Chronic lower back pain is an enigma affecting a third of the UK adult population each year. But is the problem with your back or is it something else?
What causes lower back pain?
Pain is a complicated topic, but essentially it’s a response from our nervous system provoking the feeling of pain as a protective mechanism.
If we didn’t have pain as a protective mechanism, we would likely be dead already!
So in that regard, pain can be viewed as a good thing because it prevents us from cutting ourselves too deep. We instantly feel the pain and pull the knife away.
If we experience pain in our back, we perceive it as solely a structural problem with our back. It’s a physical symptom requiring a physical solution.
However, the most recent and comprehensive studies indicate that most back pain is caused by an overly sensitive nervous system.
Basically this means that pain is just one part of a complex stress response in the body to escape a perceived threat or injury.
Our mental and emotional state has much to do with how we perceive the level of pain. What might be painful for one person, is not that painful for another depending on many factors from our beliefs to our emotional state.
I have experienced this before, where I exercised in a state of high stress and it caused severe pain and tension in my neck. The stress I was feeling was manifesting as physical pain whilst I was exercising.
So in a nutshell, how we perceive pain is not just down to structural issues like tissue damage or weakness – it’s largely controlled in our emotional brain.
Good pain vs bad pain
If the pain is extremely severe or from the result of an accident, then we must seek specialist help.
The other bad type of pain we want to avoid is any sharp pains, swelling or severe chronic pain.
But some soreness is normal, especially if we are using muscles or moving our body in a way that we haven’t used in a long time.
We might have to endure slight discomfort before we can start to move better without pain.
This may be perceived as pain but actually just means our muscles are having to do something they are not used to!
Basically unless the pain is really debilitating, the most dangerous thing we can do is rest on the couch or take pain management pills or another band aid solution.
But this is unfortunately what most of us do!
It’s much better to move how we are naturally supposed to.
How to move without damaging our lower back
The best way to prevent pain and injury is to move the way we are meant to.
The lumbar spine where our lower back pain occurs is NOT designed to take any load. Conversely, our ball and socket hip joint IS designed to take load.
Hence, when we bend down to pick something up, we want to avoid bending at the torso and loading our back. Over time, this will weaken our back and likely cause back pain.
Rather, bending at the hips and knees with a neutral spine is how we are meant to move. We may need to work on our hip and spine mobility in order to do this.
This engages the biggest and strongest muscles in our body (glutes and hamstrings).
Why would we neglect using our biggest muscles?
Its like having a Rolls Royce rusting away in our garage while we choose to drive around in Del boys three wheel van that keeps breaking down…
Yet this is what many of us do when we move and bend down using our back (which it is NOT designed for), rather than bending at the hips and squatting down by bending our knees!
Movement is medicine
Studies also show that statistically significant improvements in back pain were found in patients who moved and exercised than those who rested and stayed in bed.
It really doesn’t matter what kind of movement you do, as long as you’re moving naturally. It might be as simple as taking a quick walk or doing some balancing exercises.
Sitting is not the enemy either.
Lack of movement is the real enemy!
It’s unavoidable to NOT sit down sometimes nowadays. But our bodies are not designed to sit or stand for prolonged periods of time.
So the key is being aware of our posture when sitting and breaking up periods of sitting with a variety of movements.
We are one mind-body-soul. Focusing on our body whilst neglecting our mind and spirit is a half assed approach to health and fitness.
Do you have a self-care regime? Do you have coping mechanisms to manage stress? How is your sleep? Are you often in a state of fear or anxiety? Do you have someone to talk to who can listen? Do you schedule time for fun?
All of these and many other lifestyle issues can affect how our emotional brain perceives back pain (and most other pain).
This is why getting a massage, meditation or offloading to someone else can be so beneficial. In a world of noise and stress, these things can make us feel better, more relaxed and help balance our mind-body-soul.
Focus on the whole
In most cases, the pain we feel is triggered in our emotional brain by a highly sensitive nervous system. The stresses of the modern world greatly contribute to this. This is often exacerbated by poor posture, moving poorly and other lifestyle triggers.
Hence, what we need is a holistic approach that takes into account our whole being.
This will vary depending on the individual but will address psychological aspects (beliefs and emotional state), physical aspects (nerves, muscle, joints) and how to move better like bending at the hips and knees, and social and lifestyle aspects (stress, work).
If you would like help with applying this to your life, please email me at email@example.com and I would be happy to help!