My Story: Overcoming Chronic Back Pain

By Jenna Nelson, Trainer at Milestone Fitness

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I’m the oldest of 3 girls. We all have scoliosis. As kids we were all given a different style back brace. The back brace girls!!! We did our best to comply, but seriously those things are the worst. I do have very vivid memories of us playing a game where my middle sister would put her brace on and then we would “slide” her down the stairs with a stack of pillows at the bottom.  I guess we did have a little fun with our extra curvy spines, haha. We would always laugh to our mom if the school nurse cleared us on the scoliosis screening during gym class.

Back pain was a norm in my family. From a young age we worked with all different types of trainers, physical therapists, and specialists. My middle sister needed a full spinal fusion around the age of 14! My parents learned a lot from my sister’s surgery and became very familiar with the top spinal surgeons in Boston. Hoping to not need those connections again, but it was nice to know you were in good hands if necessary. 

The worst back pain of my life came when I was in college. Chronic back spasms every single day. It was excruciating and debilitating. I can literally still feel the pain just thinking about it. I could only lay on my left side or my back would instantly spasm. When I would sit I would always cross my right leg over my left because that would lengthen the left side of my low back just enough to help alleviate the burning a little bit.

I tried physical therapy, muscle relaxers, different exercise programs, and as a last effort I made my mom take me to 3 different surgeons begging them to operate on me. They all declined saying my curve was not severe enough and that I should maybe focus on more ab work.  If you can’t feel my anger from the end of that last sentence you should know I was filled with rage because all I was doing was ab work to stay strong. Nothing was helpful.

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Just as I was running out of ideas I met a Chek Practitioner during my senior year of college. This was the first person to ever take a deeper look into my posture, lifestyle, diet, stress, quality of movement patterns, etc.  It was a very eye opening experience, and it completely made sense to me. How come no one else had every looked into any other part of my body or lifestyle outside of my low back? This was the moment in my life that I decided to pursue a career in the field of health and wellness. My back spasms still continued,  but they were less frequent as I worked on a functional strength routine to address my needs, improved my diet, and lifestyle.  

A few years later I met a postural specialist who added extreme value to my current work. In the fitness industry we talk a lot about Static v. Dynamic. I like to believe the 2 screenings we use at Milestone Fitness address each individual in a static state and a dynamic state. The static state is the posture screen. I want to see what is going on with your structure when you just stand in a natural position. Does the right side of your body mirror the left? Is one side of your pelvis elevated?  Do you have a rotation at your trunk? Does the position of the scapula look symmetrical? The list goes on…

If you currently have pain do the results of your posture screen show me why? Most of the times YES it does. The functional movement screen is the perfect follow up to the posture screen. We have seen where your body finds comfort just standing, but now we like to see you move. Have compensations been made to movement patterns due to your posture? Or maybe your posture has been altered due to movement patterns? It really doesn’t matter what came first. What matters is that we assess it and then make a program to help you move more efficiently to help you feel better. Period.

Studying, researching and learning all about the low back, pelvis, and how the body works as a unit became somewhat of an obsession to me. I was fascinated that I could attain the knowledge to help alleviate someone else suffering with chronic pain.

It is said that about 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime.

I want to share with you all some tips and tricks on how to help alleviate back pain, if that is something you are currently experiencing.

To start, I want to share some lifestyle tips with you. I am a big believer in always looking at the bigger picture. Sure, I want to know exactly where your pain is, and what makes it flare, or what gives you relief. I also want to know what is going on in your day to day routine that could be making it worse (hydration, stress, sleep quality, workplace,etc)

Lifestyle Tips to prevent Low Back Pain 

·      Walk…. Walk often! The body is designed to move. I highly recommend getting close to 10,000 steps each day. Compression in the spine is common as we age but that does not mean we need to suffer. Sitting in a car for a long commute, then walking straight to a desk to sit for the next 8 hours followed by a commute home is not what a healthy spine desires.  I love Garmin, Fitbit, or Apple watches just to help people get a better idea of how many steps they are actually getting in each day. I have plenty of BUSY days but when I take a look at my watch I am only at around 4,000 steps. Get those steps in. Find the time. Your spine and mind will thank you.

·      Stay Hydrated.  We all know that we are supposed to drink around 8 glasses of water a day. Anyone I know with chronic pain can tell you when they are dehydrated because their symptoms are exacerbated.  I don’t even suffer with low back pain anymore and I can still feel it in my joints when I have not had enough water. I now start my day with a 8oz of water before coffee or food, and then I do my best do continuously drink water in between my meals.  Drinking too much water with meals can interrupt digestion so I do my best to drink between meals.

·      Quality Sleep – I can’t say for certain that sleep specifically is related to chronic pain but I can say for certain that it is part of a much bigger chain that is directly related to pain.  People who suffer with chronic pain tend to be irritable… for good reason. Its frustrating to be in pain! To be uncomfortable, and to not be able to do activities that bring you joy.  I also know that when I’m sleep deprived I become irritated, cranky, agitated, and a ravenous beast for SUGAR because I’m searching for a quick fix of energy, or anything to help make me feel happy… and fast!  Sometimes with chronic pain you feel like you have no control of your body. What you do have control of is when you unwind at night. Shut off the tv, put away the phone, and try to unwind before bed to ensure a good nights sleep. Bonus points if you have a comfortable position that allows you to alleviate your pain symptoms.

·      Eat a Nutritious Diet- Get rid of the crap. Period. If you have chronic pain you have inflammation.  Get rid of the processed foods that you consume regularly. The packaged, long science word ingredients, crap that can sit on the shelf for years and still taste good. Its not doing you any favors. You need to regularly consume local, organic vegetables, fruits, meat, rice, potatoes, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, etc. You want WHOLE FOODS.  Real food, the way nature provided. That is my recommendation. This is not a post about nutrition and what to eat so we won’t go into details but simply put GET RID OF THE PROCESSED CRAP

·      Reduce Stress- The side effects from stress are endless. Do what is in your control to manage your stress. Take ownership of your choices, take ownership of where you give your energy, take ownership of who you spend your time with.

Those are some key lifestyle factors I suggest working on if you are dealing with chronic pain.

Now lets talk about physical activity and what to think about if you have back pain.  Before giving any suggestions, stretches, exercises, etc I need you to know that if you have chronic pain you should see a DOCTOR before trying any of these suggestions.

When I meet with someone with low back pain I am always eager to go through the postural and movement screen To look at the position of their pelvis, and to check the mobility they have in their thoracic spine ( mid back). Essentially I like to see what is going on directly above and below the point of pain.

What causes back pain? It could be caused from an acute injury, chronic pain that has lingered for years due to muscle tightness, an old injury that never healed, degeneration, disc bulge or possible herniation. Or it can be pain that continues from poor posture and faulty movement patterns.

What feels good to one person, might not feel as good to another so its important that you know the information and exercises I am sharing in this post are not an end all be all for your back pain… but I do think they could help you find some immediate relief if you give them a try.

The low back is meant to stabilize. Yes there is going to be movement that occurs in the low back , but mostly it should be stabilizing not mobilizing.  Mobility should occur at the hips and the mid back, so the exercise recommendations in this post are going to have hip and thoracic mobility, followed up with pelvic and low back stability. 

Here are some of my general recommendations:

Mobility

1. Supine Hami – femur Rotations 2x10

2. Adductor Rocks w/ Prisoner Rotation 10ea

3.  Seated Wipers 10ea

4. ½ Kneeling Groin w/ Reach and Side Bend 10ea

5. Seated T-Rotation w/ pillow sq 10ea 

Postural Correctives

1. Stap Press Out 2x15

2. Pillow Sq 2x15

3. Single Arm Glides 10ea

4. Prone Glute Sq 2x15

Core Activation

1. 90/90 Pullover 2x5

2. Tension Plank 2x10s

3. Mod Side Plank 2x 15s

These Mobility, Corrective, and Activation drills could easily be performed 3-5x a week to help improve current symptoms.

At Milestone it is our goal to help get clients out of pain by creating more symmetry in posture and efficiency in movement, and then we would progress to a strength program as we see fit.

I didn’t enjoy wearing a back brace as a child. My posture was awful as I was growing up and something I was made fun of for quite often. And, the worst part was having chronic pain for years on end. A strange part of me is so thankful for it though. It taught me about not quitting until I found a solution, it led me to my career path, it is a field that is always evolving so I am always learning new material, and I am able to pay it forward and help others find relief with their chronic pain. 

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