I need a plan for helping my sore (not painful) back.
June 11, 2013 7:46 AM   Subscribe

My back has been sore for 6 weeks, probably due to sitting all day plus overdoing exercise. It was a little sore before that, but in the past 6 weeks it’s been more noticeable. I've been taking it easy on my back in terms of exercise, but it still hasn’t healed completely, and I don't want this to go from sore now to painful later. I'm overwhelmed with the advice for taking care of my back – help me come up with a plan.

In case it matters, I’m a guy in my late 20s. My center lower back is sore, and has been more or less daily for 6 weeks. It's not painful, and I'm not aware of it constantly, but I do notice it a couple times per day. I am able to do any activity I used to, but I constantly worry that it's going to get worse and as a result I'm not doing everything I used to - no more deadlifts, being very cautious when I work out, lifting less stuff around the house. The problem is, I don't know what my next steps are to (hopefully) heal up completely and I'm tired of waiting and worrying. I want a plan.

Background: Shortly before this became a problem, I was doing fairly heavy deadlifts and probably overdid it. I noticed a little latent soreness, but could barely feel it and it didn’t worry me. Then I ran a Tough Mudder, which ramped up the soreness. Immediately after the Tough Mudder I stopped doing any heavy lifts or strenuous back exercises so I could heal up. The problem is, after 6 weeks I haven’t gotten completely better. Since I’ve dialed the exercise back to nearly-zero I suspect that sitting in an office chair is preventing me from healing up fully. And I’ve noticed that my back feels better on days when I don’t spend lots of time in a chair.

I sit at a desk all day and I work at home 70% of the time. At work I have a nice chair with lumbar support and a desk that can be elevated to a standing desk; I’ve adjusted the chair per the ergonomics guides I’ve found online and I use the standing desk to stand once or twice per day. I suppose these things help a little, but there’s only a little difference at the end of the day. I get up at least once an hour for a minute or two to grab a drink, but it's not systematic. My home office chair was nice but is over 7 years old and all of the padding / support is getting compressed, so I guess I need to replace it. But I'm overwhelmed by the options - swiss ball? Nice chair with lumbar support? Kneeling chair? I guess I'm hoping that I could go to Office Depot and pick up something for $100 to $300 dollars that would help, but again with all the options I'm not sure what to get.

I'm also uncertain whether there's some professional help I can get. “A slightly sore back that doesn't really prevent me from doing anything but that I worry might get worse” seems sub-clinical so I don't know whether I could get any help going to a doctor (either my PCP or a specialist). I also don't know if there are any other professionals who might help me, such as physical therapists or massage therapists. So I'd like to hear if I should be looking into professional help.

Finally, I don't know what other treatments I should be thinking about. Should I be icing and taking ibuprofen like with other injuries? 6 weeks seems like a long time to take ibuprofen daily. Are there stretches I should be doing? Should I have a foam roller and use it on my back? There's so much advice out there and it's hard to tell whether any of it is good, but I would like to put together a program for myself that I can stick to and take care of the soreness, and so I can keep treating my back well after the soreness is gone. So any suggestions (preferably with research to back them up) would be helpful. Thanks!
posted by Tehhund to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sitting on a yoga ball as a desk chair is a pretty cheap test case -- 20 bucks or something at Target. I've found that doing it even for a day has been a huge help, whether because of the balance required, the stretching I can do in all directions or the alteration to my fidgeting patterns.
posted by Madamina at 7:52 AM on June 11, 2013

Recent research has shown that stopping exercise is bad for dealing with back pain. I'd still avoid really heavy lifting but you might want to at least resume the motions.
posted by srboisvert at 7:58 AM on June 11, 2013

Definitely get it checked out, go see your doctor. The fact that it hasn't gone away in 6 weeks, and that you already were lifting weights is what would trouble me, since the issue is not a lack of muscle development in that area (assuming you're were lifting heavy and eating enough protein). If you haven't been doing anything up to this point, taking ibuprofen would be the minimum first step I would suggest, a foam roller would also be a good idea. Doing some yoga may also help. You may also want to start deadlifting again, but at a significantly reduced weight (30%), and making sure your form is perfect. If any of these things make you feel worse, than obviously stop doing them, but making sure that area of your back is doing something other than sitting hunched all day may be quite helpful.

If you have an issue with a disc, or something else similar, your doctor should be able to help you figure that out, or refer you to someone who can. That's the type of thing you want to get diagnosed, since they will be able to tell you exactly what exercises you should and shouldn't do in order to make it better.
posted by markblasco at 8:01 AM on June 11, 2013

Do you stretch? Both lifting weights and sitting for long periods can compress muscles if you don't stretch. You could also try a massage. If you go to a really good, experienced person then they can tell you if it's tension or injury. Just make certain that you give a full and accurate history before they start. If stretching or massage doesn't improve the pain then go get checked out. The peace of mind that you may get will be worth any awkwardness.
posted by myselfasme at 8:05 AM on June 11, 2013

First order of business, find a good massage therapist. It's likely that you're in spasm in reaction to whatever is going on, whether it's garden variety soreness or a herniated disc.

Second, stretch. Not just your back: often, backs spasm in response to groin tightness. For me, lower back spasms respond very well to forward lunge (stretch the front of the groin) and the stretch where you sit with legs out in a V, and drop your torso forward (stretch inner groin). Also, from yoga, the pigeon stretch for your piriformis muscles.

Approach stretching and yoga as long-play goals, not cure-in-one-day goals.
posted by Dashy at 8:38 AM on June 11, 2013

I agree that it sounds subclinical. A really great medical professional will help, but I doubt it would be productive.

I'd try engaging in very light daily mobility and light strength work. When I tweaked my back a little from deadlifting, what worked was a morning warm-up that also included 50 super-slow reps of round-backed deadlifts with 5 pounds, a dozen cat-cows from yoga, stretching/bending/rotating/extending the back. I also slowly and carefully reintroduced deadlifts (lighter, but still looking to progress heavier). Yoga has helped with different but similar issues. Whatever you do, don't expect rest-plus-desk-job to fix a back problem!

I use a standing desk for most of the day, with an hour or two spent working on the couch or at a desk. It helps.
posted by daveliepmann at 8:38 AM on June 11, 2013

Along the lines of daveliepmann's answer, I've found high-rep unweighted back extensions helpful for rehabbing a tweaked back in the past. It gets blood flowing to the affected area. Don't do that if it causes pain, but I always found it'd give my back a nice pump and give me some immediate relief.

At 6 weeks out, daily icing and ibuprofen is probably not warranted or particularly helpful, but it's no big deal to take some if the pain flares up. Daily fish oil supplementation is a good idea for dealing with inflammation, among other general health benefits.

As for dealing with the issue problem longer-term, it depends on what exactly the source of the problem is. If you hurt yourself deadlifting, you should take a look at your deadlift technique before you do it again. You can also take a look at your posture; anterior pelvic tilt is a very common postural dysfunction which can lead to back problems and poor lifting form, and the linked writeup contains a lot of suggestions for addressing it. You could also seek out a physical therapist for an evaluation if you have the means to do so, but there are many good resources on the internet for addressing these issues on your own.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:04 AM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I too have screwed myself up via deadlifting, although in my case it was due to hilarity-induced poor form. The absolute worst thing I did, which set back my recovery by months, was to stop exercising completely. By the time I got myself to PT everything was tight and achy and spasmed all the damn time, and it took me a long time to get back up to snuff. So even if you're not up to a full workout by now, you definitely want to incorporate some gentle stretching into your daily routine, or even work up to an hour long or 90 minute daily yoga session.

The way you've been carrying yourself since the injury is also playing a big part in your current state. The surrounding muscles are going to be overworked and tight due to taking the weight off of the affected area. You may have some good relief using a foam roller on your piriformis (butt zone) muscles and on your ITBs.

I have never felt that icing sore muscles in the back is helpful. Only heat has ever made a difference. YMMV.

Also, it took me a long time to screw up the courage to deadlift again, even at weights far below my usual workout. I'm still a little nervous about it and right now I'm only doing trap bar deadlifts. I find this is more likely to encourage me to maintain good form.
posted by elizardbits at 9:19 AM on June 11, 2013

Not totally analogous, but I too am a man in my late 20s with back issues and I posted this question just yesterday.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:43 AM on June 11, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, this is all great advice and I think I'm coming away with some actionable ideas. I do feel better when I haven't been in a chair all day, so if anyone can weigh in on whether and how I can get a chair that's good for my back that would be helpful as well.
posted by Tehhund at 12:00 PM on June 11, 2013

My current PT recommended that I not worry as much about special supportive chairs and instead focus on my seated posture such that instead of leaning back (and eventually slouching), I tilt forward ever so slightly to engage the pelvic floor muscles. When I next see her, I will ask for clarification on whether or not she specifically recommended this because of my hip, or if it's beneficial overall for back issues.
posted by elizardbits at 8:15 AM on June 12, 2013

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