Hello, back pain, my old friend...
Today I want to talk about pain.
It’s really a funny thing. I’ve worked for so many years to do all the right things to eliminate back pain from my life. I’ve changed the diet, I’ve done the exercises and stretches, I’ve done the work to strengthen my core. My back injuries have plagued me for so long, and when I finally feel like yes! I’ve done it! I’m pain free! I did all the things right! The pain finds its way back.
I guess that’s not entirely fair. The hard work I’ve put in with my anti inflammatory diet, all my strength training and exercise, and especially core work, along with specific stretches I do HAVE changed my life, and for the better. When I do all the things I’m supposed to do, I live a relatively pain free existence. The problem lies, I believe, in the feeling good again. When I start to feel good and my days of no pain lead into weeks, and then months, my brain gets excited. It says, “We’re good now! We can go back to the way it was!”, and so I break one of my rules here or there to test the waters. I eat some sugar. Maybe I eat some gluten. (These are all big no’s on the anti inflammatory diet that I try to follow). I don’t feel any immediate differences in my body so I start thinking, “Hey! Maybe I’m completely cured!” Then perhaps I go to workout, and I do more forward flection exercises that I’m specifically not supposed to do with bulging discs. And in the beginning…I feel ok, so I’m thinking, I’m cured! Let’s keep doing these things!
But unfortunately, all of this starts to add up and eventually, my body breaks down and says STOP DOING THAT.
That was this week for me. It was revving up all of last week, and the full fledged attack was yesterday when the pain was so unbearable it just poured down my right hip and leg and I couldn’t find any relief except for floating in my bathtub until the water got cold. I sobbed. I couldn’t believe I was here again.
But when I found some peace from the pain while soaking in my tub, I tried to get some perspective and see everything I was going through from a different angle this time.
The truth is, I know exactly what did it, and that’s the kicker! I know that when I stray from what works, it leads to inflammation and in turn, more pain.
So here it is! First of all, this month is Carnival in New Orleans, so hello, King Cake! Do I normally partake in King Cake? Actually, no. Finding a gluten free, vegan and refined sugar free King Cake to eat is all but impossible! But this year I’ve found one that is gluten free and vegan, so down the rabbit hole I went! What’s the problem with this cake then, you might ask? Well, it has a crap ton of sugar in it. Did that stop me? No. But it definitely should have! That cake equals WAY more sugar than my body is used to! And while it might taste great, my body is definitely telling me HELL NO.
(Sugar is known to cause inflammation in the body. I've found that removing it from my diet has decreased my back pain significantly, and when I reintroduce it into my diet, my back pain increases.)
Second, I did deadlifts in the gym, which I KNOW is a definite no for me. It puts serious pressure on my low back in the exact spot that gives me the most trouble. My chiropractor is adamant that I don’t do any exercises that have forward flection for my specific injuries. I wanted to try anyway, because like I said, when you’re feeling good, you think you’re ok forever!. Welp…man if it ain’t true. It all added up, and next thing you know, my body tells me, “Hey, listen up! You’re straying too much from the things that work, so here is some serious pain to remind you what it feels like so you stop doing these things!”
In all honesty, I’ve been pretty pain free for years. My last big issue was about 2 years ago, and before that, 3 years before that! So believe me when I say that while I remember that it was bad pain, all of those memories get a little foggy and you don’t TRULY remember how it was until you have it again.
I’m trying to be positive and think of what this latest misstep means to me, and how I can think of it as a beautiful reminder instead of sulking in my misery. Let me tell ya, it’s not easy! As I write this, I’m struggling to even find a comfortable position to sit in. It’s a sit, stand, walk around, come back to writing, rinse, repeat kind of thing!
But I’m going to take this time as I sit with my pain to try and be grateful and thankful, and to let it be a reminder of what really works for my body.
If you are someone who deals with back pain, or other types of chronic pain, perhaps you’ll find relief with something in the lists below, or something new to try in your journey to being more pain free.
1.Food and diet:
The anti inflammatory diet. This has been my ride or die from the beginning, and when I stray from it, it’s only a matter of time before my back pain becomes more problematic. I will forever be a life long believer that food is medicine, and that just by following a clean diet consisting of whole foods that are fresh and naturally colorful will steer you in the right direction.
You can always read my previous blog about starting the anti inflammatory diet here, but I’ll give you a quick run down on this page as well.
It’s about eating whole foods, foods that are known to fight off inflammation in the body, or that have anti inflammatory properties. Foods that have healthy fats, omega 3’s, and that are rich in anti oxidants. It’s also about removing the foods from your diet that are known to cause inflammation in the body.
Foods that are great to eat include:
*Fruits and vegetables: load up on them! Broccoli, leafy greens, berries berries berries(!), avocados (yay healthy fats!), sweet potatoes, garlic, etc. Keep em’ coming!
*Legumes: garbanzo beans, black beans, lentils…you name it!
*Green tea/ Matcha
*Quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, wild rice: whole grains that are great for your body!
*Extra virgin olive oil
*Omega 3’s: very important! I’m vegan, so I can’t get these from your typical sources, which would be fatty fish such as salmon, trout, or oysters. I take a vegan omega 3 supplement sourced from seaweed, and an algae supplement as well. You can also just eat that stuff! Yumm:)
*Different seeds like flax and chia contain omega 3’s as well!
*Walnuts: also a great source of omega 3’s and healthy fats! Keeping a variety of nuts in your diet (almonds, pecans, pistachios, etc) can be super beneficial to your health.
*Spices: Turmeric and ginger! Make sure if you are taking turmeric, either when cooking with it or when in supplement form, that it has black pepper with it! That activates its anti inflammatory properties, and without it, you won’t get the same benefits. Read more about the many health benefits of turmeric here.
*Dark chocolate: the darker the better for more antioxidants!
*Small amounts of red wine
*Hard boiled eggs (if you aren’t vegan)
*Small amounts of aged hard cheese such as parmesan (again, if you aren’t vegan).
Foods to avoid:
*White foods: white flour, white rice, bread, potatoes, pasta… (reminder…sweet potatoes are ok!)
*Processed foods and processed meats
*Dairy (milk, cheese, butter, ice cream…)
*Vegetable oils (corn, peanut, safflower…)
This diet has helped me tremendously (going on 8 years!) and it’s the times that I stray that I notice problems sneaking back in. I’m taking this opportunity where I’m currently in pain to be reminded that yes, these foods are nurturing to the body, and that food can make a huge difference in your overall health and pain management. It’s easy to want to eat that piece of cake or eat that bag of chips, but deep down I know that I feel mostly pain free when I remove those things from my diet.
(And I want to put this out as a reminder. This diet to me is not a “diet”! It’s not about losing weight or any of that stuff. I think of it more as do I want to live with or without pain. THAT is what keeps me going!)
So when I have my human moments of going back to processed foods, or sugary things, and the pain arises, I want to say thank you to my body. Thank you for reminding me that those aren’t good for me and that it’s time to get back on track!
2. Core stability and overall strength
Wow, is working the core muscles ESSENTIAL for low back pain! My chiropractors have been telling me over 15 years about how you need to support your back by strengthening your core. When my back first went out ages ago, I was young and thought whatever, I’ll be fine.
Time passed however, and my back went out again about 5 years later. This time it was really bad. I couldn’t walk for a month. What did my new chiropractor say? Core stability!
I did basic stuff. Bird dogs, plank varieties, leg lifts. It definitely helped, but I still had pain from time to time.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t until last year when I started boxing that I actually became the most pain free I’ve ever been! Why? Because try boxing without engaging your core! Everything you do involves your core. In boxing, you’re constantly twisting your body', you’re constantly engaging your abs, and on top of that, you're doing ab specific exercises to gain even more strength in that area! Through my training at the boxing gym, I started gaining real abdominal muscles, and with that came a mostly pain free back! Believe me, I was as shocked as y’all. I thought the super hard work required for boxing would put a lot of stress on my lower back, but in the end, it was actually very beneficial to healing my body.
What doesn’t help me is FORWARD FLECTION! At least if you have bulging discs like me! So things like deadlifts and old school sit-ups are not great as they allow your already bulging disc to bulge more, which in turn causes nerve pain.
I won’t give up on these entirely just yet! I actually do a lot of ab work and in general don’t have any issues! I know the deadlifts were the real culprit, and I will be careful with the amount of weight I use in the future so as not to further injure myself. So thanks again, body, for reminding me to listen to you…you know what’s up!
3. Stretching and the McKenzie method:
The McKenzie Method has played a huge role in reducing pain when I’ve had flair ups.
Again, it depends on your injury, but if you have a bulging or herniated disc, you might find relief with this!
Essentially, you want to lay face down on your stomach. Put your arms at your side and slowly push up so that your upper body comes off the ground. Go as high as you can while leaving your pelvis in contact with the floor. If you can’t extend all the way, just go to your elbows. You don’t need to hold the pose for more than 5 or 10 seconds before you go back down to fully laying on the ground. Repeat this movement 10 times. Then do this a handful of times throughout the day! It only take a few minutes, so it’s easy to fit into your schedule, no matter where you are. Believe me, I’ve even done it in airports before I’ve gotten on a plane!
If you have pain more on one side than the other, try pushing your hip to the side AWAY from the pain, and do the same exercise mentioned above.
The premise is, by putting your body in this extension position, you are aiding your bulging disc to return to where it should be in your spine. This article does a great job explaining and walking you through the different postures in the McKenzie method, so if you are interested in more information on the subject, go here!
And, to find out more about the McKenzie method, go here!
4. Keep moving!
When your back goes out or you have sciatica, I know from experience that all you want to do is lay down, not move, and hope that the pain goes away. But I was advised this by my chiropractor and it’s been some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Here it is. Give yourself a day to feel bad. Cry. Lay down Take baths. But after day one, you need to get up and MOVE! It doesn’t have to be huge, but get up and move around a little bit! If all you can do is walk from one end of your house and back to the couch, do that. Then do it again soon after. If all you can do is walk to the corner of your street and back to your house, do that. If you can, try to muster a longer walk.
You need blood pumping to you where you are injured so it can help you heal faster! We want our blood pumping! We want those signals to help inspire things to mend quicker!
I know it sounds unappealing but if you can, walk around! I did it today. I was in pain, but I went for a walk. For the first half of the walk, I was miserable. I had to stop every few moments to just breathe through the pain. But then no joke, all of the sudden I hardly had ANY pain. I really believe that moving around is the reason!
What I keep being reminded of is that if you live with pain, whatever it might be, it will most likely be a lifelong struggle. However, I don’t believe that means that you will be plagued with said chronic pain in such a way where there is nothing that can be done and that surgery and pain meds are the only way or you're stuck with the pain forever! Quite the contrary!
I know everyone’s pain is unique. First and foremost, go talk to your doctor. I am definitely not one of those! But if the only answer they have is pain meds, muscle relaxers, or surgery (and let me tell you, I’ve DEFINITELY had those doctors!) maybe get a second opinion. I’ve found so much relief through the above methods, and when you see how these natural forms of healing can help, it’s very empowering, because YOU have the power and the ability to help heal yourself. Once you start to have that feeling, it will make you want to continue.
(I'm also not saying that no one needs surgery! Or pain meds! But I personally believe that it's important to try all the options that exist before going to more extreme routes.)
I also have to remind myself that I am human. We are all human! Slip ups happen. No one is perfect, especially me! I do my best to live by the rules that I think will best serve me and my health for now and the long term, and if I occasionally eat something that is not on my anti inflammatory list, or do an exercise that may not work for me, I won’t make myself feel bad about it. Instead, I’m learning it’s best to accept it, deal with the consequences if there are any, and then let it go and move forward.
One last thought I have is how I’ve noticed that when I get a flare up in my low back now, my recovery time is MUCH quicker than before I did any of the above methods! Like I said, it once took me a full month before I could walk properly again without pain! Today is only my second day after the initial pain and I’m already moving around more, taking a slow walk in the neighborhood, and I’m not needing a bath every other hour to get through the day! I truly attribute my faster healing time to the many years that I've devoted to doing everything mentioned above, and I’m grateful that my body reminds me that I have all the tools to keep myself healthy and relatively pain free. I just have to keep at it!
If you have back pain, or other sorts of pain that keep you from doing the things you love, man do I feel you! I hope some of the things I mentioned can help you find some relief, or that they might lead you to research other forms of self healing. Real food, your mind, and your body are such powerful things, and we can accomplish SO much without medical intervention. I'm right there with you...let the journey continue!