By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
Last Sunday morning, I lay curled up on my living room floor, eyes locked on my phone, waiting for my mom to wake up and call me back. A couple days earlier I had thrown myself into a bout of goal-oriented, perfectionistic gardening; a feat I shortly thereafter discovered my lower back had been unprepared to support. After spending the following day lifting crates at the farmers market, my scratchy oriental rug seemed as good a place as any to die.
My one hope was that my mother, who has more accumulated knowledge about maintaining back health than perhaps any non-doctor in the world, held some magic tip that would instantly return me to the land of the functionally mobile. She didn’t — though she did provide me with a whole list of things I should be doing on a regular basis to prevent incidents like this from happening over the next few decades of my life, and she did help me land an SOS appointment with her doc later in the week.
“If I could turn back time, I would have started working on my back three decades ago and paid attention to it,” my mom told me later, after the dead-on-a-rug phase had passed. “I started noticing it when I was pregnant in my 30’s. If I had known then what I know now, I would have been seeking out support for the long haul.” As the 35-years-younger Abbott edition — and the one in-utero responsible for that pregnancy back pain — I took her words to heart.
It goes without saying that if you have severe or chronic back pain, your first step should be to see a local doctor in case you have a serious or worsening condition. However, it turns out that generally, there are lots of daily habits that can pay big dividends over a lifetime.
They always say you should listen to your mother — so here are my mom’s top five tips for enhancing back health at any age.
After many years of cycling through an array of doctors and practices, my mom has found the Feldenkrais method. Centered on attentive, gentle movements, it has been the most method effective for mitigating her chronic pain. She lies down for five minutes and does almost imperceptible mobility exercises, multiple times every day, targeting the small muscles and joints along her spine.
“Having my back be more mobile has made me more comfortable,” she said. “I’m using joints and muscles I didn’t before and there is less stiffness. It makes you very aware of your body, it is very much a mindfulness exercise.”
The Feldenkrais website promises that for regular practitioners, through “expanding your perception and increasing awareness, you will become more aware of your habits and tensions and develop new ways of moving.” All of the best strength and movement coaches I have worked with, even when we were focused on building muscle and power, have emphasized mobility as the foundation of any effective strength program. Whether or not you work with Feldenkrais specifically, it is important to talk with a trainer or a coach who can help you learn to use the small, stabilizing muscles throughout your body so you can maintain control and strength throughout your range of motion.
Bed rest is no longer the standard back injury prescription. Provided you have been checked out for more serious conditions, continuing to move in a careful manner can be beneficial for most acute and chronic back pain, even arthritis.
“I’m trying to do whatever I can to continue to do the things I love,” my mom told me. Regular activity, even something as simple as a daily walk, “keeps your joints lubricated, and for me it’s really all about comfort.”
Recent research shows that when we move our joints, it helps stimulate circulation of the synovial fluids that allow bones to move past one another smoothly. Staying active can have other benefits too, such as strengthening muscles and establishing muscle control around troublesome joints can further help to decrease or forestall pain.
Core isn’t everything
Adequate core strength is important for back health, but pumping out a few sit-ups and planks isn’t enough to keep you safe and comfortable in the long run. While you should absolutely attend to those large muscle groups, it’s also important to make sure to maintain control and mobility in the smaller, stabilizing muscles along your spine.
Along her back journey, my mom discovered that she has mild hypotonia, a genetic glitch that means she can’t effectively develop muscle tone. It’s rare, but it meant that pre-diagnosis, attempting core-strengthening workouts like Pilates or Foundations simply caused more pressure and torque on joints that were already painful.
Still, even without an ability to build significant muscle strength, by dedicating herself to small mobility exercises, my mom has been able to find a higher level of comfort and security in her body than she has had in years. Core strength is important, particularly for dedicated cyclists who won’t naturally build it through sport, but for many people, it isn’t the sole solution.
If you spend a big chunk of your day hunched over a computer — or a set of handlebars — it’s important to be conscious of your posture. My mom has learned to check in frequently throughout the day to ensure she doesn’t slip back into old, painful movement patterns. When you are beginning to work on posture, it might be helpful to set an alarm that will go off every 30 minutes or hour to kick off the habit.
Here is her mental checklist (a PT or physiologist in your area can help you identify your personal postural danger spots):
- Lift your chest up and relax your shoulder blades down your back.
- Check to see if your ribcage is jutting forward and draw it in, engaging your core.
- Finally, feel your weight rest through your feet and legs, making sure your pelvic area is seated.
If you are managing your own back pain, even if neither Fendelkrais nore my mom’s program help you, that doesn’t mean you won’t find a solution. Motivated by the specter of a spinal fusion, my mother worked her way through dozens of ill-fitting programs to achieve her current level of comfort.
“It’s a bit of a low level roller coaster,” she told me, saying she believes the key is to find a doctor willing to look at integrated, whole-body systems and keep an open mind. “Even when your back isn’t feeling great, stick with all of your daily habits.”
Whatever our age, back pain has a tendency to skip the “small problem” phase and rush straight toward disaster. No one likes to be injured, but if I take my recent humbling experience to heart and start a small, daily back practice now, that gardening incident could pay big dividends as I get older. Whatever your age, when it comes to caring for your body, it’s never too late to start.
(A final note: I have been told by several people it was not worth the health sacrifice, but I would like to say that my garden looks spectacular.)