Back pain can be debilitating. Whether it is a result of an injury, pregnancy, weight gain or loss, stress, or just because you happened to twist the wrong way too fast while putting the wet laundry into the dryer (this is how I got my first paralyzing spasm), back pain can really affect one’s life. It’s the kind of pain that nobody understands unless they’ve been through it themselves.
My back pain story:
I remember the first time Chef Joe’s back “went out”; I had no idea what he was going through. Chef Joe’s a big, tough guy—how was it that he did nothing to apparently injure himself yet all of a sudden he could hardly walk?
I was baffled…until I had my first spasm. It was when my kids were really little and Chef Joe was at work. I was doing laundry in the laundry room, which was gated off so the kids couldn’t get in (we will get to my obsessive over-childproofed home another time). I was moving the wet clothes from the washer into the dryer, which of course I’ve done millions of times before with no problem. Then all of a sudden, I got stuck. I was bent over and couldn’t get up. Intense shooting pain took over and my shoulders started to hunch in and my fingers started to get all weird and contorted like talons. I didn’t want to alarm the kids (who couldn’t have helped me anyway) so somehow I was able to crawl to where the phone was in my connecting office and call Chef Joe at work. He was in a meeting, but when he heard me weakly eek out the words “Back hurts…can’t move…” he literally dropped the phone and came home.
I went to the ER, pretty much paralyzed from the chest down, and was given high doses of valium and Percocet (which later made me sick), and the doctors kept palpating my back saying “does this hurt, does this hurt?” And so on. They did not run one test or make any diagnosis. They just sent me home with nasty drugs and said to follow up with my doctor. Thanks, ER.
I went to the doctor after a few days and was ordered an MRI which revealed several degenerating discs in my spine. The doctor said I had the back of a 70 year old woman and offered no reason why, other than my weight gain (and she said that weight loss would make a big difference in the pain). She gave me a script for physical therapy (which I already told her I couldn’t afford), told me no exercise with any level of impact, and sent me on my way. Long story short, I found some relief with swimming, then yoga and other no-impact exercise, and lost my weight—but I still deal with back pain on a regular basis. However, I have found drug-free ways to prevent it and manage it when I feel spasms coming on, so my overall pain levels and incidences of spasms are now far less than they used to be and don’t interfere as much with my life.
Here are my top 6 holistic back pain remedies:
1. A back pillow. Since I sit at a computer for a good part of the day and drive a lot, I have to be very aware of my posture while seated. Otherwise I get nerve pain, weird numb regions, and compression in my spine. I got a few different pillows to try out from memory foam, to buckwheat hulls, and the two that work best for me are buckwheat at home and a Total Pillow (I just love “As Seen on TV products” for the car. I have not had a single spasm since I started using these while seated.
2. Massage therapy. Massage should not be viewed just as a luxury or as something to do after you’ve already experienced a spasm or injury. It should be part of your preventative plan. Massage helps physically, emotionally, and mentally reduce stress and tension. It also helps to improve circulation and keep muscles and joints flexible. A good massage therapist can also help work out tight or pinched nerves, and let you know where in your body you are holding the most tension (many people are not aware). They can also provide assisted stretching during the massage and give you some recommendations for stretches you can do at home. I go for a massage every two weeks. My body has come to depend on it, and my massage therapist is great at letting me know where I’m holding tension, and also how my spine is doing in terms of alignment and flexibility.
4. Yoga and Pilates. I can’t say enough good things about these two similar, yet different practices. Yoga is so much more than stretches and breathing (pranayama) and holding poses (asanas)—it truly is a way of life which heals the mind, body, and soul. It can be done at home with just a DVD and a mat, but if you have pain or injuries or another present condition I highly recommend choosing a registered yoga teacher who has completed at least 200 hours of teacher training from an accredited school. Many of the forward bends, back bends, spine twists, and binds are great for elongating the spine and helping regain flexibility. However, these exercises can also cause injury if they are done incorrectly. Since I began working with my current teacher, I’ve been able to get more benefit from certain asanas with simple modifications and my flexibility has increased without causing any further injury. Check out the Yoga Alliance’s website to find a registered teacher or school near you. Pilates is a series of exercises targeted to strengthen the core muscles. The stronger the core muscles, the better they support the spine. There are also some great Pilates exercises to loosen up and massage the spine.
5. Anti-inflammatory diet. Many of my clients come to me with chronic pain of some kind, and report improvement in the level of pain quite quickly after making a few dietary adjustments. Adding in alkaline foods like dark, leafy greens and certain whole grains like quinoa, millet, amaranth, and wild rice can help neutralize built up acids from certain foods and digestive processes which can lead to inflammation. Also, consuming darkly pigmented fruits and superfruits like blueberries, black grapes, cranberries, pomegranates, açaí berries, and other brightly colored fruits and veggies provide a vast amount of bioavailable phytonutrients. These are antioxidants that help neutralize free radicals in the body, thus reducing inflammation. Adding in foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids is also a good idea. Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and are found in certain plant foods like walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds; as well as in high quality pastured animal foods like farm fresh eggs and wild salmon and other fatty fish. High quality Omega 3 supplements are OK too, but make sure you are only getting Omega 3s and that you have the appropriate ratio of DHA to EPA. You most likely get more than enough Omega 6 and 9 fatty acids from foods you already eat. Too many of these actually cause inflammation. The majority of Americans are deficient in Omega 3s. I like the ones from Nordic Naturals, and Carlson.
6. Essential oils. I use my essential oils topically for my back pain. I prefer the roll-on as opposed to the rub (the rub has other, unnecessary ingredients). It provides long lasting, instant pain relief to the spine and surrounding muscles and tissues. I find the oils to be more effective for my pain than over-the-counter drugs and even other natural pain remedies.
So if you have back pain, I encourage you to give these methods a try. Since I’ve incorporated them into my diet and lifestyle, my quality of life and level of chronic pain has dramatically improved.
*Image 1 photo credit Andreanna Moya Photography