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By Doc Mok
Waking up feeling stiff and rickety is the absolute worst. You mobilize, stretch, twist and bend, but still you feel terrible. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that this is just “getting old.” Yet, there are DIY back pain remedies that your doctor may not know.
Back pain is a common problem in the Unites States
Ask yourself if you have ever experienced back pain. I bet you may even have some right now. Lower back pain occurs in around 80% of individuals in America at one time or another. At any point in time there are about 31 million people experiencing back pain in the US. Not to mention, the estimated expense to our healthcare system is around 86 billion US dollars annually.
With elaborate work ups galore including MRIs, Xrays, Ultrasound, etc, it is important to step back and realize that most of these issues are structural in nature. Namely, most are NOT cancer, trauma, fracture, arthritis and infection. Each of these conditions REQUIRES MEDICAL ATTENTION!
For such conditions, I refer you to the red flags symptoms:
- night sweats
- unintentional weight loss
- loss of bowel or bladder function
- weakness in your extremities
- history of cancer
- history of prolonged steroid use
- history of drug abuse
A basic understanding of the framework is a pathway to problem solving.
Your Back Anatomy
The spinal cord is a long cable that sends signals from your brain to the rest of your body in order to produce ACTION! From this pipeline, there are off-shoots that branch to the destined location, which further branch and so on, forming a spider web network called your peripheral nervous system. The main housing to protect your spinal cord is what most people term the spine…or the vertebrae.
Each vertebra is a cylindrical body and an oval shaped portion, for which the spinal cord resides. These vertebrae are stacked in a specific way, allowing you to form posture and support the weight of your body. Your spinal cord delicately exits between each vertebra, branching right and left. But the question remains, what hold this framework together and keeps it from bumping into your spinal cord and the vertebrae adjacent?
Your vertebral discs allow for shock absorption
The answer lies in your vertebral discs. Think of these like the cushion in the sole of your shoes or a gel insert. It is made of a harder exterior with a gel-like center. This gelatinous consistency does an amazing job at absorbing compression and preventing your vertebra from pumping into each other.
Due to chronic injury, posture problems, muscle weakness these discs can slip out of place (herniated disc). The result, compression of the nerves exiting the spine leading to pain, dull sensation, muscle weakness and/or loss of bowel/bladder function. This slippage can also lead to your vertebrae bumping into each other, effecting your posture, and causing PAIN!
Herniated disc issue can be corrected with lifestyle interventions as we will delve into below. However just to re-iterate, IF YOUR HAVE NEUROLOGIC SYMPTOMS, SEE A HEALTHCARE PROVIDER. If that is not bad enough, your delicate back anatomy can go wrong in MANY MORE ways.
Back Muscle Network Purpose and Dysfunction
Between, next to, between, alongside and around your vertebrae are a number of muscles, large and small that make up your back. Muscles connect your head to your vertebrae, your hips to your vertebrae, your extremities to your vertebrae and your vertebrae to each other.
Troubleshoot your issue and impalement useful practices every day and PRACTICE!
These muscles allow for flexibility and movement, but stability and strength. Weakness in your muscles can lead to shifts in this structure. Chronic posture problems will shift the column of gravity and muscle alignment. Sports injuries can pull, tear or scar down (SEE our article on Mobility for more on the fascia ) these muscles or the lining around them. ALL of these THINGS CAN CAUSE PAIN!
The Causes of Lower Back Pain are Complex, So Are the Treatments
As you can imagine, with such a delicate framework for all of your bodily movements, much can go wrong. So, what…just lie down in bed in an immobilizer…NOPE! Even that would not save your back as it would atrophy (weaken your muscles) and worsen the problem. Therefore, we have to figure out the source and MOVE.
Again, there are many ways to diagnose lower back pain. Imaging, labs, etc can be helpful. But in the absence of the red flags (above), you may be able to do some detective work. If you have any nervous system issues and not just pain, please SEE a HEALTHCARE PROVIDER. This is because time is important for nerve health and if your nerves remain trapped for too long, you risk permanent damage.
Now that I have scared you, let’s run through what YOU CAN DO at home
The Home Diagnostic Work-up for Back Pain
Being able to identify the source of your pain will help you in determining potential fixes. First, separate your site of pain by regions. By definition, the most common spot for back pain is LOWER. This usually means the lumbar spine that is essentially from the top of your hips, down to the top of your bottom. To diagnose this bending forward and backward at the hips is usually indicative of injury. Tingling or weakness in walking, probably the lumbar spine.
If twisting, bending side to side, or folding your torso are your issues then the thoracic spine is the culprit. In some cases, people with thoracic back pain can also have chest pain or belly pain, as your nervous wrap around to the front.
Problems with your neck? Well that is your cervical spine. Cervical spine pain can get worse with turning your head or touching your ear to your chest or shoulders. The last spinal portion is the sacral spine. Disruptions in this area can be pelvic in nature including the pain pattern and the feared bowel/bladder issues. See a doctor for such problems, please!
Medical Therapy May Reduce Inflammation but Not Fix the Problem
In the absence of serious medical conditions, this leaves structural issues which can be broken down into muscular and joint issues. Your pain is usually inflammatory in nature and given this information, one would think that blocking the inflammation is the key to success. However, the answer is more complicated than that.
Interventions that rid you of pain include anti-inflammatory drugs like steroids (medical type not anabolic), and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen, etc). These medications block the inflammation which constrict nerves and release irritating compounds all of which cause pain. Ice reduces swelling and slows the conduction of the pain response. Heat, can speed up blood flow and allow drainage of edema.
Not one of these interventions is really “curing” the problem though. They make you feel better, but the underlying issue still remains. In addition, steroids have terrible side effects like cataracts, skin thinning, psychological disruption, insomnia, glucose control issues, and water retention/fat gain through Cushing’s Disease. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause ulcers in the GI tract (trust me seen it thousands of times) and also delay the good healing cells from getting into the tissue and hence delaying intervention upon the real issue.
Easy Natural Anti-Inflammatory Back Pain Remedies
On the other side, exist more natural therapies for reducing inflammation. Such natural therapies induce an inflammation-balancing act that allows healing properties and reducing symptoms.
Bridging the medical-natural gap is capsaicin, found in chilis. Capsaicin can be applies directly to joints, or consumed and will reduce inflammation. Curcumin or tumeric is a potent anti-inflammatory Ayurveda. Pairing turmeric with black pepper improves absorption, along with each having their own potential anti-inflammatory benefit. Omega-3 fatty acids found in healthy fats can improve arthritis symptoms and inflammation (SEE our omega-3 article). If is exceptionally common for people to be low in omega-3 fatty acids and a nighttime supplement may help.
Other natural spices like cinnamon, clove ginger and garlic, posses the potential for anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, such spices may actually prove beneficial at reducing symptoms for those with arthritis symptoms. Great results, but just to re-iterate, these outcomes are all symptomatic in nature and do not address the underlying issues of muscle weakness, tightness, or fascial scaring.
Ice Reduces Pain but Delays Healing
A similar sentiment is true with icing and cold therapies. In fact, the physician Dr. Mirkin, who started the whole rest, ice, compression, elevation movement (R.I.C.E.), has redacted his protocol stating that mobility without ice may be better for healing damaged tissues.
A statement largely due to a meta-analysis of 22 studies published in 2013 showing no improvement in muscle damage with ice.
This concept outlines that ice delays the arrival of healing cells sent by your body to the site of injury as well as slows down pain sensing. Ultimately, this feels good at the time, but delays healing. Ice also weakens muscles and limits mobility (below). Therefore, NO PAIN NO GAIN! If you can’t use rest, ice or anti-inflammatory drugs, what can you do? Mobilize!
Mobility is the Key to Success Not Ice
Kelly Starett is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and mobility expert. His book The Supple Leopard is a must read. With just a few implements like a lacrosse ball or two, foam roll and time you can mobilize your way to back pain remedies.
Using the lacrosse ball allows you to isolate individual muscles that interconnect your vertebrae. It is really one of the few implements that can get into this space and you can then move your back up down and sideways to release the muscle.
The foam roller on the other hand, is really great at getting the muscles that run up and down your vertebrae (erector spinae muscles if you want to geek out). Allowing a slight gravitational pressure and upward downward movement feels great and also leads to a release. Additionally, our own @Sherifultrafit has given you two brief stretches that you can perform every morning to help with vertebral mobility.
Practice Mobility and Not Just Around Crisis
The most important thing is practice. Do mobility work every day, after every workout and NOT just when you are in crisis. Releasing myofascial scar, muscle tension and improving mobility are all things that take time. Implementing these easy maneuvers should be a daily practice for back pain remedies.
For me, it took months of this practice before I had release
Think of it like owning a car. You don’t just wait until your head gasket is blown, you get your oil changed and fluid levels topped off. For me, it took months of this practice before I had release, but now the benefits are vast. As an added bonus, you typically well squat deeper, catch barbell movements lower and lift MORE!
Yoga, Aquatics and Strengthening Back Pain Remedies
On the topic of strength, muscle weakness can also play into back pain. Strengthening your back is a great way to improve your symptoms and it is fun. In terms of scientific evidence core strengthening practices and aerobic activity both were found to improve flexibility and back pain.
- Aerobic activity typically was defined by a 12-week treadmill-based program
- Strengthening programs included core stability work like bird dogs, planks, sit ups and spine exercises.
Great core strengthening practices include yoga and aquatic therapy.
- Yoga and strength work when done twice weekly not only reduced pain, but as an aside, improves absenteeism from work due to pain.
- Aquatic therapy, in this study, lowered pain scores and improved functional movements.
Strengthening your core is a sure-fire way to align your muscular pain and movement restrictions. However, what about being hunched over at a desk all day.
Postural Correction Will Also Remedy Back Pain
In the workplace many are stuck at a desk hunched over and typing away. This practice weakens certain muscles involved in maintaining your posture and tires out those trying to counteract the hunch. Just imagine if you had to constantly pull a 100 lb. weight backward all day 8 hours a day…tiring right? The muscles attaching your back to your hips are probably doing that right now, ouch!
Just imagine if you had to constantly pull a 100 lb. weight backward all day 8 hours a day…tiring right?
Posture is unfortunately a hard fix. It is a subconscious process therefore unless you bring this correction to the conscious mind, you probably will continue the work hunch. In order to move this practice to the forefront of your mind, practice, and REPEAT.
The biggest times where you can implement this is while driving to work and while sitting at your desk. You can set a phone reminder or internal reminder to sit your hips, shoulder blades and chin back slightly. Allow you spine its’ natural curvature. However, weight is also a factor.
Obesity, Sleep and Nutrition, the Answers to Back Pain and Most Problems
It is difficult to align your spine and strengthen things with extra fat tissue. Along the same lines of your hip-back muscles being tired of pulling your posture all day, extra weight around your mid-section will add to the effort your muscles must exert to correct the gravitational force. Fat loss is the solution to this issue.
In terms of activity, we have discussed direct core strengthening, but moderate intensity walking 30 minutes daily (Click HERE for Baby Steps) , great for at loss, as is HIIT (Link to Staying Active at Home) and of course, weightlifting. Proper nutrition comes along with this, which we are always happy to guide you through in a more detailed discussion (CLICK HERE for a custom plan).
Certain supplements are useful for combating the inflammatory cascade which causes the pain. Examples of this would include tumeric or curcumin and omega-3 fatty acids.
As is true with most things, SLEEP is central to attenuating the problem. In this case though, ensuring proper vertebral alignment can easily improve back pain. If you neck or back is bent in a way outside of its’ proper structure, this will sleep everything out of place. Add on muscles that are relaxing (during sleep this happens) and your body will not counteract this misalignment and further compound the problem. The solution ensures proper pillow height and consider adding a pillow under your arms or between your knees.
Lower Back Pain Summary
Your back is a structural portion of your body comprised a delicate network of bones (vertebrae), nerves (spinal cord), joints (disc), and muscles. Identify your red flags and know when to seek medical care. For the rest of you, this is usually a structural problem involving muscle weakness, misalignment, inflammation and fascial scarring. Troubleshoot your issue and impalement useful practices every day and PRACTICE!
Top Lower back Pain Tips
- Proper Nutrition
- Sleep Alignment
- Fat loss
- Consider Natural Anti-inflammatories
- Strengthen Your Back and Core through weightlifting, aerobic exercise, yoga and aquatics
- Make Mobility a daily practice