Help me avoid developing a bad back
April 16, 2013 5:54 AM   Subscribe

My dad's back is so bad that some days he can hardly move. I'm 46 and mine is just now starting to hurt. What can I do now to avoid crippling pain 30 years from now?

My back hurts in the lower quarter, right above my belt. It's not bad - just annoying. It especially hurts if I drive for more than about 90 minutes. It's stiff when I get up in the morning. Some of this is normal aging, but my dad's condition is not normal, and I want to avoid it.

I figure reacting before it becomes a real problem is best. So, what should I do now?
posted by crapples to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yoga, pilates, regular stretching. Anything that strengthens your core. I have a bad back and my doctor said he could prescribe physical therapy if I wanted it, but that yoga would have the same general effect.
posted by something something at 5:59 AM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

My back hurts (I'm 35) and I've had problems for years - I go to a chiropractor and personal trainer to try to strengthen the muscles so I don't have as many problems. Would that work for you? Or maybe physical therapy and exercises?
posted by needlegrrl at 5:59 AM on April 16, 2013

It depends on the nature of your problem. Not knowing your cause, my step one would be to start working with an athletic therapist/physiotherapist. A good one could likely help you manage it. I had chronic shoulder issues, and I have very ganked up ankles. I started working with my athletic therapist and I now how zero issues with my shoulder, my ankles are improving, and I am frankly in the best shape of my life! Also, last fall I injured my back (damned Christmas decorations...) and (once I was able to move again) he developed a workout plan that would let me keep exercising without hurting myself any more PLUS he gave me focused exercises and stretches to improve the strength and flexibility of my back/core so that I reduce the risk of injuring it again.

Athletic therapists are awesome. At least mine is.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:03 AM on April 16, 2013

Seconding what something something said. Stretching and core (including hips, butt, and hamstrings) strengthening have worked for my brother and I.
posted by LouMac at 6:07 AM on April 16, 2013

Go to your doctor and get a workup, and get a referral (if you need one) to a physical therapist.

It could be a lot of things. Do you keep your wallet in your right back pocket? Is one leg slightly shorter than the other? Is your chair at work less than ideal? Is your mattress old? Is a disc disintegrating?

Both my parents had bad backs, and to whatever extent that's heritable, I got it. My back used to give me much more trouble than it has for the last couple of years, and the thing I did that's helped the most was to lose the 30 pounds I didn't need to be carrying around. That and pushups and planks (once most of the weight was gone). Now, on the rare occasions when it bothers me, it's much milder and lasts much less time.
posted by rtha at 6:07 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is something that depends what your specific issue is and you should talk to a specialist, but I'd bet that they will have you doing core strength workouts and stretches. FWIW I'm somebody who hates working out with the fiery passion of a thousand suns &c &c but I've started doing Yoga and it is amazing and really enjoyable and you will feel a difference.
posted by gauche at 6:09 AM on April 16, 2013

Definitely see a physical therapist. They can offer you simple exercises that make a big difference, or help you adjust what you do so that you don't make it worse. (My mother misaligned herself by carrying an over-the-shoulder purse on the same side for years, for example... there is no way you'll think of the stupid little things that can cause back pain, but a good physio will figure it out!)
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:20 AM on April 16, 2013

Walk every day for 30-1hr.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:29 AM on April 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Any PT would be happy to help you with this. So many of the problems I see in older people as a PT could have been prevented by changing some habits when the person was a little younger, I would be overjoyed if someone came to me with this question.
posted by jennyjenny at 6:42 AM on April 16, 2013

I have a herniated disc and regular (almost daily) yoga has helped me immensely. If you are carrying around a lot of extra weight, losing some will probably help too.
posted by bearette at 6:49 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it's muscle stiffness mainly, then exercise is definitely the way to go. I started getting a little stiff and creaky when I woke up in my early 30's, and that turned into full-on throwing it out when I overtaxed it once. I got a set of exercises from the chiropractor I saw then; then slacked off and threw it out again. That scared me straight and I started again.

I haven't thrown out my back since, and it's been 7 years. But I also don't have any of the stiff-creaky-back-in-the-morning either. And I'm not doing anything really elaborate, just your usual abdominal work at the gym.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:55 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah for some causes the damage is done young and it's too late to do more than mitigate.

Chiropractic is pure quackery, more likely to harm than help a bad back.
posted by spitbull at 7:19 AM on April 16, 2013

We have had the "chiropractors - nuts or not" discussion before and found it to be inconclusive, and dependent on the chiropractor in question; but for the record, I was only recommending it as an initial source for the "exercise is good yay" message which ultimately did help.

But, OP, just to be clear, the ultimate point I was making is - exercise is good yay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:23 AM on April 16, 2013

Rather, I was only mentioning chiropracty, not recommending it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:26 AM on April 16, 2013

Not being overweight is important for back health, and also strong back muscles are important too. There are special exercises you can do that will help keep your back muscles strong, and they don't require a lot of time and effort to get some real protective benefits.
posted by Dansaman at 7:58 AM on April 16, 2013

A doctor friend of the family once told me he's "never seen a bad back that didn't have a bad front." So make sure you keep your weight in check and work to develop and maintain your core strength.
posted by cecic at 8:23 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pilates was amazing for me when I threw my back out a few years ago. Pilates was designed to help people recover from injury, and to help prevent further injury.

But what I really want you to know is this: whatever route you go, PT, yoga, pilates, something else, what you really need to do is be sure to work the opposing muscle groups. Don't just work your "core" or front abs; you need to work the group that opposes your abs.

My hubby has chronic back problems. He just threw his back out again, and when he went to the dr. she told him that he is hunched forward because his front core muscles are so much stronger than the back ones (due to his PT program) that they are literally pulling him forward. They won't allow him to stand straight.

So while you are improving your strength or healing yourself, don't just focus on the problem area, you have to focus on the body as a whole.
posted by vignettist at 8:37 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing yoga. It's helped tremendously with my back issues. Also a ballet workout like the NYC Ballet Company workout would help for overall muscle strengthening.
posted by carolinecrane at 8:57 AM on April 16, 2013

Before you do anything, you need to find out what is causing the pain, and how you deal with it will depend on that. I have both a herniated disk and arthritis in my back and was told by my PT that what he recommends for one of those conditions is the opposite of what he recommends for the other. So I urge you to get a diagnosis first before you start trying things and risk making it worse. And I have to say that PT made a HUGE difference in my level of pain; I wish I'd gotten diagnosed and started PT months earlier than I did.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 9:09 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have had lower back pain in a similar area. The next time your back hurts, stand up and flex your ab muscles. Does that help? If so, you are slouching and/or aren't supporting your back properly. You need to strengthen your abs. Getting one of those yoga balls to replace a chair is a great way to do that.
posted by zug at 9:28 AM on April 16, 2013

Agreed that you want to find out the cause before deciding on a course of treatment. For some conditions, exercise (which is usually a great idea) can actually worsen the problem. Being proactive is a good idea, and you should probably start by talking with a doctor about how to figure out what is the cause of your growing back problems.
posted by Scientist at 10:37 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

You mention that driving for 90+ minutes makes your back hurt. When I screwed up my back (see previously), I found that getting up every 30 minutes to walk around the office or wherever was key. Also, maybe look into cushions or lumbar support for your car seat? I've always wondered how truck drivers survive their epic amounts of seated-ness.

Nthing Pilates. If you have the cash to spring for one-on-one lessons with a reputable Pilates person, do it for the first few sessions. Group classes or home dvds (Pilates or yoga or the like) are great for maintenance over the longterm, but for getting to know how my body works, the solo sessions were invaluable. Plus my instructor could really focus on the therapeutic part -- getting my lower back to stop freaking out with the slightest mishap.

Random thought. I've heard good things about chair yoga for folks who are working from a place of limited mobility. For days when a sun salutation series seems pie-in-the-sky, maybe it's worth looking into more low-key options. Also it might be something you and your dad could try together.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:58 AM on April 16, 2013

I've done Pilates on a mat for close to five years (I couldn't afford the classes that use the equipment) and it's done wonders for my overall flexibility and eliminated back pain for me.
posted by quince at 11:13 AM on April 16, 2013

Nthing core strengthening. Adding buy a (much) firmer mattress.
posted by 0 at 1:15 PM on April 16, 2013

I'm in my sixties and I don't think that back aches are a normal sign of aging. Over the years I've discovered backaches caused by a number of things: carrying heavy children; lifting heavy things; wearing this one pair of low-heeled shoes whose heel height was just enough to mess up my back; sleeping on my stomach; and worst of all bad mattresses. I do walk most every day for about 45 minutes, sometimes do yoga, and I sleep on a good mattress. I have no back pain.
posted by mareli at 4:21 PM on April 16, 2013

I'm surprised no one has mentioned massage yet. I'm admittedly biased, but a good massage therapist can be tremendously helpful. I agree with the above advice about excercise and being evaluated by a PT or Dr, but also sometimes massage can be a great first step, particularly if this is a minor annoyance type of injury, and not something that's chronic (in which case, massage might still be helpful, but you should definitely see a PT or Dr first). Often times a MT will find muscle issues in areas you wouldn't expect that might contribute to your particular pain, and can recommend stretches and self care techniques to help.
posted by purpletangerine at 7:30 PM on April 16, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the amazing feedback. There are a lot of things to think about here, but it sounds like mattresses and core strength training are the ones that nearly everyone agrees on. I will make some calls today to see what I can do about getting into a pilates or yoga class. I'll also check my mattress out and see if I need a new one. Thanks again.
posted by crapples at 4:43 AM on April 17, 2013

Please see a professional about your back. Your discomfort could be from any number of sources, and there is a lot of misinformation out there about what is good for your back, including common wisdom about what kind of exercise you should do. Get to an up-to-date physical therapist via your doc before you exacerbate something by taking well-meaning advice from people who don't know what your issue is.
posted by moira at 11:51 AM on April 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

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