I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.
Back Pain Is No Joke
Almost nothing is worse than severe back pain. I know from experience. When I first injured my back, I laid awake every night, worrying that I'd never recover. I worried that my life would never be the same. I'm happy to report that I recovered—and you can too.
If you're at the bottom now with your back injury, don't worry. You can get better. You will get better if you commit to doing so.
This is my story: what I did to get healthy and all the things I've learned along the way.
Editor's note: If you're having back pain that lasts longer than a few days, it's important to go see your doctor.
Back Injury Statistics
65 million Americans report an episode of back pain. Severe back pain limits the activities of nearly 8 percent of all adults. Health care costs to deal with back pain account for approximately 12 billion dollars per year. Nearly 83 million workdays per year are lost due to back pain. Also, one in four adults with back pain is not in good overall physical health.
Given these statistics, it's pretty clear that back pain is about as serious an issue as it gets. Not only must we work on our backs, but we must also improve our overall physical health to help our backs.
The Cause of My Back Injury
Around the age of 30, I sold a condominium and moved into a townhouse. I did all the moving. Unfortunately, my condo was on the top floor. So, moving required taking everything down several flights of stairs.
This was back in the day. Remember the size of TVs back then? I had one. It was one of those 27-inch giant cubes that weighed at least 50 pounds. I should have hired movers, but I was too cheap. Instead, I carried it down the stairs and to the car. I know now that there's no way to carry one of those things with good form. There's no way. You extend your arms, hold the weight, and put untold torque on your lower back.
The next morning I woke up, and I couldn't move. I locked my back. The muscles seized. I could barely get out of bed. Gingerly, I walked down the stairs, almost falling. I went to the refrigerator and pulled out a full gallon of milk. I thought the pain was going to kill me. The lifting of that milk let me know something was terribly wrong. The pain shot down my leg and up my back. One word: excruciating.
Learning About Recovery
Often, most doctors can't exactly tell you what's wrong with your back. However, they can tell you that most back injuries are solved through exercise. Core strength is a great way to prevent back injuries. However, once you have a back injury, most doctors will suggest physical therapy instead of surgery.
I know of a number of people who opted for a surgery that didn't work. Then they needed a second, third, and fourth surgery. Much better to try physical therapy first. Once you have surgery, you can't go back.
Recovering from a back injury when the doctor suggests physical therapy requires dedication. There's no way around it.
Sure, you can take drugs. You can wear braces. However, if you don't solve the root problem, you'll continue to have back issues. That's why the physical fitness industry makes such a big deal about core strength.
Right after I injured my back, I went to physical therapy. However, the real work began at home. Every morning when I woke up, I did twenty minutes of stretching.
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The Three Stages of Lower Back Exercises
There are three stages of lower back exercise:
- Major injury: stretching (gentle strengthening)
- Recovery: muscle recovery
- Strengthening: core muscle strengthening
Or think of it this way:
- Moderate strengthening
- Core muscle building
The reason I outline it this way is important. There is simply no way to recover from a back injury overnight. It's a process. The exercise needs to reflect this. So does your mental attitude.
If you severely injure your back, as I did, and try to start with heavyweights, you'll make it worse. The early back exercises after injury will seem very simple, almost frustratingly so. If you have a fully healthy back, these exercises will seem pointless. If you're hurt, they're not that easy. You cannot rush a back injury.
Early-Stage Back Exercises
The above photo shows the basic position for a number of early exercises following a severe back injury. These can be done on the floor or in bed. I was so injured that I initially performed my exercises in bed. They were the only way I could get out of bed because I had locked my back.
Rotate Knees Side-To-Side
My back was so tight that I could barely move anything. So, I started with this simple exercise. In the above position, I simply rotated my hips, dropping my knees from one side to the other. It seems so simple now, but it was hard then.
Single Leg Lift
This also seems so simple. In the above position, simply use your hands to bring one knee to your chest. Then do the other. You can also bring both knees to your chest. You can also begin the exercise with your legs flat.
Sitting up and with your knees up, put one leg over the other. Then cross your arm over the leg that's crossed. Twist your torso away from your knees. Thus, if your right leg is crossed over your left, put your left arm over your right leg. Turn to your right. This will stretch your lower back.
Moderate Strengthening Exercises
The above image shows a crunch position. You can also start your exercises with your feet on the floor and knees up.
A crunch doesn't need to go all the way up to be effective. In fact, an effective crunch only requires your shoulders to come up slightly off the floor. Rinse and repeat.
You can lift your legs either slightly bent or fully extended. Some people will do these from the waist so it works the abs, but you can also simply lift while bending the knees to take any pressure off the lower back. Try lifting one leg at a time first until you build strength.
Exercises After Recovery and Maintenance
After you feel "normal" again, a couple of exercises will help with building strength.
This is something I started long after my injury. I wish I had known more about it. Planking itself can be kind of boring, but you can buy items to gamify planking and make it fun. The photo above shows how to plank. It's easy to do and can be done anywhere.
Single Weight Lifts
This is a little harder to explain. Put one knee on a bench and one hand for stabilization. With the other, pick a weight you can pull up easily. As though you were rowing, pull up. Switch hands and do the same.
What Was My Injury?
Since I never got X-rays, I don't know for sure exactly what my injury was. However, I'm pretty sure I slipped a disc in my lower back. This is common. Depending on which way it moves, the impacts can be different.
Where Did My Pain Occur?
In my case, my pain occurred standing up. I could sit down pain-free. I could even ride a bike with no problems. Because I commuted to work on a bike, this was good news. The bad news, particularly early on, was that I couldn't stand for more than a few minutes. This presented some odd scenes as any conversation I had involved me squatting. Since I worked at a desk, the impacts weren't severe.
How Long Did It Take to Heal?
It took me nearly nine months to recover and feel like myself again. That's nine months of stretching and core strengthening. To this day, I am pretty careful when I pick up heavy objects. The other thing I will rarely do is lift something heavy with another person.
No matter what the situation, one can never tell what another person might do. You can't control somebody else. If they move the wrong way, you're in trouble, particularly if you're carrying a heavy object.
While you can wear a back brace for the rest of your life, I wouldn't recommend it. However, as a temporary solution, a back brace can at least get you upright.
The best back braces I've found all have similar characteristics. Generally, they have a semi-rigid, large mesh back. The front contains two types of velcro straps. The first straps go around your waist to adjust the size before tightening. The second two straps pull the brace tight and adjust the level of support.
There are many different versions of this brace available. Frankly, my brace has been a lifesaver. I highly recommend you get one for emergencies. A good brace can be the difference between getting out of bed and not.
Lift With Your Legs!
You've probably heard it before: Lift with your legs!
If you don't want to injure yourself or injure yourself again, don't lift from the waist. Every time I see somebody injure themself, it's because they torque their lower back. You do this when you reach out with your arms and lift something heavy.
Have you watched movers recently? They frequently carry boxes behind them. What I mean is that instead of holding the box in front, against their belly, they hold it against their back. Obviously, even movers can't go all day carrying boxes against their stomachs.
Once you've injured your back, you simply can't ignore it. Take your time. Don't carry heavy weight in front of your body. Don't reach for heavy objects. Get help when you need it.
Through good exercise and paying attention, you can have a healthy back.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Allen Donald
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 23, 2020:
Great stuff. I deal with it sometimes. Suggestions like your's here help immensely. Thanks.
JEREMIAH MWANIKI KILUNDA from Nairobi on August 23, 2020:
There was a time I had severe back pain. It disappeared after some time after calling on the doctor. This is a very nice article. I have learned a lot.