Injured by...lying down
December 18, 2018 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever had and recovered from back problems the very mattress upon which you slept? (Or by some other seemingly innocuous physical arrangement in your daily life?) If so, how did that work for you?

So for about the past five years I've been sleeping on increasingly unsuitable mattresses and having more and more back pain and limited movement. I thought I was just old and fat, but over time it dawned on my that I was actually twisting my spine weirdly by sleeping on cheap, sagging mattresses.

My symptoms were severe lower back pain with standing and walking, hip joint pain and pain down the front of my legs, plus periodic extremely painful spasms when twisting at the waist or climbing stairs. Pain got better when sitting or bent forward. Ultimately, I was not able to walk more than about half a mile without sitting or assuming various ridiculous crouching postures to relieve the pain, and I had difficulty standing long enough to, eg, do all the tasks associated with cleaning the kitchen. I had a lot of fatigue due to pain. Eventually I could not sleep for more than an hour without waking due to pain.

I am the proud owner of a new, firm, non-sagging mattress and have slept on it for four nights. Initially, I had some pain while lying down and some lower back pain when standing, but my back has mostly adjusted to the new mattress and I can sleep for longer periods without pain.

I walked about a mile today and the pain was about half what it has been in the past. I still couldn't have gone much farther without a break, but it wasn't nearly as unbearable as it had been.

Have you ever recovered from back problems due to a long-term situation that was bad for your back such as bad sleeping arrangements rather than trauma? Did you improve through a return to normal habits, or did you need additional PT, doctor visits, imaging, etc? What was your timeline? I'm not sure whether I should just see if I improve or start doctor stuff right away, or whether I can expect a return to normal. (I used to walk a lot.)

Through all of this I have been able to bicycle, because that put no weight on my legs and hips and it kept my spine flexed forward, so I have been exercising and moving around.
posted by Frowner to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you have coverage for PT, definitely use it! After getting a new mattress, my hip and shoulder pain has definitely improved, but six months on, I'm still not 100%, and if I don't prop myself in with pillows adequately, or if I accidentally sleep 'wrong,' I'm still in for a day or two of pain. I don't have coverage at present, so I can't say for sure how augmenting with actual medical interventions would affect the timeline for you, but I can say that, for me, the mattress alone is not enough.

The shoulder issues were not caused by the mattress, but were exacerbated by it; I believe the hip pain was caused by the mattress, though, as I had no trauma, it didn't start til I was sleeping on a saggy broken-down mattress, and it has essentially resolved itself, now -- unless I sit on the 'bad chair' at work or sleep awkwardly.
posted by halation at 2:49 PM on December 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

For me the only cure for a bad back (from various causes: prolonged slouching at desk; lifting too-heavy cement bags; etc.) has been thrice-weekly exercise. At times it's been so bad that I can't straighten up from an almost 90° bend in my middle. I've had anti-pain pills, anti-spasmodics, and other meds, but only exercise (and off-pavement hiking) do the trick.

The exercises are a series led by my tai chi teacher, working through all sections of my bod. First toes, then ankles, then knees, then hips, followed by waist, then fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and finally neck. For each joint we do movements in four directions, then the diagonals: easy to do, non-stressing motions which loosen the joints and strengthen the muscles. For my back especially I find I need to exercise all over, not just my back, so my body works as a whole.
posted by anadem at 3:03 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my youth I had lots of lower back pain due to sleeping on shitty surfaces (flop houses, 15-year old mattresses, LOTS OF SITTING, being overweight-ish). What really helped me (this was in my mid 20's when I started) get some relief was weight-bearing exercise, focusing on whole-body movements such as (starting light) deadlifts, squats, power clean, etc... followed by a stretching regime recommended by a sports doc. When my back and core got stronger and more 'fit', my pain almost entirely went away. These days I don't get much excercise outside of work, and I'm starting to notice it coming back, including sciatica like symptoms, which were by far the most worrying. I did get a new mattress about a year ago and that helped, but it looks like I'm gonna have to start (gently) dead-lifting and stuff again soon I think.. Luckily the school I'm about to start attending has a great gym included in the tuition so that should make things easier. I wish you best of luck! Back pain is the worst! And I've separated my shoulders before (extremely acutely painful after the Adrenalin wore off, and lingering years after PT, but not as bad as the back pain was, because you use your back for everydamnthing!)
posted by some loser at 3:04 PM on December 18, 2018

Yeah, in the world of back pain, bad mattresses can do a lot of damage, and a good mattress can be life changing. Have you talked to a doctor at all about this? I'm sorry you didn't realize that getting a good mattress sooner could really help. It made a big difference for me.

Exercise of any kind seems to be really helpful, too.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:10 PM on December 18, 2018

Also, forgot to mention... collapsed arches in my feet were a contributing factor as well.. Getting custom orthotics (expensive) helped as well.. You could probably get away with some dr schols "custom orthotics" from the scan machine thing they have in wallmart tho for a fraction of the price. That's what I'll be doing very shortly as my orthotics are like a billion years old and not doing much good anymore.
posted by some loser at 3:39 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Periodically I have suffered from lower back pain, on the left side of my spine, with some tingling down the back of my leg, especially when trying to stand up (and stand up straight), which I'd attribute to "sciatica," based on Dr Google.

It flared up a few months back after I'd increased my running distance. My wife noted this to her trainer who asked, "Does he sit down at work a lot?"


"Tight hamstrings pulling on lower back muscles. Tell him to stretch his hamstrings and hips twice a day."

And you know what? It worked. Now after every run (and every dumbbell workout featuring squats and deadlifts) I take extra time to loosen up my hamstrings and to open up my hips. And when I just sorta feel a little tightness in my back during the sitting workday, I'll spend a few moments loosening up.

I've dealt with this for years off and on and all it was ... was not stretching!!!
posted by notyou at 3:56 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lifetime sloucher here, both while standing and sitting. (I ended up needing disc surgery, but it sounds like you've caught your issues sooner than I did.) I suggest you get checked out by a doctor, with the idea of meeting with a physical therapist, only because PT's often have really good ideas on how to keep your back healthy. For example, mine suggested changing the position of the driver's seat in my [manual transmission] car, because I was slouching with my jaw jutting forward, and sitting slightly too far away from the stick, both of which pulled my back farther out of alignment. I never would have thought about the position of the seat in my car on my own. Now I always think about good posture while driving.

If you can afford it, a couple of physical therapy sessions will make you smarter about your back.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:01 PM on December 18, 2018

I have a history of recurring back problems, which have been exasperated by new pets who are bed hogs and make me sleep in weird positions. What reallyreallyreally helped me is using one of those foam rollers daily on my entire back, glutes and upper legs.
posted by 23skidoo at 4:35 PM on December 18, 2018

My lifelong (ages 24-36) back pain resolved when I switched from a pillow top mattress to a firm tempurpedic. I was clued in that this could be the culprit after a vacation in Spain sleeping on rock hard beds gave me a pain free week for the first time in years. I bought a new mattress as soon as we got home. I also did very gentle yoga on my own every day. I quit the yoga after a year but still have the mattress, and haven’t had any pain since 2013.
posted by something something at 4:35 PM on December 18, 2018

Try McGill's Big Three core exercises. Recommended to me by an ambulatory recovery nurse who deals with back surgery patients.
posted by aw jeez at 4:43 PM on December 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Recumbent bicycle evangelist here.

You said you bike. It sounds like you ride an upright. I ride a recumbent and I cannot imagine riding an upright. Uprights are designed around the bike. Recumbents are designed around the person. The main issue with recumbent bikes is that once you make the switch, as far as comfort is concerned, there's really no going back. Night and day. Upright:recumbent::stool:lawn chair... which would you rather sit on all day?

Recumbent bicycles were banned from UBI bike races nearly a hundred years ago as an unfair technological advantage! So that's the back-story for why they're not common, and now everyone thinks they look weird because they're uncommon. But then people get back issues and want to keep biking, so they get over the weird and they switch to recumbents and keep going.

Just make sure you get one with a short wheel base so it fits on any standard bike rack, and make sure you're a bit closer to the pedals than you would be on an upright. For the price of a new upright, you can find a recumbent bike used on Craigslist.

I have seen people who thought they couldn't ride a bike hop on a recumbent and ride with no issue whatsoever. Which is the most amazing thing to see.
posted by aniola at 4:46 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a cyclist (and runner) who had a bad mattress that without a doubt caused very bad back pain. Mine was mid-back, and made it nearly impossible to do anything that required even the slightest hunching over - making dinner, washing dishes, folding laundry, etc. It was so bad that it would wake me up in the middle of the night. There were nights I woke up an moved to the couch and wept because I was so tired but couldn't sleep because of the pain. OTC painkillers didn't touch it.

I went to a doctor who sent me to a massage therapist and a chiropractor. The massage therapist was great and I learned a lot about improving my posture including while sleeping, but the chiro was useless.

I was on a not THAT old (maybe 8 years old?) good quality (Stearns and Foster, cost nearly a grand when I bought it new) mattress, but it was really saggy in the middle and the weight of my partner created this crevasse that I think my body was constantly trying not to get sucked into.

I realized it was the mattress after a vacation sleeping on what should have been an awful lumpy, hard, cabin mattress that ALSO involved lots of the kinds of activities that should have made my back hurt, like canoeing. I didn't have back pain for the whole week.

Replaced the old mattress with a Tuft and Needle foam one, and my back pain went away. It's not COMPLETELY perfect and I probably should do more core strengthening, but I can sleep 8-9 hours with only the slightest back pain if I linger in bed for too long in the morning, and it resolves as soon as I get up. I bike and run and make dinner and it's so much better.

Mattresses make a huge difference! Get a new one if you can.
posted by misskaz at 5:06 PM on December 18, 2018

Oh, and one thing that helps a lot with my sleeping posture (I'm mostly a side sleeper and my body wants to curl forward) is a body pillow. Nothing fancy, just a cheapo one from Target, but sort of hugging one when I'm on my side helps me keep my spine straight and not tuck my chin while I sleep. Also helps when the hips are achy from running/biking and not doing enough stretching or foam rolling.
posted by misskaz at 5:17 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I started having some back trouble in my early 30s. Then a friend of mine who had similar back trouble started seeing his present (and most likely permanent) girlfriend, who was a massage therapist at the time and lectured him about his mattress, and gave him some exercises to do for his hip flexors. He shared that knowledge with me - and my back was getting better.

....I found a really firm mattress was best for me, and the hip flexor stretches kept any lingering back pain at bay and that let me get around and do more, which in turn kept my overall flexibility going which kept me on a general positive trajectory.

So yeah, the mattress makes a big difference. I use a big ol' slab of high density foam; don't be afraid to lie down on different firmnesses to see what is most comfortable for you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:26 PM on December 18, 2018

As somebody who spends a lot of time hunched over a laptop in meeting rooms with totally unergonomic set up, who is also overweight I have just recovered from a very bad flare up of lower back pain that lasted over a month. My recovery was aided greatly by finding a new massage therapist, who had me more or less pain free for the first time in weeks after the first treatment. Now it did take another couple of weeks to be fully pain free but I highly recommend finding a good massage therapist. This last episode of back pain was preceded by me foregoing massages for a few months after my favourite masseuse left the place I used to go to. I now know not to do that again.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:43 PM on December 18, 2018

Yeah, I had sudden debilitating back spasms a few years ago. Daily exercises took care of it, but when I got complacent and backslid, the spasms came back. So I have to be vigilant and consistent with exercise, and even then I have a minor episode or two a year. Twenty to thirty minutes a day. I put on a podcast, which makes it less boring.
posted by rikschell at 6:49 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I was younger core exercises did the trick for this; when I got a bit older and was pretty solid in core strength I decided to stop sleeping on a cheap, old, inherited, busted mattress and bought a nicer one and the lower back pain went away pretty much overnight.

I would never advise buying stuff over a good exercise routine, but for me a new mattress did wonders specifically for lower back pain. Sounds like you get a good workout anyways..
posted by love2potato at 7:08 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

My symptoms were severe lower back pain with standing and walking, hip joint pain and pain down the front of my legs, plus periodic extremely painful spasms when twisting at the waist or climbing stairs. Pain got better when sitting or bent forward. Ultimately, I was not able to walk more than about half a mile without sitting or assuming various ridiculous crouching postures to relieve the pain, and I had difficulty standing long enough to, eg, do all the tasks associated with cleaning the kitchen. ... Through all of this I have been able to bicycle, because that put no weight on my legs and hips and it kept my spine flexed forward, so I have been exercising and moving around.

Getting a better mattress has made you feel better -- yay! This could be because:

1) Your badly insulted muscles are no longer under stress and can continue to improve on their own, OR

2) You have developed a relatively moderate case of lumbar spinal stenosis that was aggravated by tight hip flexors and that terrifically bad mattress. With the mattress change, you are now at or near the baseline level of soreness expected with a moderate case of stenosis.

Although you're feeling better now, and I'm sure that changing your mattress was an important and necessary step, I would strongly suggest that you get assessed by a specialist such as a sports medicine doctor.

Everything I bolded in the quote above is (IANAD! IANAD!) pretty much my experience when my stenosis was at its worst, and these are still the activities and positions I have to be careful about. Physio and conscious changes in posture have helped me improve, but while cycling is a godsend, I am still limited in how long I can walk or stand in a typical day. I've learned to sit down (in a good chair with proper support) or to gently bend over to touch my toes while sitting at the first twinge of soreness, then getting up again a few minutes later to continue what I was doing.

I agree with everyone else about the importance of hip stretches, as tight hips will change your posture and aggravate your stenosis symptoms, but I'd recommend holding off on McGill's Big Three exercises listed above until you get assessed. (I have been advised that the side plank is not for me, although a front plank can work, but this may not apply to everyone.)

Stuart McGill's book is still a great reference on general back health, and it includes a useful chapter on lumbar stenosis, including how to incorporate standing stretches in your walk to allow you to continue with less or no pain.

Oh, and I don't think you need to switch to a recumbent bike just yet. Leaning forward on a standard bike really does relieve lower back pain, as you have seen, and it is possible that the recumbent posture would not give you the same relief. However, if you start developing cervical stenosis symptoms (not just neck and upper back pain, but odd symptoms like tingling down your arms), switching to a very upright bike position or getting a recumbent may be good choices at that point.
posted by maudlin at 8:11 PM on December 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

For the past decade, I've suffered from chronic, intermittent sciatic pain, which is fairly severe when it occurs. I haven't seen a doctor or other professional about it because I hate (and have anxiety about) going to the doctor, but I'm able to manage it fairly effectively through a combination of:
  1. Exercise. I am not a gym person and hate working out, but I play exercise games and dance games on my Nintendo Wii, walk every day, and do some basic remedial stretches when pain occurs, such as Egoscue exercises or the exercises in aw jeez's link above. All of these help to keep otherwise underused muscles strong enough to facilitate good posture and proper alignment, and maintaining even a mild exercise regimen seems to reduce the incidence and duration of pain for me.
  2. Posture improvements. I have a height-adjustable desk at work so that I can stand for part of the day. I also try not to slouch continuously for a long period (nor, conversely, to arch my back too forcefully for a long period, as can happen when leaning forward when, e.g., playing a game).
  3. Sleeping with my legs elevated. I use this pillow nearly every night, for at least part of the night. This seems to keep my pelvis aligned in a healthy position, and it also prevents me from rolling over into a side sleeping position (I often seem to end up with lateral pain when sleeping on my side). This is the item most germane to your question, I think.
  4. Avoiding certain activities that I've learned trigger pain. Certain things feel fine while I'm doing them but can result in severe pain later, such as sitting cross-legged for a prolonged period of time. Certain exercises can also cause or exacerbate pain for me. I try to learn what these things are and avoid doing them.
I'd advise you to talk to a doctor or a physical therapist rather than foolishly trying to manage everything yourself like I do, but the above is what seems to be helping me.
posted by Syllepsis at 9:57 PM on December 18, 2018

Yoga has helped me with all manner of back pain. If i skip more than a day, i feel it.

Go to a yoga class in person. Don't over-exert or do anything painful.
posted by bearette at 2:35 AM on December 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

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