You know what all the stretches and back pain relief exercises in the world can’t do for you? Change bad habits that are causing your back pain. I call this the “Pain Cycle”. It’s the little things you do every day without even thinking. Unfortunately, it’s these little, over looked habits that are keeping you in pain and could even be bringing your current relief program to a stand still. These things are done anywhere from the gym, to work and even at home. This is not one of those “You need to stretch more” posts. This is real life stuff that we all over look but NEED to address when it comes to beating our back pain. You can stretch, twist and decompress all you want but if you’re not doing what it takes to break the pain cycle your doctor will continue to prescribe that medication while you beat your head against the wall wondering when the pain will end. Today I am going to give you real life examples of pulling out these bad habits and doing what it takes to break them.
I’ll be honest guys, just like you I have to constantly be on guard against my own laziness and bad habits. I have to be very conscious about my posture and mechanics when I move. To this day I am still fighting bad habits that I know are having a direct impact on my lower back. We can toss around a bunch of different reasons why we allow ourselves to “sell out” to these not so ergonomically sound positions but at the end of the day it’s laziness and often times “more comfortable” to do them.
How I want you to consume this list.
This is NOT a check list for you to go over every day and make sure you have them all covered. A lot of these can be put in the same categories such as posture, nutrition or movement mechanics. What I want you to do is open your eyes to the common sense side of back pain. Put away your MRI results and whatever it was that your doctor told you. I talk about doing a whole life audit when it comes to your habits, this is exactly what I am talking about. I guarantee most people who are dealing with back pain and trying to get OFF the pain cycle do at least half of the things listed.
I hear all the time “I am a posture fanatic” “I’m super active” so those tips won’t help me. Unless you have been taught or you’re a human movement nerd and researcher like me then odds are you’re not doing as good as you think. There is no way. Maybe when you’re sitting for long periods of time your more conscious of what you’re doing but what about while you poop (Too much info?) ? Are you really in and out quick while maintaining good spinal stability? I know we are only talking about doing a number 2 here but if you can’t see how your 30 minute marathons on the toilet are affecting your spines ability to desensitize and heal then you have some catching up to do.
Hear me on this.
I am not claiming your proper pooping posture is going to heal your back pain. What I am saying is small things stacked onto each other and done often enough turn into big things.
Read through this list and pick 1 thing a week (at least) to completely stop and fix. Once you fix it never look back and give your body enough time to adapt and make it second nature. It may not be one thing that changes the game for you but once you start to see a new movement pattern and feeling the results it will be worth it.
Some of the links found within this post are affiliate links to products I personally trust and use.
1 – Walking Posture:
Most people walk like cowards. They shrug their shoulders. They look down and walk with more forward “falling” momentum then really owning their gait and keeping their head, neck. spine and hips stacked and aligned.
Consider this: When walking, drawl your shoulders back. Brace your core and look in front of you not down. Where your eyes are your body will usually follow. If your constantly looking at the ground your head, neck and shoulders will also. This forward leaning position plays a huge roll in how over active your lower back muscles are which could be causing you pain.
2 – Sitting Position:
I hate when people talk about sitting posture and back pain relief in the same sentence. In reality it’s the sitting that’s trashing your back. I prefer a standing desk and sitting when needed but if you must sit than follow these guidelines.
A) Have a few different choices for your base. Example: I switch between a stability ball, a stool and a regular old office chair. This gives my joints variety and keeps me out of the same static position.
B) Keep your head, neck and shoulders stacked upright at all times.
C) Move around more: While I sit, I take on different sitting positions (keep in mind sitting in a position that is a pain trigger should not be considered one of your “positions” you use). One position I use is on the edge of my seat (sitting on my tailbone) with my legs open as wide as I can (this locks my hips into a neutral position). You can sit crossed legged, sitting on one leg with the other turned out in front of you etc. It’s all about keeping from staying in a static position.
D) As soon as you start losing posture, change your sitting position. This will either force you to maintain a good head, neck and shoulder position or force you to constantly be shifting and moving around. This keeps muscles engaged and incorporates new muscles when you’re in a new position. This prevents over use on the same muscles group.
3 – Chronic Negative Movement :
I am going to touch on this through out this article but the only way to start reducing your irritation is to break the pain cycle. This is a big picture idea with tons of small practical nuggets.
Consider this: The easiest thing to change about your pain management program is to stop doing the repetitive things that cause the irritation in the first place. For some that’s flexion while others it’s extension. Figure out what your pain triggers are and minimize them and start doing them with impeccable form until the irritation is gone. Stop moving in ways that are causing pain. If it hurts to bend, push or twist that way then don’t do it!
4 – Too many Static Positions:
If you really think about it most of what we do when it comes to movement, posture and habits (whether good or bad) come from what we observe and learn. What’s normal at a cubical job is to use the chair they give you along with the desk and computer. Whats not normal is to have your own standing desk that gives you the freedom to move around. Most jobs will say no at first to this idea but if you dig a little deeper they really can’t deny you a comfortable work environment. Especially if what you’re looking to do will only boost health and productivity. You have to WAR AGAINST static habits. Sitting for 8 hours a day.Standing in one position for 8 hours a day.Watching TV for hours after work or commuting two hours every day without doing whats necessary to keep your body out of that pain cycle is a guaranteed ticket to the operating table.
5 – Looking too much with your head and neck:
Most Americans (like me) have to stair at the keys when they are pounding away at their desk. Your posture may start off great at 9am in the morning but by the time lunch time hits you’re all snapped up and don’t really have the endurance to maintain good head and neck position for the rest of the day.
Consider this: Whether driving, watching TV or at the computer. Make a conscious effort to look with your eyes FIRST. If you can’t successful do whatever it is your going after with just your eyes, than move the head but still try to maintain a straight and rigid neck. I know your probably thinking I am the weirdest looking dude ever. Think about it though. I exaggerate proper body position to break the cycle the people around me are in. Not caring about this stuff is what “others” do. One day they will find this site online and join in on the weirdness and hopefully get some relief. What feels weird now will feel normal once you create the habit.
6 – Brush Your Teeth Right:
You see, back pain is all in the tooth brush. Just kidding. It is all in the position though. I was talking to a member the other day how even brushing his teeth is painful (this guy just recently blew out his back twisting to hand someone a 100lb dumbbell). Before he messed it up his poor brushing form may not have bothered him at the moment but now that this area is injured his body has no problem telling him how bad it is to keep doing it the way he does it. When it comes to strengthening and conditioning basic body positions I follow the ones you can find in this book. Foundation
7 – You Stand Wrong:
How is that possible, I have been doing it since I was 2!? It’s actually pretty common to have poor standing posture. What your going to learn is whats called the “Reset”. Kelly Starrett talks about this vary thing in his book Deskbound.
Consider this: Start by pointing your toes directly in front of you about shoulder width apart. “Screw” your hips into the ground by creating torque from the hips (engaging your glutes). Without actually moving your feet, the idea is to twist the heels inward while your toes twist out. Make sure the tension is coming from the hips and not simply twisting the ankles. Bring your arms (palms up) straight out to your side and make a T. Drawl your shoulder blades back and down with your arms in this position and lock it in. Lower your arms back to your side. That’s how your body should be set while standing. Again, this is a part of your pain cycle. Correct small issues like this and the pain cycle becomes more and more dim. Which means more and more relief from your chronic pain! This WILL feel weird and you may actually get a little sore from doing this since you’re calling on new muscles to learn to stabilize.
8 – Toilet Time:
Believe me, I feel your pain sometimes even literally but we have to be conscious of how long we sit on the toilet.
Consider this: If you’re currently working through back pain. You will be on a limited schedule from here on out. Not only will you need to ensure your posture is solid but your time needs be limited to business only. No residual reading or Facebook scrolling. Don’t let your knees support the weight of your upper body. Sit tall with your head, neck and shoulders stacked. This will help to desensitize your lower back especially in the mornings.
9 – To Much of what you do is in front of you:
“Well duh, our bodies are designed to perform at it’s best going forward!” This is true but what we allow our bodies to do while we are in these situations is whats causing the pain. I said it before, your body will usually follow where your eyes take it. This goes for your head, neck, shoulders etc. Watching Tv, reading, computer work, desk work, cutting the grass, doing laundry, washing dishes etc. All require more attention out front. You can imagine how your body reacts from years and years to some of these chronic body positions. It adapts, which often turns into other muscles overcompensating for the ones that aren’t being used. This turns into imbalances, tightness and irritation in joints especially the lower back. We can’t stop the requirements of some working environments but we can be more aware of our body position while you’re doing activities. You can fold laundry, wash dishes and do yard work with spine sparing form. The more aware you are the further you get away from the cycle that is keeping you in pain.
10 – Shallow Breathing:
Breathe into your butt. It’s the only way I can describe it really. Sure, you can say take deep breaths but most people just take a deep breath into their chest. You say breathe into your belly and most people just stick their belly out while they inhale, not really filling it with air. Learning to breathe deep can have a massive impact on your sensitivity to pain. There are physiological and mental aspects to deep breathing that really work when treating back pain.
Consider this: I did a full write up on this with practical tips here.
11 – Hydration:
Water isn’t necessarily magical, it’s what the water does within the body that is magical. When it comes to drinking water the big word we are looking out for is dehydration. Now, I’m not saying that simply drinking water will cure your back pain but I will say this. If you find yourself drinking more coffee and soda during the day than anything else, consider yourself dehydrated. Your body doesn’t do anything with coffee or soda when it comes to hydrating the organs. So those 4 sodas and half a pot of Folgers doesn’t count for jack squat. Don’t over think it, just start drinking water.
Consider This If you don’t drink any water, shoot for about 14 ml / pound of body weight. SO for me, I am around 185 so my goal would be around 2,000-2,500 ml per day. Your discs are what need this hydration. As you sleep the discs fill with fluid while during the day normal movement and compression almost rings them out like a sponge. Don’t worry, your discs aren’t jerky by 5 pm but more liquids in the body promotes a healthy environment for your body to heal and deliver the nutrients it needs up and down your spine.
12 – Dress shoes or any shoes with a heel.
I’m a living testimony of wearing the right shoes. Any level of heel lift in a shoe is sending a ripple up the kinetic chain that is your body and pulling things out of whack. Even the heel support often found in super expensive, “high quality” running shoes are too much for some backs. I know for me personally any shoe that has a heel or the slightest bit of incline, will keep my back tense and feeling like im stuck in extension. This is why I prefer to be barefoot or wearing zero drop shoes like these Altra Provision 2.0. I personally own the blue and yellow pair. The flatter you are the better you can stack your head, neck and hips to ensure a pain free day!
Remember, these small factors may not affect someone who isn’t having back pain but if you have made it this far your probably dealing with some kind of pain. These small things matter to your recovery!
13 – Too Much Sitting
This is different from sitting posture. You sit to read and drink your coffee in the am. You sit while you drive to work. You sit while you’re at work. You drive home, sitting. You get home and sit down to eat dinner then finish the night off with some TV. This may not be your day to the T but it’s pretty close. I’m confident you do more sitting than anything else. For someone without back pain they can probably get away with it pain free but for you don’t even think about.
Consider this: You need to wage war on sitting in your life. 45 minutes, at one time is MAX in my book. I don’t care how active you are. Every 45 minutes get up and do a 2 minute hip flexor stretch (both sides) and a desk top pigeon stretch (or you can do them on the floor whatever is easiest while you’re at work).
14 – Not Addressing common issues
If you’re older than 3 you can expect to have some developing issues with posture, movement mechanics and/or compensations. It’s a fact of life. We are all well over 3 so you can imagine what issues we have developed over the years. What I don’t want this point to be is a claim that your body has to be perfect in order for it to be pain free. THAT’S NOT TRUE. Look at all the people with terrible form and posture who don’t complain of back pain.
Consider this: What I need you to focus on is the fact that you’re working through some specific irritation so you have to pay attention to different things compared to those who don’t have pain. If you sit all day odds are you have rounded shoulders and super tight hip flexors. This is an issue that needs to be corrected. Understand your causes of pain and wage war against what you CAN control such as muscle tension, stiffness, poor mobility etc. It’s your duty as a human being.
15 – Too Much Sugar, Dairy or Grains
As I write this, these three lovely categories have been the target in my weekly nutrition planning. Without getting into too much science you need to get on board with the whole “food intolerance” thing. No, not everyone who goes gluten free is actually allergic to gluten and to some it’s a fad but in all seriousness some types of food cause inflammation. Sugar, Dairy and Grains tend to be more inflammatory then others on the market so just choose wisely.
Consider this: Your goal with your back pain is to get OFF the pain train aka the pain cycle. The more and more you can desensitize the area and promote healthy blood flow and repair the better you’re going to feel. Am I saying give up doughnuts? Heck no, but what I am saying is be mindful with what you spend 80-90% of your time consuming. Start chipping away at each group and only keep the necessary. I would prefer you take sugar and dairy out as much as possible if not all and splurge with grains from time to time but that’s just me.
16 – Staying inflamed
Whether it’s poor movement, posture or your nutrition, you want to learn to recognize these inflammation drivers and attack as many of them as you can. Don’t just take another Tramadol. That’s going to keep you inflamed. Believe me I know how it feels to be in serious pain and all that matters is making it stop. Medication can be good at that. The end goal though is to come OFF the medication. Getting off the pain cycle is a great place to start when it comes to lowering the inflammation you have. Do your due diligence on this war against inflammation. Do not leave a single stone unturned. That means everything from your movement, daily habits to what you eat. It all has to be audited and replaced with sustainable health promoting habits.
17 – Too much rest
It’s great to lay down after a long day of numbing back pain. But where people go wrong is too much rest. I have gotten to the point where my “rest” is some kind of active recovery such as walking. Just laying around all weekend will only make the pain worse.
Consider this: Do what you can with movement. Even if it’s the slightest bit of movement at first that’s fine. If 2 minutes is all you can do than hit those 2 minutes a few times a day. Work your way up to more. Walking activates the surrounding muscles and gets them moving.
18 – Too Much twisting
Shearing issues are pretty common with back pain sufferers. A lot of back pain suffers will associate back pain with lower back tightness. Typically these people will constantly be on the floor trying to stretch their lower back to relieve the pain. I know this for me personally only brought temporary relief. Within 30 minutes I would have a dull ache in the area I stretched that I couldn’t shake. Days and days of this cycle and the pain would be so bad I would have to stop all extra activity for about a week until the inflammation went away.
Consider this: Understand your issue before you go taking your spine through movements that your specific injury can’t handle right now. The spine is made to bend and twist but when dealing with back pain the goal is to heal completely before taking it through these types of movements. Simply googling “stretches for lower back pain” can do more damage to your back than you can imagine. Your rehab program is NOT a one size fits all and should only include movements that keep you away from painful movements.
19 – Bad Bracing
There is such a thing as good and bad bracing when it comes to your core. This is another lesson I learned the hard way when I first started out with the McGill Big 3. The harder you squeeze when bracing the core is not necessarily better.
You brace according to the needs of what you’re doing.
Consider this: When I first started with these I would squeeze my core way to hard which actually made my back pain worse. What I learned was that you’re only squeezing enough to maintain the position you’re in, pain-free. That means lifting the basket of laundry should include a hip hinge and core bracing BUT the brace doesn’t need to be the same intensity as an Olympic dead lifter.
20 – Train for life not for muscle
If you’re currently working out with back pain you may want to consider a change in the way you’re training. Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger our default training style is to look like him. Also known as the bodybuilder style training. Unfortunately, this style of training does not train the body as a whole but rather in segments. The problem with this style of training is that the strength does not translate to real world situations. Your body isn’t being trained to use the muscle groups together as a system but rather separate parts.
Consider this: For those of you training with back pain cut back your program to focus more on movement essentials and using more muscles groups at once. My Favorite way of doing this is incorporating movements found in the book Foundation Training along with weighted exercises like farmers carries. There are probably 10 different variations of carries you can do but to keep things simple, pick up two moderately heavy dumbbells and walk around your home or gym with them while maintaining a neutral spine. This trains the body to work together with each individual muscle group involved.
21 – You’re Lazy
This site is for people who have not given up. The people who refuse to give into medication and surgery and believe with time and effort they can learn how to beat their chronic pain. You will fail on this site if you’re just a consumer. You have to be an action taker! A lot of work goes into this content but what makes it valuable are the results you get. When you take action and use what you read, that is when this site changes lives. If all you do is read this site than this is all for nothing. You have to do it! You have to take action. Even if it’s slow, you have to start with something and begin to work it every day. You don’t have to change your whole life at once but you can start making small changes daily that will get you closer to better understanding what’s keeping you on this pain cycle. Don’t sell yourself on excuses of why you don’t have time or why surgery is just an easier option.
22 – You suck at doing dishes
These next two are simply movement mechanics based. Simply put, doing the dishes is a sure fire way to keep your back in a rounded state long enough to cause some serious irritation that will last you quite a while. It’s too expensive to rebuild the entire sink to fit your new “dishing washing posture” nor will you be able to convince your significant other to take over the dishes full time so here is one way to deal with it.
Consider this: You make the process as “ergonomic” as possible. Just like brushing your teeth, the goal is to put the weight and attention in your hips not your lower back. One major key that I do is use the under sink cabinet for a place to put my foot while I stand. This helps keep my lower back from getting fixed in a sloppy extended position. It also helps with giving you relief while getting in and out different “dishwashing postures”. Bottom line, it saves your back and allows you to desensitize the area. Don’t forget to brace the core slightly when bending forward!
23 – You suck at taking the trash out
Another one of those common positions you can’t get away from that you’re probably doing wrong. Just like drinking from a water fountain, washing the dishes or brushing your teeth. Get your glutes involved. Hip hinge for pete’s sake! It only feels weird because you’re not used to doing it. If you had perfect posture your whole life guess what…it would feel weird to do something with sloppy posture. It’s the same difference.
Consider this: Think 1st, move 2nd. This is literally what you have to do when it comes to breaking old habits and making new ones. Think about your spine position. Hinge at the waist and squat if you have to get lower. Your back will thank you!
24 – You’re still not addressing your sleep
How you sleep is just as important as what you do when you’re awake when it comes to your back pain. Sleep is the only time you have to give your body a chance to shut off and heal. If you’re waking up in pain or tossing and turning at night than odds are you need to address a few things to maximize this time. I cover all of this in the article below.
25 – Your flat out trashing your body.
I found a really helpful post that fits perfectly with the theme of this article. You can check it out here
It even comes with a sweet infographic you can post as a reminder!
There is no other way of saying it. If you’re not actively trying to take care of your body your back pain will never go away. I see so many people who are either severely overweight, smoking, drinking excessively and/or just flat out not active complaining about back pain. I wish it were as easy as applying a few stretches and exercises to your day but it’s way more than that. These are the easiest things to target believe it or not. You have to be willing to turn over every stone when it comes to getting relief. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. It just doesn’t work like that.
So that’s it. I know I left out a lot of obvious ones but I wanted to keep the list limited to the things we overlook when it comes to causes of pain.
These are basic activities, movements or postures we do every day that are keeping us on this pain cycle. Decisions we make from the moment we wake up to the minute we fall asleep affect how our day will go or how productive our sleep will be. You have to always be on your game. Stretches are great if you need them. Exercise is great if it’s helping bring things together and strengthen the areas that are weak but if you only practicing good form or good posture in the gym or for a small fraction of the day, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend on the foam roller or in an Epsom salt bath. Relief will be minimal.
Until I’m blue in the face I will encourage you to audit your entire life. Every movement you make needs to be calculated and targeted strictly to desensitize your lower back. Without this attention to detail the bigger things won’t work. You will continue to ride this pain train around and around until your medicine cabinet is full and your surgeon personally knows you by name.
To your relentless pursuit of drug free pain management,