Photo: woods wheatcroft photography

Back Pain, Part 1 – Understanding the problem

It’s inevitable. Like death and taxes. Back pain.

Second to colds, the most likely reason you’ll visit a healthcare provider will be back pain. Fifty percent of Americans report back pain each year.

Are you in pain right now? Is your movement limited? Are you reducing your activities because of the pain or the fear of the pain? Let’s look at why.

A lot of back pain comes from overexertion. If that’s you, you’re lucky. Your pain will go away once your body recovers from being pushed. And there’s a good chance it won’t return—unless you overdo it again. In time, you’ll be fine.

For pain due to overexertion, traditional remedies work well. Cold compresses can reduce swelling. Warm, moist heat helps muscles that feel tight. Alternating the two can be beneficial. And of course, massage and gentle stretching relax the tightness, and the movement prevents further stiffness. Rest always supports the body in healing, and topical ointments will give you warmth and local pain relief.

Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain is a different animal. Pain often occurs without physical exertion; it just shows up. As the frequency and intensity of episodes increase, each incident leaves a tension residue that sets up the next attack of pain. Pain pills and muscles relaxers can help, but many people don’t like their side effects. One thing is clear: just treating the symptom is not enough—particularly when the problem is likely to return.

Prevention and Treatment

The best way to treat chronic back pain is to prevent it. Learn to lift using your legs. Sit on your sits bones. Stop slouching! It will all reduce back strain. Use ergonomic furniture that adjusts to your unique body, instead of forcing your body to adapt to the furniture. Moving helps, too – get up and walk around, take breaks.

And the most critical behavior—the one we never think—about is breathing. I know, you are breathing. The question is how well.

When I taught Mindfulness Stress Reduction courses in Scottsdale, AZ, the principal reason people came to us was back pain. At the time, we were the largest company offering these courses in the country. Most of our students for the 8-week course were referrals from hospital networks or corporate clients.

We taught the students to breath. As easy as it might sound, the first few weeks were tough. Doing very simple relaxation exercises would actually create stress. The students’ old habits prevented them from relaxing and breathing fully. Once they realized how tense they were, they saw and how much they were limiting their breath—even when they believed they were relaxed. With daily homework and coming to the weekly class, their awareness and breathing increased as their stress and pain declined.

What does this mean for you? If these very tense people can dramatically change their stress and pain in 8-weeks, so can you. The first step is to become aware of how you hold your body and your breath. If you are holding one, you are holding the other. As your breath becomes fuller, slower and more relaxed you begin to train your body not to hold stress, but to release it.

In keeping with letting go, I suggest to my clients that they do not do “back strengthening” exercises. I have not seen a back that was muscularly weak; I see many that are structurally weak. Our bigger back muscles are not meant to be posture muscles, they are designed to move us, not hold us. The constant holding makes them tighter. Rather than getting stronger form sit-ups or back extensions, practice breathing and stretching.

My next article will build on this one and begin to explore how Rolfing turns around chronic back pain.

Owen Marcus as Sandpoint’s local Rolfer ( focuses on turning around chronic conditions.

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