Fixing Bad Backs
Last week I listed the treatments used, and practitioners consulted, in my quest for a pain-free lower back. What I want to highlight this week are the actual treatments that made a difference.
I mention that there were a lot of treatments I tried that work well for other people but didn’t work for me. For example acupuncture, although it has helped several people that I know, has never worked for me. Does that mean that you shouldn’t try acupuncture? Of course not! It didn’t help me, but it might be exactly what your aching back needs.
Not getting thrown (as often): as I hinted last week, I eventually figured out that Judo was bad for my back. Every time I got thrown in Judo my lower back pain increased. Unfortunately it is very difficult to improve in Judo if you aren’t willing to be thrown, so I made the difficult decision to stop doing Judo and concentrate almost entirely on groundfighting.
As a side note, I found that most freestyle wrestling takedowns didn’t irritate my back nearly as much, so now when I do train standup my takedowns look like a weird hybrid of Judo and wrestling.
Ice and anti-inflammatories: Whenever my back got really bad I headed for the freezer first and then the medicine cabinet. The underlying reasoning was the same for both destinations: I wanted to reduce the inflammation. Many people use icepacks when they have a sore arm or leg, but using cold on the back is less common for some reason. The ice reduces inflammation, and thus the pain.
Conversely, while a hot bath or Jacuzzi feels nice when my back was just a little bit sore, I avoided it when it was really bad, because the last thing I wanted was more swelling and inflammation in the afflicted area.
Over the counter and prescription anti-inflammatories can also be very useful, especially if you take them right after injuring your back. I found that one or two days of antiflammatory treatment early in the injury probably cut a week off my recovery time. You don’t want to take them regularly or too often, however, because of potential kidney and/or liver damage!
Chiropractic and massage: I found that chiropractors and massage therapists were useful resources in managing back pain. They weren’t as useful when I was in extreme pain, but they could often provide me with some measure of relief when my back was moderately painful. This relief was never permanent, but it was relief nonetheless. I still use both today.
Stretching and Yoga: Many people have sore backs because their hamstrings and lower back muscles are chronically tight. These people often find that increasing their lower back and leg flexibility helps with back pain. By contrast I have always had a relatively flexible lower back and hamstrings, so many of the ‘classic’ stretches for lower back pain didn’t help me at all.
What I did find useful, however, were the backward bending stretches in Yoga, such as the ‘Cobra’ and ‘Upward Dog’ position. One doctor told me that this backward bending helped me because I had a posterior disk herniation, and these stretches were easing the bulging disk back into place. I’m not sure if his diagnosis and proposed mechanism were correct, but these stretches and postures did seem to help at certain times in my recovery.
It is important to realize that if you think that you might have torn or strained a muscle or ligament in your back DO NOT STRETCH IT RIGHT AWAY!! You have damaged something in your back and the tightness is your body’s way of protecting itself. If you stretch it (and potentially strain those same tissues further) your body will react with increased spasm and pain, making the situation much worse. Wait a week or two before beginning to stretch the sprained area; I speak from painful first hand experience here!
Another factor that may have helped were the many Yoga postures which strengthened the core and spinal erectors (see the next point).
Strengthening: Through trial and error I found that if I did back extensions (also known as ‘back hyperextensions’) once or twice a week that my back was much less likely to go into spasm and ‘lock up’. This is probably because it helped stabilize an unstable area of my body.
Nowadays I normally conclude every gym session with about 30 bodyweight repetitions of this exercise, or a lesser number while holding dumbbells with my hands cocked at my shoulders.
You can see a detailed description of this exercise here: www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/back.extension.html, and here: www.global-fitness.com/exercises/exercise033.html, as well as in the bonus section of my Dynamic Kneebars DVD (www.grapplearts.com/Kneebar-Info.htm). Back extensions are a great injury prevention exercise, as well as a very functional grappling exercise (which is why it made it into my video in the first place).
Pelvic Alignment: My most recent progress has to do with ensuring that my pelvis is correctly aligned, and not rotated, tilted or flared. I have used a book (The Malalignment Syndrome), as well as workshops and sessions with the author (Dr. Schamberger) to learn how to self diagnose and correct the most common pelvic misalignments myself. I am currently doing this twice a day, and it has made a significant difference to my back.
I should probably warn you that although the book IS very good, it is not an easy read – in fact its quite a technical document. A background in physiotherapy, massage, anatomy or a related field would definitely help understanding the mechanisms, diagnostic techniques and treatments therein.
In closing, if you suffer from low back pain I wish you good luck in your search for relief. If you’ve never had a bad back then feel free to send the permanent link of this tip (www.grapplearts.com/2006/03/fixing-bad-backs.htm) to someone who might benefit from it.