A recent bout of back pain reminded me of something a good friend likes to say: “You know you’re getting old when you hurt yourself sleeping.”
Age is not always the issue, however; often, backaches light up after a period of too much or too little activity, regardless of age. Even the most fit or aware people can find themselves suddenly unable to bend down or straighten up.
On this Silent Sunday, I share with you what I do (and did) to resolve such a physical glitch.
Special note: If you have a backache that has been consistently resistant to basic therapeutic interventions (e.g., epsom salt bath, gentle movement, alternate warm/cold packs), it may be wise to consider medical attention. About 25 years ago, I had a persistent ache that worsened with activity. After nearly two weeks, I consulted my doctor. She discovered what had become a full-blown kidney infection. Tune in to your body and your intuition: Train yourself to know when to seek help.
I have divided the following care plan into two groups: acute phase and recovery. The acute techniques are those that can help you through the first, most painful hours. Begin recovery methods when mobility begins to improve, which may be the same day.
From the moment I stepped out of bed on “backache day,” I realized that something had gone awry. In these first moments, I suggest a complete sensory and mobility scan: Palpate the area of discomfort to determine your care focus. Then, try to move in various directions: What movements are possible, and which exacerbate the pain?
Then, immediately apply an essential oil blend or your preferred pre-made balm. I went straight for arnica and doused the areas that seemed to clamor most loudly. After a couple of hours, I added peppermint and thyme to the mix: Both help with inflammation.
Next, try this pressure point technique: Press the thumb tips into various spots at and around the painful area. When you find the most acute places, inhale as you press the thumbs into the spot; exhale to release. This will remind the muscles that they need to contract and relax; often, sore muscles have frozen into the contracted state.
Between salve applications and pressure point treatments, I tried to go about my daily routines. It became quickly apparent that my back yearned to be still.
Heeding the body’s request, I turned to the one activity that remained doable and comforting: breathing.
Remember that each breath is a contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm muscle. As one inhales, the muscle pushes downward, toward the abdomen; upon exhale, it releases back up to its home under the lungs.
This first round of breath may be telling: When the back, especially, is injured in any way, the torso braces against the threat of aggravation. With this guarding may come a clamp on the palliative effect of breath: The diaphragm receives the message that movement is not welcome. Breath becomes short, shallow, and reluctant.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, get yourself into any position that feels stable and pain-free, i.e., seated, standing, prone, or supine. As you deeply inhale, let the likely tense abdomen expand; visualize the diaphragm moving downward from the ribs.
Exhale slowly and completely through the nose or mouth. As the breath travels out, use your mind’s eye to watch the diaphragm ease back up into its nest under the ribs. Continue these basic breaths, fully and with visualization, for at least 1 minute.
Eventually, I went for a walk. I proceeded slowly, being highly mindful of posture, footfall, and any changes in the ache, After about 20 minutes, I noticed that the “lock” of my back had loosened; the ache remained, but the circulation throughout the body seemed to diminish it.
This is the point at which you may be able to introduce focused, therapeutic movement and bodywork techniques. At the outset, certain positions or movement may continue to be elusive: Use the suggestions here in a sequence and with a frequency that suits your personal need.
The first movement is from a kundalini kriya to relieve depression. That the exercise became part of a backache remedy should not be surprising: From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, depression reflects an imbalance in the Water element. One of the two organ systems associated with this element is the Bladder; its meridians run the full length of the back, through the gluteals, and down the backs of the legs. With any backache, attention to the Bladder meridian is a good place to start.
I have modified the movement, so that it can be done despite a sore back. To begin, lie on the back. Bend the left knee, placing the foot flat on the floor. Draw the right knee in toward you, and extend the leg as straight up toward the ceiling as you can: Lower it about 30 degrees toward the floor.
Shake the elevated, angled leg. Be cautious at first, then increase the vigor: Use the rapid vibrations to loosen any qi (energy) that may be blocked in the leg meridians. Continue for 1 minute.
Switch sides: Bend the lifted leg, placing the right foot flat on the floor for support. Draw the left knee in; extend the leg straight up; and lower 30 degrees. Shake for 1 minute.
Then, draw both knees in toward the body. Take stock of the lower back; if it has lifted away from the floor, help it to settle, and re-engage the lower abdominals for support. Extend both legs straight up; lower both about 30 degrees; and now powerfully shake the two for 1 minute. If you like, extend both arms straight up, open them to either side about 30 degrees, and shake them along with the double-leg shake. Continue for 1 minute.
Next, help yourself to roll onto the belly. Carefully, press up onto the forearms for a soft Sphinx Pose. Use the rooted forearms to impart a sense of “drag” into the front body: Without moving, wriggle and lengthen the belly forward and away from the pelvis.
Then, shimmy the hips from side to side. This is not a large movement; move as is you are trying to loosen the buttocks—let the flesh dance.
After several shimmies, settle the body. Still in Sphinx, slowly turn the head left and right; this will help to shed any tension that may have accrued while tending to the back.
Now, with great care and awareness, shift up onto all fours. Explore traditional Cat/Cow spinal movements; perhaps start with rocking the pelvis only. If these extensions and flexions do not yet feel safe, simply shift your weight forward and back; or, circle the hips and/or ribs; or otherwise undulate in any way that seems to improve circulation and release tension.
Finally, shift into Baby Pose, if possible. Although this pose is ubiquitous, and one associated with restfulness, it can prove daunting to a tight back and hips. If this is the case, shift the hips back toward the heels; should your body resist, remain in the halfway position. Lower the forearms to the ground, and let the head rest on the hands: You will be in a mini-Downward Dog, a variation sometimes called Puppy Pose. Take at least 5 full breaths here.
When you are ready, find a way to sit that allows the spine to be upright: for example, on the floor, seated on a bolster, legs extended forward; or perhaps on a chair, perched at the front edge. Close the eyes.
Then, use a qigong healing technique. Take your attention to the site of the backache. Allow the inner eye to provide a description of the area: Is it murky, thick, mottled; fragmented, sharp-edged, dark? Register your visual perception of the pain.
With one or both hands, grab the air around the affected site to extract the physical form within that you have identified. Inhale to pull it out; exhale to shake it down and away from the body.
Continue this clearing for 1-3 minutes, then sit quietly. Place both hands on the knees, palms down. Return to the conscious diaphragm breaths for at least 1 minute.
Repeat any or all these steps (acute and/or recovery) as needed.