Tips for managing lower back while walking — not before or after
March 31, 2019 1:40 PM   Subscribe

My lower back hurts when I walk any moderate distance above a snail's pace, and I have plenty of strategies for stretches and exercises I can do to help prevent it, but I'm struggling for what to do in the moment, where I'm walking my dog and I'm a half mile from home and my back hurts so bad I just want to lay down on the sidewalk. What can I during during these walks that might help me keep going?

I do not need ideas for how to prevent this from happening or how to deal with it afterwards! I'm doing everything recommended for lower back pain each day and I am working with both a trainer and a yoga teacher a few times a week to help keep my hip flexors, core, etc in better shape. Neither of them or any internet sources of lower back pain exercises have insight on what I can do during a walk, though. In theory this problem should resolve itself as I get stronger but it's small comfort when I can't walk my dog more than one block right now.

Right now the only thing I can think to do is to bend down and lay my palms on the ground to stretch out the back of my legs, but this doesn't offer a ton of relief (and I feel pretty silly doing it on the busy road that is my only walking option). I find if I can walk through the pain then I can keep going for long distances but lately I haven't been able to get through the pain.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Make note of any benches, stairs, fences or whatever to take a 30 second or even less break. Five seconds stretches muscles differently. Knowing a bench is a block away can help with attitude and determination to keep moving. Find ways to very slightly walk different, shuffle sideways a bit, take 5 steps very slow, 3 very small quick (if possible). Try different things, raise one arm over the head. A brief pause holding a pole and flexing one foot while bending carefully towards the leg. Shrug shoulders, turn head side to side. All very gently and carefully but different movement puts different pressures on the muscles with a problem. Good luck and keep moving.
posted by sammyo at 1:50 PM on March 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

How is your posture while you're walking? I've had back pain during walks, and have noticed improvement when I focus on keeping my back straighter.
posted by davcoo at 2:00 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've had good luck with this: stand straight, put hands on small of back, fingers pointing down, take a deep breath, bend over backward, tilting neck back so you are looking straight up. Go as far as you can, breathe out on the way down, hold that position to a count of 5 or 10, straighten up while breathing in, repeat. (This is similar to something you can do at home, on your belly, pushing up while leaving pelvis on the floor. Or, leaning pelvis against a counter and then following the above steps.) Ideally work up to 20-30 seconds in the stretched position. After some repetitions, before you start walking again do a few standing pelvic tilts to try to get the spine in balance.
posted by beagle at 2:06 PM on March 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a couple of large ice packs that strap on with Velcro straps. On particularly bad days those are a lifesaver. Consider 2-4 preemptive ibuprofen before walks. I find that once inflammation begins its a lot note difficult to quell than getting a handle on it before it begins.

Try stopping and bending a few times every 1/4 mile, or taking a bench break or hanging from monkeybars for a minute or two if you pass a playground.

After walks hanging from a chinup bar at home helps, or lying down for 15-20 mins on an ice pack if I didn't ice while walking. Magnesium baths can also be nice if you have a tub.
posted by liminal_shadows at 2:06 PM on March 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Trigger point massage (quick, targeted) on the muscles you think are involved. (Figuring what muscles those are is something to consult a PT about, if experimentation isn't enough. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook might also be helpful - it describes (theoretical) connections between pain areas and muscle points.)

Something like Tiger Balm or these types of patches, applied before the walk, might help get through the pain, as might therapy tape (surprisingly so, ime. It's probably worth consulting with someone knowledgeable about the best way to apply the tape for your issues).

Do (try to) make sure that it's okay to be walking through the pain, though, and that it doesn't exacerbate the situation.
posted by trig at 2:10 PM on March 31, 2019

Don’t walk through the pain, pain is information to stop what you’re doing. stop and either sit on a preidentified bench (per first answer) or get a dog-friendly cab or Uber home.

Are you wearing a purse or backpack that’s contributing during these walks? I had to stop wearing crossbody purses for a while because they aggravated my torn disc. Switched to a light Fanny pack.

I know you said you’re doing yoga, but hyperextension and stretching might be making it worse. Please *please* at least check out Stuart McGill’s Back Mechanic. The guy is the world’s preeminent expert on spine biomechanics. (In a nutshell, you want to stiffen and brace your core to support your spine, [mostly] not stretch it. And you want to stay out of pain while slowly building up muscular endurance. In the context of walking [your dogs] I’m sure his advice would be to do shorter, more frequent walks and build them up in duration over time. If the puppers need a good long one, pay someone to do it or ask a friend until you’ve gotten far enough along in rehab to do it without pain.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:28 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There are no benches or bars or other features like a fence I could put a leg up on my walking route, unfortunately. It’s hard to describe but the route I take is...dull and hostile. We live someplace where my only walking option (other than driving somewhere) is along a busy street without many features, just a sidewalk and empty front yards or fences set quite back far so that I would feel awkward approaching. I love the ideas for if I am at a park or something, but wanted to note that it’s not something I can use on my daily walk(s) where I just need to get out there close to home. :(

Yes, as noted in my question, I asked my trainer and yoga teacher and they didn’t have any suggestions other than prevention beforehand, thus why I’m asking here, but prefer not to derail into talking about those teachers. Also you can assume footwear is not the issue so we don’t get derailed there into unsolicited advice.

Thanks for those who gave actionable answers so far, really looking forward to trying them on tonight’s walk!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:30 PM on March 31, 2019

Best answer: Tilt your pelvis forward and up, bend your knees so the muscles of the legs work as shock absorbers. Walk in a slight monkey style, pull your self forward with the action of your feet and leg muscles, rather than falling from one foot to the other. Pull your shoulders back while the rest of this goes on.

If your lower back works as the shock absorber for your body's continuous contact with pavement, it will get sore.
posted by Oyéah at 2:30 PM on March 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

Squats can stretch your pelvis and help relieve pressure on your spine. Coupled with a lumbar support belt, you might find some relief.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 PM on March 31, 2019

Best answer: Put the leash in your other hand or around your waist. Of this crops up so reliably when you're walking the dog it could be due to a subtle twist in your torso or pelvis due to the leash holding arm not moving as much. Seems silly but works for me.

Also doing a few small forward leans with a slightly bent leg (to engage quads) and a few lunges (to engage glutes) while maintaining the very slight forward lean then standing and tucking your pelvis will often get you out of your low back and using your legs again.
posted by fshgrl at 2:37 PM on March 31, 2019

Best answer: There are three pieces of advice which make walking relatively painfree for me, whenever I don;t forget to apply them:

1. Tuck in your ribcage. This video explains it somewhat. Another explanation I read but can no longer find now goes something like this: stand up straight, and imagine an elastic band that goes around your waist, covering your back and with the ends dangling at the front, circ 5 cm on either side of your bellybutton. Grab these imaginary ends and pull them forward and down. What happens to your body? What happens for me is what the video linked above describes. At the start I had to actually mimic the motion as I was walking, which was slightly weird, but now i can do it automatically and every time I manage to hold it for a bit my pain dissipates.

2. There's something called the glidewalk, which I don't quite get, but here is a video demoing it, or something. What I use from this is the exercises for your butt, with your toes pointing outwards and doing leglifts towards the back - this has me remember what my butt muscles feel like when they are working so I can do it as I walk. Interestingly, this is much easier if I also do point 1 above - in fact, point 1 above actually gets my butt muscles firing differently all on its own.

3. The final piece for me involves my shoulder blades (this is also easier if I do 1 and 2 above): visualize the bottom tips of your shoulderblades, the lowes part near your spine. Imagine that you are trying to tuck the right tip into your left back pocket and your left tip into your left back pocket.

The trickiest bit for me is to remeber to do this as I walk - whenever I manage to focus on keeping this going, I experience hardly any pain. And it has become easier ove the last ... uhm 2 years to remember these!

BTW, I got most of this stuff from Gokhale videos, they are scattered throughout youtube, but there is nothing systematic about them. If you are in the States, I think you can do courses or something - might be something to check out if there is one near you.
posted by doggod at 2:44 PM on March 31, 2019 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: One more clarification, the dog leash is clipped to my belt loop (and he doesn’t pull because he’s the bestest boy so it wouldn’t be causing the pain) and I’m not carrying anything else except sometimes a phone, not even keys. But more to the point this pain occurs anytime I walk any distance. It’s a problem more on the dog walks since it’s 1-2x a day and occur where I can’t sit down to rest so this is where I most need strategies for handling the pain.

For the couple answers mentioning what I’m carrying, I’m not looking for the cause (and know that’s not it), I’m looking for ideas on what I can do to relieve the pain in the moment. I know what’s causing it and didn’t get into it because it wasn’t relevant to my question, sorry if that caused any confusion.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:47 PM on March 31, 2019

Best answer: Best thing I can think of in the moment is to vary your gait - where and how your foot strikes, how far forward you step, etc., All the way to varying how your arms move.
posted by Dashy at 2:50 PM on March 31, 2019

Is toting a lightweight folding seat (in a sling bag or backpack) an option, for a brief break when the pain's peaking? $14 REI example, 2lbs.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:57 PM on March 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, also, a thing I've done since I was a kid (I've had lower back pain all my life) whenever walking or standing became too much was to squat - you could try that in less peopled areas if your knees allow. I still do it - a squat, and maybe see-sawing a bit forward, leaning on my toes, hands on the ground. Only thing is to make sure you're stretching your lower back and you're not messing up your knees.

I always find a bit of relief this way when it's all too much (and btw, my dog always looks bemused, which is a bonus in my book).
posted by doggod at 3:11 PM on March 31, 2019

Best answer: how does it feel when you engage (tighten) your abs? That's key for me to avoid lower back and hip pain while walking.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:22 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you been checked for hypermobility? If you have hypermobility then the pelvis can get out of whack and make walking painful. Tucking the pelvis slightly, walking with abs engaged (as if youre riding with someone slamming on the car breaks and want to keep your torso from bending forward) can help if that's the issue.

I think if you share the cause of the pain you'll get more targeted answers. It could be alignment, joints, spinal issues, muscle weakness, posture, etc.
posted by crunchy potato at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’m also wondering about your gait. You might be doing what I did — you swing your leg forward at the hip by pulling with the hip flexors, rather than pushing off your other leg (using your glutes) and swinging your shoulder / torso and hip, thus getting a bunch of free momentum that swings your front leg forward for you and putting WAY less strain on your hip flexors. Walking is about pushing, not pulling. For me I think this was the result of super tight hip flexors, and then my gait strained them even more, leading to a shitty cycle of ever more bogus hip flexors and a failure to engage my glutes and transverse abdominus.

Fixing that by simply focusing on my gait — pushing off my back leg while consciously activating the glute on that side — was a minor miracle. It made me swing my hips and torso more with my chest out and gave me a literal bounce in my step.

Apparently walking correctly means walking happy.

Anyway. If you’re fucked up after relatively short walks it’s...I mean, I’m not a professional, but I’d put a LOT of money on your gait being the problem.

(Fixing it might include more than just paying attention; you might have to relearn a how to activate the transverse abdominus and other core muscles, and the stuff you haven’t been using might have weakened considerably. But you can totally do it. Google around.)
posted by schadenfrau at 5:16 PM on March 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

Stopping whenever my lower back starts to hurt during a walk to do something like this stretch helps immensely - I cannot exaggerate how much difference it makes! That's technically called a "hamstring stretch", but I bend my knees as much as necessary to make my lower back the focus of the stretch instead of the backs of my legs (though of course it's good for that too).

Stretching while I'm walking helps a lot, but so does doing it when I'm not out walking - I usually do that stretch while I'm standing in the kitchen waiting for my tea water to boil or my morning toast to cook or while warming up leftovers in the microwave for lunch - you get the idea. Even that helps my back feel better when I do go out, and allows me to make fewer stretch stops during the walk.

I should add, I know you said bending over to put the palms of your hands on the ground doesn't help, but be sure you're focusing the stretch in the lower back area.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:30 PM on March 31, 2019

Best answer: I've been suffering from major low back pain recently and this product has been a godsend. It's sturdy and holds the heat for about 30 minutes.
posted by miaou at 5:33 PM on March 31, 2019

Consider carrying a cane for support when your back gets painful.
Take a painkiller before the walk.
posted by theora55 at 5:37 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you wear a specifc pair of shoes just for walking that might be the problem. I had a pair that did this to me, lower back pain every time i walked in them, very weird.
posted by mareli at 2:38 AM on April 1, 2019

Well, I mean, the answer really does depend on why your back is doing this. Your gait, scoliosis, undiagnosed hip issues, the wrong shoes, could be a ton of things.

Relief will take a lot of different forms depending on the cause. I appreciate that you don't want to mention the cause, but without knowing the cause, we're guessing as to what will help the most.

(I say this as someone who had terrible back pain for years and had PT. A new doctor got me an MRI and discovered I needed a hip replacement, which ended the back pain immediately. I'm just saying, bodies are weird and there are a ton of nerves there and who knows what's pressing on what to cause pain. Also, you probably don't need a hip replacement.)

I hesitate to offer advice like stretches or painkillers because you may be inadvertently increasing damage (again, I say this as a runner and my PT wanted me to run through the discomfort because nobody knew my hip was shot).

But ice and NSAIDs will help once you're home. A cane may help while you're walking. I would check to ensure that even though your dog is awesome that you're not inadvertently tensing certain muscles when they're attached to you.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:40 AM on April 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

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