I suffered from chronic back pain for 15 years.
The pain started with tension headaches when I was an undergrad. My dentist realized I was clenching my teeth when he noticed my molars were becoming flattened. He prescribed ibuprofen. He may have mentioned a night guard, but I don’t remember accurately.
The tension headaches continued. They made me feel like I wanted to chop off my head and hold it in my arms to remove the weight and pressure. I would lie on any couch with my feet on the back and my head hanging off the seat. My parents looked in horror.
When I started teaching middle school in New York City, the tension headaches expanded to upper back and shoulder pain, which likely came from extended periods of writing on blackboards and stress about the demands of my job. I went to the doctor. He prescribed more ibuprofen.
Back in Boston, I visited the physical therapy department at the Massachusetts General Hospital (which I highly recommend) for two separate series of sessions due to further iterations of back pain. One was for neck and upper back pain. My muscles were imbalanced: some were to weak and others too tense, causing my body to overcompensate and create pain. In addition, one of the physical therapists told me I had chronic muscle tension: I was always on “flight” mode. The therapist prescribes exercises that strengthened some muscles and stretched others. I felt some relief.
The second time, my mid back was so painful that I had trouble taking in deep breaths. It turned out that one of my ribs was turned and was causing pain. The therapist put it back in place with massage and exercise. That pain went away.
Physical therapy, although a good tool, I felt, for localized pain, did not take care of my whole body. Pain returned elsewhere.
In the spring of 2011, I came upon the Healthy Back Institute and its “The 7-Day Back Pain Cure” book. It is a free book one can order from http://www.losethebackpain.com/. Be prepared for selling pitches on their multiple products; it is a free book. However, the information and advice are sound.
The three basic steps the author recommends took away 80% of my pain within three weeks. They make so much common sense that I continue to be shocked that more people do not abide by them.
1. MIND YOUR POSTURE: It is important for the body to be aligned so that all its components are in place to do their work free from undue pressures. The crown of the head should be reaching for the sky, the shoulders back and down, and the hips tucked in (people who sit for much of the day tend to push their butts out). It might also be a good idea to visit a podiatrist to make sure the feet are properly supported and in place. A correct posture will quickly make the body feel lighter and healthier, even if it takes a while to get used to.
2. BREATHE DEEPLY: Oxygen helps clean the body of toxins. Many people tend to take shallow breaths. During the day, be conscious of your breathing, and when you become aware of it, notice if your breaths are shallow or deep. Take a few slow, deep breaths. After a few days of mindful breathing, you will notice a positive difference as your muscles relax into place and receive more nourishment.
3. DRINK MORE than the RECOMMENDED amount of WATER: Many health advocates recommend drinking half your body mass (when measured in pounds) in ounces of water a day. For example, if you weigh 120 lbs, you should drink 60 oz of water each day (equal to five 12-oz bottles). This rule of thumb is useful and keeps you hydrated. However, for pain relief, drink even more. Water, like oxygen, helps rid the body of waste, which in turn helps alleviate pain. Drink a lot of water for a few weeks, and feel the pain melt away.
One day in late 2012 I was in so much back pain (something that happened rarely by then) that I had to call in sick to work. I contacted my best friend Pampi, who was visiting her parents in Connecticut, and asked her to lead me in some yoga/stretching exercises to alleviate the pain. Pampi had helped me before with yoga breathing and stretching resulting in much relief. I had not become a yoga lover, however, because the only experiences that had ever made me feel good were a “relaxing yoga” class and Pampi’s one-on-one stretching, so I concluded I just needed to stretch. Other attempts at yoga had left my body feeling either as stressed or uncomfortable at not being able to execute the moves correctly.
Pampi spent over an hour guiding me through a slow and soothing yoga session targeting my back. She was patient and loving. With every move, she explained what we were doing and how yoga technique was helping me. At the end, my pain was at least 50% better. I became an official yoga convert.
4. DO YOGA: Yoga is genius because it has been around for so long that its various methods and variations have been perfected to help the body align, heal, stretch and strengthen. It is low impact and focuses on breathing, a crucial aspect to wellbeing, as I mentioned earlier. There is no doubt some type of yoga that works for you, so trying the many styles is key. Also, yoga relies on proper technique to use the body in optimal ways, so learning correct postures is also essential. When starting yoga, it is imperative to be patient, ask a lot of questions, and work to position the body and take breaths to achieve the ideal outcome of each movement. After about a month of practice, you will feel the difference, and will be a convert as well. Promise.
In the spring of 2013, I became involved in the global movement against genetically modified foods “March Against Monsanto.” I was drawn to this campaign after learning how insidious Big Food and the GM industry are. I began to deeply understand the need for “clean” food and diets, and I started to eat the best foods I could find. Clean food simply refers to food that comes from nature and has been altered as little as possible by humans. It includes fruits and vegetables (hopefully organic to avoid GMOs and pesticides), raw nuts, raw dairy, free-range chicken and pasture-fed beef. (I will write another post on what my research has shown are the foods we should all eat.)
5. EAT CLEAN FOOD: At home, since taking the leap into self-employment, I cook for my parents as well as for myself. I researched where to buy the best local foods, and learned about the many farmers markets in Greater Boston and the best supermarkets for organic produce. It was a long process but worth it. (I will write another post about what I found). After just a couple of weeks, my parents and I began to feel lighter and happier. Our skin looked healthier and hair brighter. When my sister returned from college at the end of the spring semester, she was amazed at how healthy we looked. And, best of all, my mother’s cholesterol dropped 30 points! We follow a diet that is about 90% clean and allow ourselves a little wiggle room for cravings. It works. Clean food was the last piece for a pain-free life.
Our lives move so quickly and we have so many distractions that we have forgotten the building blocks of life: caring for the basic needs that keep us alive. Water, breath, posture, healthy movements and clean food. That’s all we need.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and do not claim that your pain will be solved or improved if you follow these steps. These recommendations are based on my own experience and research. Please consult your health care professionals for your own health concerns, treatments and goals.