Back Care Expert Advice

10-point plan for a happy spine

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Anyone who has suffered from back pain knows how bad it can make you feel. Many of us rely on painkillers just to lead a normal life.

The good news is that there is a new way of dealing with chronic back pain.

David Rogers, who is a chartered physiotherapist and co-author of the book Back to Life, explains: ‘The way we help people recover from back pain is changing, thanks to a large body of research which has helped to re-write the rules on persistent back pain.’

‘Understanding these new rules and applying them to your back problems will promote recovery and help you get back to doing the things in life you enjoy.’

David’s 10 tips for a healthier back:

1. Don’t worry if no one seems able to give you a consistent diagnosis

Most of the time it is impossible to diagnose a particular structure in your back which is causing your pain. Some common changes found on MRI scans in people with back pain, including slipped discs, worn or degenerative discs or trapped nerves are just as common in people who have never had back pain. So, unless you have one of a very particular list of features which are known to cause pain, your back pain will be classified as ‘non-specific’, which means it is caused by a number of different factors which are all closely linked to your pain experience.

2. Calm any worries you may have about damage

When back pain persists it feels like something is seriously damaged, but it rarely is. Worrying about damage, and how it might influence your future, plays a major role in preventing recovery. So keep any negative thoughts about damage to your back in check, and reassure yourself that it’s safe to get moving.

3. Return to activity gradually

It is common for people to become fearful of activity when back pain persists, particularly if it hurts. Returning to activity, initially at low levels, and building up gradually is the best approach, safe in the knowledge that any ongoing back pain isn’t harming you. It might hurt more to begin with, but remember this isn’t causing you any damage. It will feel easier as you repeat the activities over a few days and weeks.

4. Check your thoughts

Research tells us that people who think the worst when they experience a flare-up in back pain take longer to recover. So if you find thoughts going through your head such as ‘I’ll never get over this’ or ‘How can I ever get back to normal again?’, try to reframe them, to focus on recovery. Thoughts such as ‘I can get over this’ or ‘This will pass’ will focus your attention on recovery.

5. Do some breathing exercises

When back pain persists, it is common for muscles to feel tense and tight. You may experience sudden spasms of pain without reason. These frequent episodes are due to your nervous system being oversensitive, like a volume dial for pain being turned up too high. Breathing exercises, such as the 7/11 method (breathing in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11, both through the nose), will calm down the nervous system, relaxing tense muscles and preventing sudden spasms of back pain.

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6. Exercise regularly

The back is designed to move, bend and twist in variety of ways. Protecting your back from these movements might seem like the logical thing to do at first. But continuing to protect your back from exercise in the medium to longer term will prevent recovery. It doesn’t matter what exercise you do – swimming, cycling, walking the dog, joining a gym class or doing yoga are all excellent. But make sure it’s something you enjoy doing, otherwise you are less likely to continue with it in the long term.

7. Involve family and friends in your recovery

Those close to you want to do the best for you when you are suffering with back pain. Sometimes they can be over-protective and do everything for you. Whilst this is well intentioned, it can prevent you from trying things out that may promote recovery. Remember the back likes all types of movement, so tell those close to you that it’s safe to get going, and encourage them to help you work towards recovery in function.

8. Manage the stressors in your life

Ongoing unresolved distress in your life will wind up your body’s fight and flight system, raising tension in your back muscles which is likely to cause more frequent flare-ups. Some of your daily stressors within your home or work life can be difficult to keep on top of but if you can find ways to manage these better, you will find that your back will be much less troublesome.

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9. Focus on a structured plan to help you sleep better

Refreshing sleep is essential for our general health and well-being. Follow a regular bedtime routine that includes switching off technology, including computers, mobile phones and television, then calm your mind through 7/11 breathing. Whilst it may not work immediately, persevere each evening.

10. Be prepared for bumps along the road to recovery

Applying these new rules will make a difference but it probably won’t cure your back pain forever. So having a plan for when things go wrong with your back is really helpful. Keep this close at hand because when flare-ups happen it can feel overwhelming and it’s difficult to believe that recovery can happen.