Don’t just treat low back pain. Outsmart it.

Low back pain is the most common muscle and joint complaint among U.S. adults. Those who’ve experienced it keenly understand how frustrating it can be. When your back hurts, it’s common to feel pain with just about everything, including sitting, standing, walking, sleeping and moving in general. 

And, when everything hurts, it’s normal for worry to set in. If it hurts to move, logic says you should just stay still. But the unfortunate truth is that most of the time, being immobile makes things worse. Or maybe you take the opposite approach – go on about your daily life and try to ignore the pain. But that doesn’t work either. In fact, the activities of your daily life probably contributed to developing back pain in the first place, so you might be making the problem worse by just pushing on.

So, is there no good solution to low back pain? Resting doesn’t work, and pushing through doesn’t work either – so what does? 

Overcoming back pain starts with understanding it.

There are many types of back injuries, and everyone is a little different. So, unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to relieving back pain. But, one thing that’s true for everyone is that it’s not usually enough just to treat back pain symptoms. You have to have a deeper understanding of what contributes to low back pain to get long-term relief.

Back pain can cause a lot of fear and worry. But, suppose you understand why your back hurts, what’s contributing to it, how to identify a problem before it gets worse and how to keep it under control. Imagine truly having power over your back pain — isn’t that what we all really want?

Let’s review five universal truths that may help you understand why your back behaves the way it does so you can take control of your back health.

1. The anatomy of your back is complicated.

The lower back is made up of five lumbar vertebrae. At each of the five levels, there are multiple places where bones come together to allow movement, also known as joints. Each of these joints moves anytime you bend or twist. Between each vertebra, you also have a “disc.” The disc’s job is to absorb shock and provide a cushion for the spine. 

Injuries to the discs are common – ever heard someone say they have a “slipped” or “herniated” disc? This type of injury happens when the disc material gets pushed out, irritating the surrounding nerves. Because of the complex anatomy of your back, several different structures can be injured. And to complicate matters further, sometimes back pain is felt in the low back, but other times, it can travel down one leg, also known as “sciatica.” 

Of course, you can’t necessarily do anything about the structure of your back. But understanding the basic anatomy can take some of the mystery out of your pain. The human body has a remarkable ability to heal and adjust. So, no matter what’s injured, the chances of recovery are high. Even if an X-Ray or MRI shows arthritis, disc herniation or other scary-sounding things — pictures never tell the whole story. 

2. Your back pain is rarely as bad as it feels.

Pain is a way for your body to sound the alarm that something isn’t right. This self-preservation technique is designed to get your attention so you can make adjustments to allow for healing. The body’s alarm system is often louder than necessary. So even if you are having bad pain, it could be an overzealous warning, and it doesn’t always mean your back is in bad shape. 

Knowing how pain behaves can alleviate stress and worry. The body’s tendency to overreact can be alarming, but knowing this is normal can calm your fears. You may also consider trying breathing exercises and meditation techniques to quiet the body’s alarm system and reduce pain. 

3. Strength matters. 

With almost every movement you make, your lower back joints are moving too.  And because it has so many little joints, the low back allows for a lot of movement. When working like a well-oiled machine, the muscles and joints of the body will work together to allow pain-free movement. But as soon as one of the muscles gets weak, other body parts can start to pick up the slack. This often happens with the low back, especially when you don’t have good core or leg strength.

The flexibility and movement that the low back allows are good when coupled with strength and stability. Ever wonder how gymnasts can be so flexible without getting injured? It’s because they are also extremely strong, which helps protect their body in extremes of motion. 

Maintaining strength in your core, low back and leg muscles is key to ensuring that your back’s movement is “checked” and you’re protected. It’s important to keep the other muscles of your body strong, so your back doesn’t have to pick up the slack. Also, be mindful of your body mechanics when lifting and bending over. Using your legs by squatting or hinging at your hips can help keep your spine straight and reduce the risk of excessive stress on the back. 

4. Your back bends forward all the time.

Did you know that the average person bends forward – as in touching your toes or tying your shoes – more than 2,000 times per day? The low back can bend, extend and rotate but most of the stress we place on it daily is forward bending. Not to mention that sitting all day is also considered bending because your spine is flexed, as opposed to being straight as it is when you are standing.

Bending in only one direction is not good for any joint in your body. Think about your elbow — ever fallen asleep with your elbow bent up underneath you? When you wake up in the morning, it might feel like your elbow will never fully straighten again. Of course, it loosens up with time, and you go back to normal. Still, if you spent your day only bending your elbow and never straightening it, it would start to get stiff and painful.

Aim for more balanced movement in your back. Think about the position your back is in when making your bed, putting on your pants and shoes, doing laundry, loading the dishwasher and cleaning your house. Most of our daily activities require us to bend forward repeatedly. So, while you don’t have to quit all of your housework and yardwork, make an effort to take breaks to stretch, straighten your back and even gently bend backward. More balanced movement in your low back can reduce the stress on your joints and discs. 

5. Your back injury wasn’t caused by just one movement.

Unless you had a traumatic injury, you can’t blame your back pain on just one movement. Many people injure their back when trying to lift something heavy. But, just as many people hurt their back doing something super unexciting like picking up a piece of trash from the floor or bending over to wash their face. Rather than blame that final movement for your pain, understand that it was likely just the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

Don’t worry. Just as you are not a camel, your back isn’t actually broken. The point is that something was likely going on before that final movement that made you vulnerable to injury. Sometimes, if you think about it, you may be able to recall subtle signs that something wasn’t quite right before that last straw. Blaming your back pain on just one thing is dangerous because you may not consider all the factors that contributed to it, making re-injury very likely.

Look for the signs of a low back problem and try to address it before it gets bad. Subtle signs of irritation in the low back include muscle tightness, stiffness, especially with moving from sitting to standing, and the inability to get comfortable on cushiony surfaces like your couch. Catching these early signs allows you to work on balancing out your spinal movements, performing exercises to strengthen your muscles or simply being more mindful of your activities.

Knowledge is power.

Understanding your back pain is the key to recovery and avoiding the classic back pain re-injury cycle many people fall into. This cycle usually consists of “throwing out” your back, being laid up with pain, slowly getting better, being ok but cautious for a few months and then repeating the whole cycle. Being trapped in this cycle disrupts your physical and mental health because it can feel like your back is a ticking timebomb just waiting to explode.

Understanding the basics of back pain, in general, can help tremendously. Still, unique aspects of your life or health may contribute to your back pain. Talking to an expert and getting a personalized plan can help you maximize your recovery and get to the bottom of your condition.

Try RecoveryOne for back pain. 

RecoveryOne’s experts can help you understand your back pain and get on a personalized program that will help you strengthen weak muscles, improve your mobility and, most importantly, give you the confidence you need to take control of your back pain.

About the Author:

Written by Dr. Jess Cobb, PT, DPT. Jess is a licensed physical therapist with over six years of clinical experience in orthopedics. Jess is also a writer, educator and member of RecoveryOne’s marketing team. She’s passionate about helping people better understand their pain, manage their musculoskeletal conditions and confidently get back to the activities they love