Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oh my aching back!

Disclaimer: I am not a physical therapist or a doctor, if you are in substantial pain you should contact an actual professional to help you.

When I was 26, after a year of ever increasing pain, I had to have back surgery. My L5 disk had herniated and was pressing on my spinal cord, creating tremendous pain through my back and down my right leg. During the episodes of acute pain and the subsequent rehabilitation I learned a lot about how to deal with back pain and how to prevent it from coming back.

There are two common causes for back pain: muscle spasms and disk problems. If you are having an acute muscle spasm (usually brought on by overuse), the best thing you can do is rest and massage until the muscle relaxes, at which point you can begin the strength exercises I'll talk about below. Making these muscles strong and putting them in regular work will help you avoid muscle spasms in the future.

If your problem is with the disks (pain down the leg is a tell-tale sign) then the very first exercise you should do is a very simple one: Lie down on your stomach on the floor with your hands next to your sides (a hard surface is very important). Seriously, that's it. What you're doing is putting the curve in your back, helping the disks move back where they belong. The next step is to prop yourself up on your elbows or a pillow, finally you can push yourself up on your hands to get the most arch in your back.

I can't tell you how much time I spent lying on my stomach before my surgery, it was hours and hours and at times was the only thing that gave me any relief at all.

If you aren't in acute pain, you can start to incorporate some low impact abdominal exercises. The first one you should learn is the pelvic tilt, it specifically targets the muscles of your lower abdomen and is not physically taxing. Start with one set of ten and gradually add more until you can can do three sets of 10.

When you are comfortable with this exercise and can do it without arching your back, you can start lifting your feet an inch off the floor with the tilts. Start very slowly and stop if you can't keep your lower back from coming off the floor.

The next low impact exercise you should add in is the "dead bug" exercise. This is a relatively easy exercise that will work your upper and lower abdominals together.

When you've built some strength from the dead bug exercise you can add in some curl ups for your upper abdominals. Again, start slow with a set of 10 and work up from there.

You might be ready at this time to add in some more intensive lower abdominal exercises like the one below. BUT- I recommend doing this exercise with a bent knee, not a straight leg like the video shows. That's really hard!

This last exercise works the upper and lower muscles of your back at once. As with the others start slowly and deliberately, begin with 10 repetitions before working your way up.

My current ab routine consists of 60 curl ups, 40 leg lifts, and 200 back extensions 3-4 times a week. I'll be doing these basically until I'm dead, since if I let my abs go I'm in pain. Period. Sometimes I'll add in some abdominal twists and a medicine ball for some added punch but I didn't do that until the early exercises built up my core enough so I don't hurt myself.

Okay? If you try these (for at least two months) and they don't work, then you can complain to me that your back hurts. If not, well...

Bonus pic of the day:
Zombie polo player


  1. These are great exercises. I really do think that most of us hurt ourselves because we aren't in great shape to begin with. Muscles and strong bones will NEVER hurt anyone. Thanks for these.

    Oh, too funny. My word was "Colic" .

  2. Thanks for the videos. I did the same thing to my L5 disk and it was pressing on the cord. I never had it operated on and my right calf is still a little numb after all these years. I did do some of these exercises in physical therapy and do them when my back flares up. I really should stop being so lazy and do them everyday. My excuse is I don't have the time, but I should make it. At least I don't complain about the pain. That's one thing in my favor...Right?

  3. I put my back out a few years ago, I was just about to put down a bale of hay when one of the cats sat down underneath, so I lifted it back up and twisted at the same time. Bingo! It is still a weak spot and I am definitely not as diligent about exercises as I should be. Those videos are great, I'm joining up.

  4. Very interesting. Back surgery is pretty scary stuff. You must have been seriously hurting.

    The pelvic tilt is the same exercise that my riding teacher uses in the saddle to encourage neutral pelvis. Push that belly button back!

  5. Thanks for these! I tore a muscle around the back of my rib cage connecting to my diaphram when I was in my early 20's. The scar tissue around the tear would spasm to the point that it would knock the wind out of me. In fact, someone would have to stay with me because I would faint from lack of oxygen! Back then the only thing they did for back pain of any kind was give you super pain meds and bed rest. No one thought of actually doing exercises to STRENGTHEN your back. When I started riding, my friends thought I was crazy because of my past back problems. I will say that riding has HELPED my back by helping to strengthen my core (what little of it there is!). I am going to try some of the exercises you have listed. :-)

  6. These are great suggestions...thank you so much! I can't wait to try some of them.

  7. Sorry guys, I checked out for a while there.

    Exactly Margaret, strong muscles are much more resilient than weak ones.

    GHM, I can't argue with that :)

    twohorses we could make a club out of it: Exercises for Strong Riders or something much more clever than that...

    Val- yeah seriously hurting doesn't quite cover it. Anyway, I'm not surprised your instructor had you doing that. You're putting yourself in collection with that one!

    Wolfie- OW! Geez, that's awful. Glad you feel better now.

    Sarah remember to start slow and easy :)

  8. I'm late to this party, but I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    Even though they were three weeks early, my twins had a combined weight at birth of over 17.5 lbs (one was 8.9, the other 8.12--this is what you get if you're 5'10 and your husband is 6'4). I read a lot of stern advice before I had them about how exercising was mandatory for anyone after a multiple birth. My muscles had separated in front (which is common) but I was able to get a lot of my strength back. Core strength is really important!

  9. Wow, 17.5lbs? That's just scary. You'd have to do some major core work to get back after that!

    I met a woman who was pregnant with her second child. She said her stomach muscles had gotten split while she was pregnant with her first, but she'd gotten pregnant again before she'd gotten back in shape. She was halfway in and was already in a lot of pain.

  10. Oh my gosh, THANK YOU!!!
    I'm just catching up on reading blogs.