Back pain, demystified
Back pain, demystified
Will we ever understand why our backs ache? And must we contemplate drastic measures such as surgery or medications to ease the pain? Not necessarily, says Jean Couch, author of The Runner’s Yoga Book and producer of Your Pain Free Life (DVD). Jean is the founder and co-director, with Jenn Sherer, of the Balance Center, where they have developed methods for teaching concrete guidelines for pain-free posture. BeWell asked Jean to demystify back pain and suggest some simple strategies for coping — even overcoming — our aching backs.
Why is there a higher prevalence of back pain in industrialized nations?
We have lost our natural alignment. Most people think it is because we sit so much, but really there are people in other cultures who sit at looms or other workbenches for hours a day without collapsing the way we do. It really isn’t the sitting that is the biggest problem; it’s the way we sit that is killing us. A hundred years ago most people sat up-right; now people sit curved over, and it is this collapse that is ruining the spine. I hear myself saying all the time that this fashion of collapse is a cultural phenomenon, but the suffering is individual.
What correction would you make to the posture of a typical American?
The most dangerous thing you can do with the human spine is to bend forward at the waist. And right now the majority of people reading this are bent at their waist. Most people sit on the back of their butt, the waist folds forward, and the 12-pound head is held too far forward. This means that the vertebra are tipped and squeezing, narrowing the discs. The muscles in the upper back and neck tighten to hold the weight when the weight should be supported in the spine — but it is totally collapsed. So, if we could do one thing, we would teach people to sit on the bottom of their butts, and teach them how to make a column in the spine that is completely comfortable. Most people lift their chest when they “sit up.” This bends and tightens the back. There is an easy way to sit totally upright and not be tense.
Does posture relate to back pain?
Very few people actually have medical problems in their spines. Medical problems would include tumors, cysts, infections and other rare conditions. Most of the pain that everyone suffers from is due to long-term poor usage of their bodies. In the past 100 years in this country, there has been a dramatic change in the way we as a nation sit, stand, walk, sleep. Being collapsed in all that we do is so pervasive, so “cool,” that most people have no idea how misaligned we are. Believe it or not, you and I are designed to be friction-free. However, because we have lost our natural alignment, due mainly to fashion, we have created friction up and down the spine and in all our joints. Where you have the most friction is where you are getting the worst symptoms.
But what about those living with chronic back pain?
When people have been out of natural alignment for a long time there may be structural changes that cause agony; but really, almost everyone can be better, no matter what the diagnosis. When the body weight is distributed through the bones, muscle and joint pain decreases and relief is possible. We may never be perfect again, but all of us can be a whole lot better. However, it comes down to individual initiative and persistence: each person has to learn what to do, become aware of how they position themselves, and be willing to take action/change.
What small change could our readers make today to ease back pain?
To reiterate, you have to sit on the bottom of your butt. Right now, you are in all likelihood sitting on the back of your butt. Lift your butt off the chair, bend at your hip sockets and sit back down. Do this a couple of times until you can feel your butt bones on the chair. These are your sitting bones and you are supposed to sit on them. Most people at this point would be tightening their back in an attempt to “sit up straight” — an action which actually bends the back. Instead, relax your back by letting the front of your chest drop down. It feels as good as slouching, but because your butt is under you, you will actually be more upright and relaxed than you have been in a long time. You can do this. Save yourself!