About 8% of the global population experience persistent or chronic back pain and it is increasing in the global population. I am writing this article because I have firsthand experience with chronic back pain. I want to share with you my journey in how I cured ten years of chronic back pain and condensed a decade of experience and knowledge into a three-month strategy. Please feel free to skip to the bottom to learn how I fixed my lower back pain.
How I Developed Chronic Lower Back Pain
My history with lower back pain started around 2009 or earlier. From gaming addiction, a web design degree, and falling into the marketing industry I have a long history of being in front of a computer. My back pain was a gradual progression.
The problem with gradual back pain is that it can be dismissed, and over a period of time it can become normalized”
After working for a company for six years, I was laid-off due to a reorganization a couple of months before the pandemic. I used my educational severance to get certified as a personal trainer specializing in corrective exercise. It taught me that physical patterns in life could affect your body. My specific pattern was too much time in front of a computer, which first came in the form of too much sitting. Later I learned that too much standing in front of a computer brought other problems.
Patterns and How They Affect Your Life
Sitting all the time created short and tight hip flexors, and long and weak my hip extensors (the glutes). This brought the classic condition for my hip complex to be tugged out of alignment. This gave me dull aches to shooting pain. In the beginning it was excruciatingly new, but overtime I got use to dealing with the pain. Standing too much in one place made my tensor fasciae latae too tight, and made it feel like my leg was being jammed into my hip socket. These are physical outcomes from physical patterns, but it took me a long time to understand the pain of non-physical patterns.
Mental and Emotional Patterns
Chronic back pain is a form of trauma and it can take a long time to develop without you being aware of the long-term effects. When you live in constant fear of acute pain, the mental and emotional patterns can become ingrained without you being aware of it. Does the following seem familiar?
- Coming home mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drained after your commute home from work.
- Coming home from work feeling grumpy and easily agitated.
- Getting into fights with your significant others about the same things without any resolutions.
- General feelings of being unappreciated and unsupported by your loved ones.
- Feeling isolated and lonely.
These might not be your mental and emotional patterns, but I encourage you to explore what yours could be. It took me many years to see how my happy, outgoing, and adventurous personality gradually turned into being isolated and disgruntled. This slow personality change affected my relationships and eventually helped shape my heart-breaking divorce.
How to Address Negative Patterns
What are your daily to weekly patterns? For physical patterns, you should be asking what you do all day. Do you work in front of a computer? Do you commute? Are you a gamer? These are sitting patterns.
Pay attention to your mental and emotional patterns. Are they generally good or bad? Does your back pain have anything to do with them? Patterns in relationships can be hard to tackle, but I am willing to guess that your chronic back pain has some kind of impact on your relationships. It would be good for you and your relationships to identify how your back pain is shaping your mental and emotional well-being, so you can communicate that to the people who care about you. If talking is a challenge, then perhaps you could think about writing a letter. In either case of physical or non-physical patterns, it is usually a good idea to get outside help to move you along the path of recovery. Do not wait too long on this, and above all, be very forgiving to yourself and those in your life.
Foam Rolling and Static Stretching
One thing I know that helps for physical patterns is foam rolling and stretching. This helps break up soft tissue knots and helps keep them hydrated and more pliable. After foam rolling, you need to stretch and lengthen your soft tissue. For example, if you sit too much your hip flexors are probably too tight and short. Conversely, your hip extensors are too long and weak. For this pattern, you generally need to foam roll the areas that are too tight and short first, then you need to stretch and lengthen them. For the areas that are too long and weak, you generally need to exercise them to become stronger, so for the hip extensors you will probably need to do squats to strengthen your glutes.
Foam rolling and stretching alone might not fix your issue. I learned this the hard way.”
I used to foam roll and stretch three times a day for about two years. One session could take up to one hour. It dominated my life and took time away from my family, which helped further isolate me.
Compound Exercise and the Kinetic Chain
I spent a lot of time foam rolling, stretching, and doing stability endurance exercises for many years without solving my chronic lower back pain. In hindsight, it seemed as though I was simply maintaining my pain on a week-to-week basis, which was far from satisfactory. From my experience, doing stability exercises was not enough. I also found that isolated exercises was not enough to fix my lower back.
The big turning point for me was when I started doing compound exercises for strength endurance.”
The kinetic chain is often talked about in physical therapy, because it views the body as a system of soft-tissue, joints, and segments that are all interrelated that forms a “chain”, which all works together to produce human movement. One compound exercise that had a significant impact on my path to full recovery is the single-arm squat to press. This exercise covers the chain from your feet all the way up your arm.
Any deficiencies in that kinetic chain will be addressed over time.”
The beauty of compound exercise with a focus on the kinetic chain is that the whole chain is strengthened, which is a more holistic approach than focusing on a specific area. Chasing specific areas can become a giant juggling act in where you are trying to address multiple muscle imbalances. Compound exercises also raises the heartbeat providing you with a cardiovascular challenge. Dropping weight can have an extreme amount of relief of stress on your body.
Steps to Fixing Chronic Back Pain
- Understand and educate yourself in what you do to your body on a day-to-day basis. I highly recommend that you track your pain. Google Sheets is great as you can access the file on your smartphone. Feel free to use my “pain rating” scale (see below), or come up with your own that fits your needs.
- Foam roll and stretch. This is an absolute must in my opinion. While it might hurt at first, it will get better. Foam rolling is a practice that informs you in what your body is telling you. If you foam roll an area and it hurts, your body is telling you it needs some work. After you foam roll you will need to stretch and lengthen those areas. There are plenty of resources on YouTube on how to foam roll and stretch. I recommend half a minute per stretch (at the bare minimum), but one minute will give you much better results. If you are in acute pain, I recommend two minutes per stretch.
- If you are not in acute pain, I recommend a month of stability endurance training with a focus on core exercise. Also, remember to do lots and lots of foam rolling and stretching (as if it is going out of style).
- After a month without any relapses, I would start to slowly introduce strength endurance training with a focus on compound exercise. This could look like doing one set per week and slowly increasing it on top of your stability endurance. As you progress, you can completely replace your stability endurance with strength endurance. If you go too fast and do too much, you will probably upset your body and go back into acute pain. I learned this the hard way, over, and over again. In my case, going slow would have been faster.
- After another a month or two of no relapses into acute pain, you will probably develop new goals for your fitness and health. Regaining your confidence to live your life without fear of acute pain is a huge accomplishment. Your quality of life goes way up along with your mental and emotional health. Realistically at this point, you should be able to maintain your process without having to worry about your back pain. Foam rolling & stretching should not have to dominate schedule, and you should be able to get out there and live an active life. I recommend that you don’t get stuck in a strength endurance pattern, and change it up every month. You can go back to stability endurance, progress up NASM’s OPT model, or cardio & core is always a great option. If you track your pain as I suggested in step 1, you will know how to fix yourself in the event you fall into a pain crisis.
- Month 1: Get out of back-jail and away from being in acute pain. Foam roll and stretch at least three times a week or more. When you start to feel better start to slowly introduce stability endurance training with a focus on core exercise. Start with one exercise a week after foam rolling and stretching, then slowly build up three times a week.
- Month 2: Still being out of back-jail, you should definitely start to introduce stability endurance training with a focus on core exercise. Slowly introduce a stability core exercise such as floor bridge, bird-dog, or planks. Start once a week, then build up to three times a week. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and know your limits. Don’t worry about keeping to a three month plan, take as long as your body needs. Here are the acute variables (reps & sets) for phase 1 stability endurance.
- Month 3: Continuing to be out of back-jail, begin to slowly introduce a compound strength endurance exercise like a single-arm squat to press. Be even more careful to slowly introduce this phase of exercise as you will be adding external weight to your body frame. Here are the acute variables for phase 2.
That’s it, take it slow and listen to your body. If you have a setback, go back to the beginning and get out from acute pain. Please comment below and share your experiences, and let me know what you are experiencing. Perhaps I can further help you. I’d love to hear from you.