Back pain is not merely ordinary discomfort. It is a teacher of life lessons instructing us about our bodies and the mind-body connection. If you work through the pain and deal with it in a mindful, natural way, you can find relief and gain a new appreciation for avoiding backaches and improving your life’s journey.
Back Pain Redux
Recurring, chronic back pain is nobody’s friend, although it offers a tough-love educational experience. In the search for relief, this type of pain can too often lead to drug addiction, depression, disability and many more problems if you let it get out of control. But you have to remember that neck pain, upper back pain, low back pain and tail bone discomfort can each have quite different causes. Consequently, each comes with its own lesson.
I became an uncomfortably close friend to low back pain during my college years. In those days, I was a constant athlete. I was a competitive swimmer from age 5 to 13. Then I got serious about tennis, football, basketball, skiing and distance running. During all those activities, I never had a problem with my low back until the beginning of my first year at Brigham Young University (BYU).
I distinctly recall my first low back strain. I had arrived at BYU after a long drive from the San Francisco area. I started unloading my personal items, including some fairly heavy boxes, from my car. Suddenly, I felt a deep and sharp pulling pain in my low back (without radiation to my lower extremities) that stopped me in my tracks for a few moments. Initially, the pain was not disabling, so I did not think much of it. I continued lifting boxes, not knowing I was making my condition worse with each box.
Inflammation Hits The Back
The inflammation started in my lumbosacral spine area, but it was not until hours after lifting boxes that the stiffness and pain became seriously intense. That evening, I felt like I had aged decades, reduced to cautious walking and very careful sitting or bending. The stiffness and pain continued for several more days. I used the conventional treatment of icing my back 15 minutes before bedtime, heating it in the morning and taking 800 mg of Ibuprofen twice daily to dull the pain. Within days, the pain stopped.
For me, this has been a common scenario — my recurring low back strain is only a temporary hindrance. It heals within just a few days if I just go easy on bending and lifting and remain patient. At those times, though, I ponder more deeply the possible psycho-emotional causes of my discomfort. What financial stress am I under? What worries or fears do I harbor? Do I trust that I am supported in my life? It always helps to take an honest look at myself and shift my attitudes. As Louise L. Hay, author of You Can Heal Your Life, writes, “The back represents our support system. Problems with the back usually mean we feel we are not being supported. Too often we think we are only supported by our job or by our family or spouses. In reality we are totally supported by the universe, by Life itself.”
In my case, I am grateful that I can heal quickly and return to normal functions rapidly. My back problem provides me with a fresh new perspective on health. I get back into stretching, strengthening and an active lifestyle. Within two weeks, I’m as good as new as well as re-motivated to keep fit and to eat for longevity and not just pleasure. I also contemplate more seriously what I am doing for others in this world.
Pain That Lingers
For some, however, back pain can be chronic, and last longer than three months. Occasionally, the pain is linked to infection or cancer, but these cause less than 2 percent of chronic back pain. Rather, back issues almost always stem from a musculoskeletal problem that involves compressed nerves. Such nerves are trapped by subluxations (slipped vertebral bones), disc herniation (material between vertebral bones), strained muscles themselves or degenerative arthritis of particular bones. These irritated nerves then fire pain impulses.
Take neck pain for example. Neck pain can result from irritating interactions among the top vertebrae on the spine and the neck as well as their articulation with the base of the skull. Nerves can become irritated anywhere along their pathway from the spinal cord out to the peripheral joints and surrounding cartilage, ligaments, tendons and muscles. There’s a lot that can malfunction and lead to pain.
Neck pain can give rise to headaches, too. For example, your typical tension headache of the forehead or temple area originates in a strained or irritated neck. This is because the nerves that run through all these muscles and connective tissues are interrelated. I have heard from many of my own patients that the best chiropractic results for neck pains and/or headaches are the simple and gentle realignment of the top two vertebrae on the spinal column with what are called NUCCA procedures. These are noninvasive chiropractic techniques endorsed by the National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association (NUCCA).
Thoracic, lumbar and even tail bone pains almost always originate from a problem of the spinal column and the associated nerve roots that emerge from the spinal cord. Resolution of these problems is not as straightforward as dealing with neck pain. The weight-bearing joints of the spine can become diseased from the prolonged consumption of a poor diet, emotional stress and physical injury.
Healing Is More Than Banishment Of Pain
Certainly, when back pain won’t go away, you must consider how to effectively heal the underlying difficulties and not only how to quell the pain. For example, when arthritis causes chronic back aches, the use of narcotic pain relievers is not your best solution. Narcotics dull your brain, cause constipation and can lead to addictive cravings for the high feelings they create. After a short time, narcotics up-regulate the sensation of pain so that, when you are off them, your pain is even more unbearable. I have seen this type of situation even lead to drug dealing or use of highly addictive drugs in patients. Narcotic use for pain relief is a typical first step to drug addiction.
Instead, consider the benefits of yoga exercises and diet. Yoga poses help you regain flexibility and boost circulation to supporting musculoskeletal structures. Yoga meditations help you appreciate that your body temple needs to be honored with a diet of mostly raw whole food nutrition. it also helps you recognize that the body suffers from soft drinks, refined sugar, dairy products, fried food, processed food and all other junk foods that clearly contribute to chronic inflammation. Massage therapy and chiropractic interventions are often necessary to promote healing, too.
Other successful recipes for soothing chronic back pain combine daily traction (with a calibrated mechanical table or a home inversion table), stretching, exercise, excellent nutrition and a positive mental-emotional focus. Even disc herniation can eventually heal, much like a sprained ankle repairs itself if you treat it right. New tissue forms and nerves gradually become less and less irritated.
Compare this type of healing, conservative approach to back pain with surgical intervention. The main surgeries for disc herniation and spinal stenosis include a discectomy (removal of fragments of a herniated disc), spinal fusion and a laminectomy (removal of spinal bone). Contrary to what spine surgical centers claim, a 2009 review of back surgery studies reported in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Spine found that surgery is only moderately more effective than conservative, non-surgical treatments, and that the benefits of surgery usually decline eventually.1
Lessons To Learn From Back Pain
What can back pain teach you? First of all, take a look at your own psycho-emotional challenges. What are you not dealing with that needs looking after? Healing from back pain is definitely impeded by worries, fears or other emotional issues that need to be addressed.
Next, consider what this pain teaches you about yourself. For example, do you turn to pain pills immediately, or do you have the confidence to work through the pain and take responsibility to get on the active road to healing? Instead of growing more resentful and ill-tempered with others, let the pain show you the value of being more appreciative and patient with those around you.
In the years that have followed my college years I have had many sudden and unexpected episodes of low back strain. Each one is a wake-up call to my own path of health and happiness. For this, I am thankful and healthier.
To your continued health and learning,
Michael Cutler, M.D.
Author, Easy Health Options