Myths about Back Pain
Chances are if you are an adult human being, you’ve probably experienced some discomfort, tightness or pain in your back at some point in your life… a minor tweak from helping a friend move, stiffness after a long road trip, tightness after a rep gone wrong at the gym, or chronic tension creeping in over the years… The good news is, there are things we can do to help keep our backs healthy and alleviate some of the discomfort caused by less than optimal body mechanics, poor posture and the aging process. But like many things health and fitness related, there is a good deal of confusion and blanket advice handed out when it comes to back pain.
Now, before we go any further, I should point out that I’m not a doctor and nothing in this article should be interpreted as medical advice. If you’ve been in an accident, are experiencing acute pain, or symptoms you can’t explain or have never had before, you should seek immediate medical attention. And if you are currently being treated for a back condition you should always consult your doctor before you do any new exercises.
That said, let’s talk about a few common myths we’ve heard when it comes to low back discomfort:
Myth #1 – “I need to strengthen my core.” Ok, yes, you do. We all do. The lumbar spine’s main job is to be stable, so core training is very important. But how you train the core is important, as is what we are considering “the core”. Typical “core training” exercises like sit ups and crunches can actually make your back feel worse. Not to mention that just focusing on building stability without mobility will get you nowhere… which bring us to Myth #2.
Myth #2 – “I need to stretch more.” Again, probably true… but what exactly do you need to stretch? Most likely, it’s not your low back. We just discussed that the lumbar spine is an area primarily designed for stability, not mobility. Your back might feel tight and like it needs to stretch, but that tightness is often your body’s way of trying to create the stability it needs in that area… tightness substituting as stability, because some other area in the body that is supposed to be mobile is lacking mobility and your low back having to pick up the slack.
What the heck am I talking about? We have to get a little detailed here for a second, so bear with me. I first learned the “Joint by Joint Approach” from Gray Cook when I took his Functional Movement Systems course back in 2010, and I found it fascinating. Each joint, or group of joints is supposed to be either primarily stable or mobile, and when one area isn’t doing its specific job, you will almost assuredly run into trouble somewhere else in the body. So when one area of the body is experiencing discomfort or disfunction, we need to look at the area above and below the area in question. For example, we know by now the lumbar spine (low back) is meant to be stable. Above the lumbar spine is the thoracic spine (upper back) which is meant to be mobile. Below the low back we have the hips which are also meant to be mobile. So if we have a lack of mobility in the hips or upper back, you are almost guaranteed trouble in the low back.
Myth #3 – “I just need to rest.” Probably not. Unless your doctor has specifically advised you to do no activity, if you experience tightness in the back, “resting” is not going to help… especially resting that involves slouching on the couch binge-watching something on Netflix, or even lying down for long periods of time. Here is what the leading expert in the field of spine biomechanics, Dr. Stu McGill has to say:
“In reality, lying in bed for excessive periods actually causes back pain. Let’s examine this more closely. A little known fact is that we are all actually taller first thing in the morning than we are before we go to bed at night. This comes down to our spinal disks. The disks in between each of our vertebrae are packed with very concentrated protein chains that love water. In scientific terms, this means they are “hydrophilic.” When we lie horizontally, the discs fill with fluid and gently push the vertebrae away from one another, lengthening the spine. The reason, our backs are often stiff in the morning is that the discs are so full of fluid, like water balloons ready to burst. When we get up in the morning, and our spines are once again vertical, the excess of fluid in each disc begins to seep out and an hour or two after rising from bed we have returned to our normal heights. This natural ebb and flow is healthy and is what allows the discs to obtain nutrition. Problems arise, however, when the spine remains in a horizontal position for too long. While about eight hours in bed is healthy, much longer than that is not as it allows the spine to continue to swell and cause disc pain.”
It makes sense when you think about it. We’ve all probably experienced feeling stiff after being seated for long periods of time, or after getting up in the morning. If your back feels tight, you may not be able to do your usual gym routine, but you can modify your activities as needed so that you can and should keep moving in a way that doesn’t make the pain worse.
By now you are probably wondering what core exercises you should be doing, and what mobility drills you should focus on and I have really awesome news! Much better than me describing various exercises over the internet, would be for you to experience them with me in person. And you totally can, for FREE next Saturday 4/28 at Breakthrough at 11:30am!
I’ll be sharing breathing techniques, mobility drills and strength exercises to keep your back happy, healthy and strong. We will take a detailed look at movement mechanics and exactly how to approach each exercise so that you do it safely and with maximal benefit. I guarantee you will walk away with at least a little bit more knowledge about how your body is meant to move, a fresh approach to exercises you may have even done before, and hopefully a happier back!
Strength and love,