Back pain from lifting/bending over -- help!
March 16, 2012 2:07 AM   Subscribe

I appeared to have developed a bad back here in my 20s. What can I do? Will it get better and how?

I need help with a bad back. Around June of last year (about 9 months ago) I threw out my back lifting my disabled grandmother while visting her at her nursing home. The pain was mostly in my lower back and left butt. It wasn’t delibitating pain but rather a dull soreness where if I bent the wrong way, I’d feel it.

I’ve since had about 3 or 4 incidents that have triggered the same problem: e.g. a week later when I was moving a 21 inch CRT monitor it happened and also a month ago, when I bent down to empty lawn mower clippings. Each time it’s happened, the residual soreness will linger for 1-4 days and then go away. Previously it’s seemed too trivial to go see a doctor, so I just soldiered on.

However, today I was helping the grandmother again and really screwed myself up. She was seated in her wheelchair, I was trying to pull her from behind so she’d be closer to the backrest. I felt something go, and now my back is really sore. Not extremely painful, but can get pretty bad if I hold my back in the wrong position. Unlike before it actually interferes with my daily routine. Like I can’t sit at my computer today (found if I sit on my couch with laptop it’s not so bad). And driving is now painful because I have to sit in a position that my back doesn’t like.

I’ve realized I can’t ignore that I’ve got some kind of problem. I’m male, 27, otherwise healthy, but am not particularly active (on and off with the excercise, but more off than on). I also spend spend a lot of time at a computer. Before the first incident, I had a really unergonomic chair for several months that would cause mild lower back soreness (I've since thrown that out thankfully). I wouldn't be surprised if I somehow screwed up my back with my lifestyle. I just really hope it's fixable!

So my questions are: what could be the problem and what can I do? Should I seek medical help? Will I be cursed with a “bad back” forever or is there some way I can strengthen it/change my lifestyle to where my back won’t spontaneously get injured. Most of the things that have caused the back pain (e.g. lifting monitors) I’ve done dozens of times before with no troubles – will I ever be able to go back to my youthful, non-weakened self or is back pain now just a part of life?
posted by strekker to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I had something similar that was exacerbated by pregnancy. My solution so far has been physio and Pilates to improve my core. It's early days but seems to be working.
posted by Jubey at 2:10 AM on March 16, 2012

It sounds like sciatica. As a sufferer, I can sometimes go for weeks with no ill effects, then wake up one morning with pain in the ass (literally), hamstrings, hips etc..

The best exercise for this sort of thing, is as Jubey mentioned, Pilates or other core-strengthening exercises such as Yoga. Also, I would recommend walking, and a lot of it. i read somewhere recently, that the best exercise for back pain is at least 9 miles of walking a week. just over a mile a day, and that is probably no more than 20-30 mins a day.

Also, massage or sports physiotherapy are useful.

Will find the link and post it shortly..
posted by the_epicurean at 2:20 AM on March 16, 2012

One of the best ways to prevent back problems is to have a strong stomach. After you pass this painful period, try to strengthen your stomach.

Make sure you are lifting correctly -- item close to your body, feet apart so they are below your shoulders, bending your knees not your back, tightening your stomach, and lifting with your legs not your back.

I had a terrible case of sciatica once, and the doctor prescribed Skelaxin. It was a thing of wonder because the pain was gone immediately but I didn't feel even slightly sleepy.
posted by Houstonian at 3:04 AM on March 16, 2012

If you are going to be helping your grandmother regularly, perhaps you should get some training on how to do it properly? (Although really, if she is in a nursing home, perhaps you should leave it to the nurses, who are trained and will be able to claim compensation if they injure themselves at work, whereas you will not...)
posted by KateViolet at 3:56 AM on March 16, 2012

I had back pain for years in my teens/early 20s, and didn't see a doctor about it until I was 25 because... well, I suppose because it wasn't that bad and I didn't think a doctor would be able to help much anyway, or something.

Anyway, when I finally did get round to seeing a doctor, he referred me straight to a physiotherapist and the physiotherapist made it clear that I should have been in years ago. She gave me lots of specific exercises to do and recommended doing anything else that would improve my core strength, and a few months later, the pain was no more. If I'd got medical help to start with, I could have been at that point years before. So I'd definitely recommend you seeing a doctor or a physio about this, because they can not only help with the current pain but also possibly prevent it causing you trouble for years to come.

(Also, I used to work in nursing homes, and lifting patients really exacerbated the back issues. As a profession, care work has one of the highest rates of disabling back injury, and that's from people who are trained in how to do it. If you're going to be spending a lot of time helping out your grandmother, I suggest speaking to the staff in her care home about the best ways to move her, and watch how they move and lift other patients. You'll probably see them working in pairs a lot, even just to sit someone further back in a wheelchair.)
posted by Catseye at 4:16 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

First question: what kind of pain is it? Does it feel like an electric-shock kind of thing, or just really achey?

The electric-shock feeling is what a nerve pain, like sciatica, would be; the other is a muscle thing. (And I heard this from a doctor.) I've had a lot of experience with the muscle kind - and I was just a few years older than you when that happened to me. So if it's muscle pain:

1. Seeing a chiropractor for a while helped me the first time. But I saw a really good one, that took an x-ray and pinpointed WHY my back was going out; I had a curve in my spine in my lower back that was just a weak spot, and it was just going to have gone out eventually.

2. My back went out three more times after that; but I took care of it those times by seeing a massage therapist instead. Two sessions with a massage therapist and I was pretty much back to normal.

3. I do take it easy on my back; I can lift heavy-ish things, but I'm just very aware of it, and I stop if I'm starting to get more of a twinge than I'd like.

4. Finally: I started going to a gym more regularly when I was 36, and I have not thrown my back out at all ever since. And I do just basic gym-stuff -- cardio, a few reps on the strength training, a few crunches -- and that's it.

I'd pinpoint the cause of the pain first -- nerve vs. muscle; and if it's muscle, your prognosis is actually pretty dealable. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:33 AM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had lower back pain since my early 20s (cellar work), it might be sciatica it might not. See a doctor, as that will need medical advice while msucle problems might be easier to address, but need different treatment. You are potentially looking at 50 years of pain, so don't mess around, get medical advice, and it you are lucky enough to get away with regular stretches, stick with them! *shifts in chair, guzzles ibuprofen*
posted by biffa at 5:56 AM on March 16, 2012

From another twentysomething with lower back problems, see a doctor. They may have you get an MRI, they may prescribe some muscle relaxer/painkiller cocktails, they may tell you what physical therapy to do, but most likely it will be at least two of these things.

I've been very active my whole life, and always questioned the insistence of doctors and others who said I need to balance my training with yoga, but I started doing yoga a few times a week last year after re-injuring my back, and it has REALLY helped.
posted by eenagy at 6:04 AM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

The suggestions above to strengthen your core are excellent. For the moment, though your back hurts very much, try and walk around as much as you can. Be gentle, but keep moving.
posted by lulu68 at 6:58 AM on March 16, 2012

Sounds more like muscle pain/soreness from straining a core/back muscle. Make sure, like commenters before, that you are using proper lifting technique and improve your core strength.

Are you familiar with what DOMS feels like?

There are a lot of small stabilizers in your back that can get torqued/over-extended if they're weak. Way too many people these days spend all day sitting in a chair getting stiffer and stiffer and losing core strength, then hurt their back and baby it. Like lulu68 said, the key is to keep moving, gently.

One common motion in rehabbing weak back muscles is the glute bridge - start with both feet on the floor at first. If this is very difficult, or twinges what hurts in your back now, give it a day or two of gentle stretching (look up "thoracic mobility").
posted by bookdragoness at 7:01 AM on March 16, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all so much for the advice so far. For those of you who mentioned it, I have definitely learned my lesson about lifting people around and will be asking for help next time.

I've heard that yoga can be for backs and am going to give that a serious try. I will also be going to see a GP as soon as possible since it looks like there is valuable help out there. And I am going to treat exercise as more of a medical necesity now (rather than just a way to get a great looking body!)

Will be reading all the links provided carefully and hopefully will get myself out of this mess. Again very helpful - keep it up (as I can really use all the help I can get).
posted by strekker at 7:32 AM on March 16, 2012

It's likely not your core. You can see if physical therapy helps, but research shows that it is often not more helpful for low back pain than just regular exercise. Still, if you don't exercise at all at the moment, they may have helpful tips and can give you the motivation to keep going. If you go to a PT discuss up front with them how many sessions they think you'll need. Do get more active. Motion is lotion.

Some good video's: Understanding Pain: What to do about it in less than 5 minutes and Why Things Hurt (TED talk, also see the links on that page for more articles).
posted by davar at 7:34 AM on March 16, 2012

Yoga can be good - I tried it and it was quite effective while I kept it up. Simple stretches for <1>
Don't guzzle ibuprofen on an empty stomach by the way, it'll wear holes in your stomach.
posted by biffa at 9:16 AM on March 16, 2012

Funny you should ask. Ms. Yuck is in surgery right now for a herniated disc. Last November, she grabbed our boy by the wrist as he was falling and started having symptoms like you describe. It got worse and worse and I had to call an ambulance on Wednesday.

Don't mess around with back pain. And you might want to take a careful look at your insurance. We had to jump through all kinds of hoops.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:08 AM on March 16, 2012

Treat Your Own Back by Robin McKenzie
This comes with recommendation from a great physical therapist.
posted by caddis at 10:25 AM on March 16, 2012

Ahh, I feel your pain. Literally, I feel it right now.

There are many different possibilities and different things work for different people. At various points in the history of my back pain (I'm 10 years older than you and only started taking my back pain seriously about 10 years ago), I've tried and had success with physio's, their exercises, acupuncture, rest, running (!), medication, yoga, pilates, resistance exercise...

I've also had failure with all of the above.

The only two things that have helped consistently are daily exercise and correct posture.

I know, not particularly helpful right? Sorry. For me, push-ups are a huge help, but it could be something else for you. Also, this sounds ridiculous but the two years I was playing rugby resulted in zero back pain.

For posture I highly, highly recommend: 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back by Esther Gokhale. This book will change your life. I got hooked on it through one of those Google chat things.

Best of luck. The key to success is also: when you find something that works for you, don't get lazy and stop doing it - the pain might not return in a day, or a week, or a month, but it's coming back and it always comes back bigger and stronger so... be warned.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 12:11 PM on March 16, 2012

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned learning to lift with your legs, not your back. Your lumbar spine is a good stabilizer, but sucks at dealing with heavy objects. That is what your quads and hip flexors are for. The other big no no for the lumbar spine is turning while carrying a weight.

Good luck! You're still very young, too young to have a bad back haunting you.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:53 PM on March 16, 2012

I strained my lower back at age 22 and spent the next 15 years dealing with chronic recurrent back pain, the kind that would every couple of years land me in a back brace, walking with a cane and taking one or more prescription (usually opiate) painkillers. Then after a chain of misfortune (foot injury→crutches→cane→back torqued out of alignment like whoa→worst episode of back pain I'd ever had) I discovered the Egoscue Method of postural alignment therapy. I've posted about it before (forgive me if I don't re-write it one more time).

Your local library may well have Pete Egoscue's book Pain Free, which would let you try the method for free. There's a network of clinics across the US and around the world if it turns out to be helpful, plus they do web-based distance consulting (you take photos of yourself & send them to one of the clinics, who analyze them and give you a menu of exercise to get yourself back into alignment — just like what they do at the clinics, but remotely).
posted by Lexica at 9:26 PM on March 16, 2012

Response by poster: Wow, so many ideas/leads. I feel like there are a lot of different approaches, but now that I know where to look, I can find one that works. Many thanks to everyone who's shared their experience. I'm confident it's going to help me get back to my pain free self.
posted by strekker at 6:40 AM on March 17, 2012

strekker, if you do get back to pain free try to make an effort to maintain a regime which will keep you that way, keep doing yoga or stretching to keep problems at bay.
posted by biffa at 10:54 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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