My Life Moves
Lifestyle Causes of Lower Back Pain
Every Sunday morning I see Michael, a student who originally came for a Yoga Therapy treatment for his lower back pain. He had been sent by his massage therapist as an act of desperation and last resort. At least two years of pain on the left side of his lower back, endless sessions of physiotherapy, massages and pain killers…the discomfort did get temporarily better, but still his lower back pain would return, sometimes like a dull reminder, others as a painful, debilitating spasm.
He was a fit, non- smoker, non- drinker, 30 year old young man, so there was no logical reason why he should be suffering like this for so long. In his own words, he felt “like an old man” when he got out of bed every morning.
It may seem simple, but the reason why Michael was still in pain after all those treatments was because such treatments treated the symptoms, but not the cause of his lower back pain. I always tell my Yoga therapy and Yoga teaching students that sometimes we have to do some detective enquires in order to get to the core of our work with Lower Back Pain.
In Michael’s case, I found out that he sat down for long hours at his desk and in endless meetings with his right leg tightly crossed over his left leg, with his body tilted to the left side. How did I found out? Through a detailed intake session in which I also gave him a chair and invited him to demonstrate how he sat at work.
I challenge anyone to sit for 6 hours per day with the legs crossed in this position, 5 days a week, and see what happens to their back. Added to it, Michael’s job as a banker meant that not only he was sitting with his legs crossed and his body tilted, but judging by the stress levels of his profession, he must have been squeezing his legs so tight that I’m surprised he didn’t do any further damage.
Of course we had to do a lot of work to help heal the damaged area (the Piriformis muscle and all the surrounding structure), but the work would have been fruitless if Michael would have gone back to work the day after and sat down in his usual position for another stressful 6 hours.
As a Yoga Therapist for over 12 years I am coming to the conclusion that there is a reason for everything, and that today’s therapy should focus more on the causes, rather than the symptoms, of disease. Only then, we can prevent future problems and make a long-term difference to our own health and our client’s health.
Mechanical Lower Back Pain -this is, with a muscular-skeletal origin and not from organic reasons such as kidney infections, spinal tumours, menstrual pain etc..- is one of the main health issues that doctors see every day in their clinics. It affects millions of people and it is one of the largest expenses for the medical system in countries like the UK. Most Lower Back Pain is caused by ill-formed lifestyle habits which, when corrected, can change a person’s life and save thousands of euros to health care.
The following list can help anyone who suffers from LBP, and the Yoga teachers, health practitioners and therapists who help them. The reason behind LBP is the key to the treatment, which should vary accordingly…for this reason it is important to remember that not every Lower Back Pain is born the same!
Oh yes. Sorry. Here we go again, but it’s true. Stress causes your spinal muscles and supporting muscles (QL’s, hip, buttocks and leg muscles) contract and tighten, causing pain. Here is where a little stretching and breathing can help, with relaxation techniques and even psychological support to help you through your treatment.
Standing or sitting, a misaligned posture can cause long-term structural changes and damage to the spine. I know, I know…correcting your posture is easier said than done. Old habits die hard and for some people -see the next section-, the problem arises all the way down from the feet. But if you are determined, there are some practices such as Yoga, Pilates and Alexander Technique that can slowly introduce new postural habits even in the hardest cases…and it’s never too late to start.
People are always surprised when we tell them that sometimes we can heal a painful back by working on their feet. The body has such delicate alignment that if the feet we stand on are out of balance, in the long-term the knees, hips, lower back and even the neck, will suffer.
Bunions, flat feet, a broken foot (even if it’s an old injury), warts and wearing the wrong shoes can cause us to put more weight on one foot than on the other, therefore causing the whole skeletal structure go out of balance. The muscles on one side of the body will contract to over- compensate and…voila! here comes back pain.
Letting a specialist look at your feet is always a good place to start.
High impact and asymmetric sports
An apology to all our tennis players, runners, spinners, hockey players, cross-fitters and golfers…we get a lot of you in our Yoga Therapy and Shiatsu practice, and we keep on telling you that, over a certain age -mainly over 40-, playing high impact is fun, but you can expect some problems in your lower back (and knees, and shoulders…)…
For prevention, make sure to warm up and stretch carefully after your workout, get regular massages and take time to rest when you are tired or feel an injury coming. As long as you are aware of this, you can keep on playing!
Click here for some fun warm-ups before running, also suitable for any high impact sports….
The wrong bed
If your lower back pain is worse in the mornings, maybe you should consider changing your bed…
It doesn’t matter that your bed is a new bed or a “good bed”. The question is, is it a good bed “for you”?
The most expensive bed in the world can be torture for your back. My mother’s back problems really improved after changing her mattress to a state-of-the -art memory foam mattress, which happened to give me and my daughter terrible pain on our backs whenever we slept on it.
Observe how your back feels in the mornings for a few days. If your back is stiff and painful, it is time to go bed shopping…
Sitting/Standing for long hours
As we’ve been told many times, a sedentary life is no good for your back, your digestion and your heart. “Sedentary life” sounds like being really lazy in front of the TV all day, and you probably feel that this doesn’t apply to you. So it might surprise you when I tell you that, if you are really, really busy sitting at your desk in front of your computer 5 hours per day, you are leading a sedentary life.
Standing for too long is also not good for your lower back (a simple equation of the effect of gravity and weight on yours vertebras)…so if you suffer from lower back pain and you sit or stand for too many hours, try to find ways to alternate from sitting to standing and walk around your place of work. The more active, the better.
This also goes for yoga teachers and meditators. Yoga teachers can sit for many hours of the day in a cross-legged position, which not only puts pressure on their lower spine but also on the Sacro-Iliac Joint, causing hip and lower back issues…sitting or standing, everything must be done in moderation.
Personally I find it really hard to bring this up to the attention of those clients who complain of lower back pain. I don’t really want to turn “losing weight” into the main purpose of a yoga practice. I am also not a nutritionist or a doctor, so I feel unqualified to suggest to my yoga therapy students that losing weight might help them relief their backs…specially to women. Unfortunately due to how our society portrays us, we have to be really careful when we approach this subject, as it can really affect a woman’s self-steem and self-image in a negative way.
If someone is already not feeling good about themselves, telling them that they should lose a few kilos is a risky business. Therefore I try to be as respectful as possible, and slowly introduce new eating habits and inform them about the dangers of excess saturated fats and sugars, and how many of my clients have benefited from becoming healthier eaters. Somehow this seems to work really well and after a few months the students are already introducing new healthier habits into their lives.
If you suffer from LBP and you know you are overweight, shedding those few kilos in a controlled, respectful way with a doctor or nutritionist might be the best thing you’ll ever do for your back.
Alcohol and cigarettes.
Cigarette smoking is one of the main causes of vertebral degeneration, and alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the muscles and vertebras of the spine.
If you suffer from LBP, observe how your back feels after a week of not drinking any alcohol. Alcohol feels great on the moment you drink it, as it has an immediate relaxing effect on your muscles…however, it also dehydrates the body and it has a rebound effect of contracting the muscles around the spine and causing a stiff back the morning after.
Quitting smoking is really hard, but if you suffer from a herniated disc and debilitating back pain, be warned that smoking can make things ten times worse. For more information on smoking and lower back pain: