I’ve been suffering from some lower back stiffness and pain, and after many experiments, I have found that changing my work ergonomics, heat, and a set of exercises have helped.
Well, this sometimes painful, usually stiff lower back thing has been bothering me the last two summers and the fall, winter, and spring in between. It would come on especially after exertion (cycling, weeding, planting, lifting) to the point where I started doing less and less just to avoid twinging it. I fear sneezing, because it can to cause a mirrored spasm in my lower back. Boo.
What didn’t work
Waiting for it to go away
It sounds silly to say now, but waiting until the “edge came off” didn’t work. Cycling did seem to exacerbate it, I’d be doubled over in pain about 24-36 hours after a ride, so I hung my bike up in the garage and haven’t ridden it in over a year. But, I shunned other exercise (personal training, going to the Y) because it wasn’t helping me get better either.
I kept hoping I would finally eliminate the “thing” that was causing the stiffness/soreness. I kept waiting for the twingey pain to stop. But it didn’t. So my ultimate discovery was rest did not solve the problem. Now I need to rebuild without hurting my back.
I resist taking too much ibuprofen, figuring I’d rather treat the cause than the symptom. I also feared increasing the injury by feeling better than I actually was.
I also worked with my massage therapist on it. But, while she unknotted me, it didn’t change the situation fundamentally.
I worked with a chiropractor, which did seem to help a little, and I was able to extend the time between sessions before I felt locked up again. Yet, whatever it is/was remained. Going to see someone once a month didn’t change the situation.
What did work
I decided after 16 or 18 months of chronic pain I had to make a drastic change.
Changing my work ergonomics
I moved to a stand-up desk at work. And I heard my uncle and my mother discussing how they’d both used a stand-up desk at their place of work for decades. I realized I have a very similar body to theirs, so I should pay attention to how they care for their backs! My work was happy to let me experiment with the furniture, and we rigged up a standing desk that works well for me. I switched to it full time after Labor Day.
I felt good in the position and it was an easier adjustment than I expected, tho I’m someone who spends a fair bit of her day in conference rooms so do get lots of sitting/movement breaks. My back seemed a little more loose after the transition, like it was recovering.
I was feeling tight and uncomfortable at my mom’s house after a recent bout of enthusiastic gardening knocked me over. She slipped me a ThermaCare heat wrap, and honestly, I’m completely in love with them now (no I have no relationship with them other than as a consumer). Eight or so hours of mild heat really seemed to sink in and relax my back. A hot water bottle was kind of awkward, a microwaved pack was first too hot and then quickly too cold. The ThermaCare wrap was specifically for the lower back, held itself in the right place with a waistband, and hid mostly under clothes (not bulky).
Specific strengthening and lengthening exercises
I did try stretches throughout the experience and of course I continued my yoga classes. But my yoga class only seemed to make me aware of where I was stiff and limited. I didn’t break through it.
As for stretches to reduce the pain, when it was in spasm, I couldn’t find anything to release it. And when I wasn’t in pain, it was hard to tell whether any routine mattered. And some of the stretching routines I tried were long and annoying and I wasn’t sure they made a difference. So, I never got very serious about them.
I had Carol Blackman and Elise Browning Miller’s book Yoga: Anytime, Anywhere (Amazon affiliate link) for a couple of years before I engaged with it seriously. I’ve benefitted from Elise’s workshops and her yoga for scoliosis DVD. And I took it up north with me this summer and dug into her chapter on “Strengthening and Lengthening Your Lower Back”. These simple exercises helped me wash the creakiness out and give me a better range of motion and fewer twinges of pain. Better yet, their benefit persisted long enough to make me want to commit to a routine.
Yet, I still resist the routine of doing it. I currently do them in the evenings, but I expect that soon I’ll end up moving them into my morning routine, since I seem to accept routine more in the mornings! To ease my annoyance with looking up what to do next in the book all the time, I recently recorded my voice on to my phone narrating the instructions for the sequence.
Now that I think about the timespan, I suspect that my back twinginess is more caused by inactivity than solved by it. I just realized I have been living in our new home for a little over two years, and I know my activity has decreased since moving from a neighborhood where I walked everywhere to one where a car is required. It’s hard to get motivated for exercise when you fear worsening a chronic condition, yet that must be a way out, especially now I am armed with a set of exercises that take the edge off.
So, with cautious optimism I am committing to the strengthening routine and will add back in more vigorous exercise as I heal my back.