating, cooking, listening to music, researching local history, having a massage, working out etc. The list is endless. (I’ve blogged about the stress pot in more detail here.)
If you maintain your ‘happy habits’, doing the things you like, you are more likely to have better resilience. This means you will cope better with new stresses, such as an incidence of back pain.
If however, you have very high stress levels, your body will be on ‘red alert’ mode, the fight or flight response will be active, and will increase inflammation and can make your experience of pain worse. The same incident during periods of stress compared with times when you are feeling ok, will lead to different experiences of the pain level and intensity, and even how long it may last for. Managing stress levels on a long-term basis is therefore very important.
Reading and useful info
The third thing we can do is read up on modern approaches to back pain management, including the NHS guidance. Trust that your back is strong and that in many cases, a temporary incident which has caused pain will clear up in 2-6 weeks. Some useful leaflets and resources are included below
- Tasmanian Health Organisation – Managing your back pain leaflet
- Pain-Ed – blog post with link to ’10 facts about back pain’ infographic and videos explaining it
- NHS – guide to back pain
- Healthshare – lower back pain leaflet, other leaflets available from their website
This more modern approach is informed by the bio-psycho-social model of pain which is a more holistic way of looking at a person. It combines the biology (what happens to your body physically), with psychological factors (thoughts, beliefs, emotions, mood, stress, sleep, adverse childhood experiences etc), and social factors (home life, work life, relationships, cultural factors etc). I have blogged about this previously. It incorporates your past experiences, how you view the world, social connections, and much more. One of the key benefits of this approach is that it explains that the experience of pain is only partly from the biology (body), but also from things that we can alter and change. And that the pain experience will vary depending on how you are overall, at the time.
This ultimately means that we can not only help improve back pain by physical means, but also from how we perceive things in the world around us.
Of course, this approach is not trying to dismiss the pain you experience with a back pain incident, and doesn’t mean everyone should be up and running about and carrying on as normal from day one. But it does try to set out potential ways to manage particularly mild to moderate pain.
Feeling up to some movement?
Try my short video below which has three movements which you can do in a few minutes. Learning and practising these can help with mild to moderate back pain.