Lower back pain is a complete bitch.
Back pain is a common or chronic occurrence for all Americans, especially for us women. It was the leading cause of disability in the U.S. in 2014 and negatively affects the work lives of nearly half of all employed Americans every year.
I have an injury that causes lower back pain. Oh, poor you! Lower back pain at 25? Yeah, boo hoo — everyone has problems. I just have to fight a little harder every day to keep my back healthy and strong. That’s a lifelong challenge everyone should have anyway. I was just forced by my body into taking care of my body. Reasonable, I think.
What was less than reasonable, was not going to the doctor the first week that my injury occurred. Really bad decision.
Five years ago, at the peach ripe age of twenty years old, I went to a machine stocked gym for the first time with my friend Ri. I have always been a slim, fairly bony ectomorph. I’d never really worked out before and was excited to do it with her, so when she began doing squats with 7lb weights my naturally competitive nature followed suit.
So there we were, doing squats in the middle of this monochrome athletic agility park, like the inside of a building from The Giver, sweat and spandex sticking to our skin. We finished, panting and smiling. I felt normal. I went home. Twenty four hours later, I did not feel normal.
I began getting muscle spasms in my lower back so badly that I could barely stand up straight or walk. I mean, bad. It was like somebody was stabbing me in the lower back with a very thin knife. I was given extra strength Advil and bedridden, terrified that the slightest movement would send another jolt of pain ripping along my spine.
If you’ve experienced this type of mechanical pain in your lower back, you can probably feel my pain through the screen. My body was defending itself, saying Whoa dude! Don’t move like that. The muscle is already injured you’ll make it worse. In this case, “don’t move like that” was leaning two inches in any direction, standing to sitting or vice versa, or leaning down to grab the shower head when I dropped it in the bathtub.
I’d really done it. I was always a tough kid, fighting through all sorts of medical issues to go to school every day and win Most Improved trophies for things like dance and cross country… but you can’t fight your back. You can’t. If you think you can, you’re wrong.
Twenty year old me was an invalid for a week, while my parents graciously brought me meals, helped me navigate the stairs and emailed my community college professors with late requests (I hadn’t moved out yet so I was doing my Associate’s in Computer Science from home).
After a nerve wracking and grueling week, my back healed from the trauma and I began to walk normally again. Then, I made one of the worst decisions of my young life: I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t go. Why didn’t I go? My mom has scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine) and said I didn’t have to go because she was experienced with back rehabilitation. You’ll be fine honey, I can help you get over this.
To this day, I don’t know if my mom genuinely believed that she was a licensed chiropractor via sheer experience, or if it was the medical bills. I never asked.
I had a wildly wonderful summer. I finished community college and moved out into internship housing while I worked as a software engineer intern on criminally significant DNA. I made tons of friends and fell like a 17 year old stone for a young man in physics who is now my ex-boyfriend and caused a spiral of toxic relationship patterns. But damn, was he fun.
He got me into both indoor and outdoor rock climbing. I immediately became addicted to climbing, the mental challenge it required and the physical strength it rewarded me. And, for a girl, with a history of medical issues and so little physical strength for so long… plus a back injury that spring, I fell in love with feeling strong. Feeling invincible. Nobody could touch me when I was on that wall.
Even writing about it now, I realize I underestimated the extent to which I went entirely mad for the sport. Rock climbing is a sport of individuality, a series of personal projects that, fueled by the addictive rush of adrenaline and endorphins, keeps you obsessively working on and experimenting with ways to complete routes.
My friends and ex-boyfriend and I went to the indoor gym 2–3 times a week and on a barrage of outdoor climbing trips. Hanging out the window on the highway, laughing while hanging off a small cliff —those are the times I think of when Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer comes on the radio, or when I first heard Guys from the 1975’s new album. Man, they were the golden times // they were the best of my life.
I had no back problems the whole summer, so I thought my mom was right and she was the expert on rehabilitation. I was fixed! I strolled into my first semester at university in fall 2015, tanned, freckled, an indestructible force of nature. And that’s when things went really wrong.
I began experiencing what I call now “injury relapses.” I was innocently sitting at my desk in my off-campus house one day, scribbling math homework on lined paper, when I felt a jolt of pain seize my lower back like a lightning bolt. I stopped, breathing a little heavy. It happened again over the next few hours, and I went to lay down.
Are the spasms back? I thought, frantically. I thought I was fixed. I spent a few days on my heating pad, moving a bit slower, stretching daily... then the muscle healed again. No more pain. I was bewildered.
I was still rock climbing a few times a week during college, but the injury relapses began happening about once a month so I eased off from going to the gym. When a relapse came around, I accepted it, waited for my back to heal, and then went straight back to rock climbing.
Now, if you know any climbers, you know we’re stubborn and have a horrible habit of climbing through pain and injury. I was no exception. I thought my body was just weak and needed time to adjust to the physical strenuousness of harder routes. I’ll get there.
I particularly admired a quiet, Asian boulderer I knew named Sam who warmed up on V3s. She had recently returned from a back injury, and was slowly reacclimating to climbing. If she can do it, so can I I thought.
Things got worse and worse. I tried to climb and do strength training between relapses, but they weren’t decreasing in frequency or intensity.
Then, on Christmas morning of 2015, I collapsed.
My mom gasped and ran to me. Honey, what’s wrong?! My family, blearly-eyed and present ready, crowded around as I lay on the floor of my festive looking family room. Just give me a minute. I can’t move. I said, trying to smile and appear brave. My back had seized up and felt like a sheet of metal, unwilling to stretch or allow me to sit up.
I’m fine, I’m fine. I wasn’t fine. My family helped me get up and walk to the couch to lay down. I opened my presents on the couch. My brother and little sister kept glancing at me searchingly, obviously not knowing that things had gotten this bad. I still avoided going to a doctor.
Instead, I spent the next eight months ignoring the severity of my back injury and going to school and climbing like things were just peachy. Then, in August 2016, a year and four months after my injury had initially occurred, I had another relapse and called up my mom on the phone. I need a chiropractor. Now.
My chiropractor from American Spine, a gently speaking, soft looking black-haired man with glasses, quietly observed my inability to lean past a 45 degree angle and immediately wrote me a prescription for high strength painkillers and a physical therapist. At least, thank god, he didn’t say things like “Jesus you’re too young for this.” I already felt like a complete idiot.
Physical therapy is life changing but hard ass, grueling work. It’s not easy, and will only help you long term unless you have the motivation to get better. If you don’t, we can’t help you. That’s what my therapist — a light skinned, freckled athletic lady with acorn colored hair — told me on the first day. She began working with my back and I peppered her with more questions than she had freckles.
To my shock, she discovered…
- Two lumbar discs were crushed from the impact of xc running
- The muscle on the right of my lumbar spine was contracted and prone to injury due to a 2mm difference in leg length
- Nerves in my lower back were not firing correctly
Basically, the muscle in the lumbar section on the right side of my spine is genetically injury prone. If those gym squats in 2015 were going to injure any part of my body, it was going to be there. Jesus lord, I winced mentally. I was born with a sports injury waiting to happen.
Over those months of rock climbing, my body overcompensated for one side being weak. My right side got stronger, and my left side got weaker which caused a muscle imbalance, blocked nerve firings, and threw everything out of whack. I’m also a software engineer and coding for 8 hours a day shortened my hip bands, adding even more stress.
No wonder I was relapsing every month! My back muscles were constantly stressed and off kilter, like a tipped see-saw.
The whole office practically tinkered with me like a mouse in a lab experiment for an hour about the leg length thing, which was perplexing and oddly made me feel special. Hey look, my body’s the weirdest. I went home with a heel lift and laundry list of therapy exercises, and three months later felt better than I ever had in my whole twenty years of life.
Four years later. I had an injury relapse this past Wednesday for the first time in two years. Two years is a victory! I just mixed freezing weather, eight hour work days, and 1 minute pre-warmup planks… that was this year’s recipe for debilitating pain. I’m obviously still learning.
If you have lower back pain, I relate to you. I feel your pain, and I understand how terrifying or frustrating it must be. I learned a lot of lessons through having an injury, and am now equipped with home remedies for when my injury flares up.
My #1 lesson learned is go to the doctor. Go to the doctor. Go to the doctor. Do it first, immediately, the minute you have abnormal back pain for more than a few days. A professional’s advice is critical to understanding why you are in pain, and how to treat the source of that pain, not pacify the symptoms until it becomes a lifelong condition.
Lower back pain is also not a cookie cutter issue. There are different types of back pain and causes for that pain, both anatomical and mechanically based. Common causes range from muscle tears and sports injuries, to disc dysfunction or irritated spinal nerves. My problem was both, a muscular issue caused by a structural fallacy.
If you suffer from lower back pain due to a muscular injury, here’s some home remedies and tips that I use during relapses to get me back on my feet, happy, and buzzing within 3–4 days
- Take a short rest period — rest in a horizontal position or sleep to facilitate the natural healing process. Don’t rest for more than a few days because that will cause undue tension.
- Alternate heat and ice — spine-health.com recommends heat/ice therapy, but I say use both. A heating pad or hot shower will warm the muscles while improving blood flow needed for internal healing, and the ice will reduce inflammation.
- Painkillers — advil or acetominophen usually work for me. I also have prescription muscle relaxants which you can request from a professional, if you need it. If you’re female, orgasms also work wonders.
- 20 minute walks — structured, low impact activity multiple times a day is the hardest part of rehab. It takes discipline, but movement is critical for healing. Take a short walk every 3–4 hours.
- Stretching exercises — spine-health gives some good exercises to stretch your back muscles. Go very easy.
- Orgasms — if you’re a woman, having an orgasm is a powerful pain reliever and research shows it can even double your pain tolerance, providing relief from both emotional and muscular pain.
- Overlooked remedies — breathing exercises, meditation, and hamstring stretches have all worked for me as well.
- Stop your life for back rehab. I mean it. You only have one spine and if you damage it beyond surgical repair, you’re fucked. Your cancelled plans and friends will still be there when the pain has subsided and you can function without the fear of reinjury.
- Be patient with yourself and with your body. Healing takes time, and if you rush rehabilitation or stretch too far, you may risk damaging yourself even more. Don’t force it!
- You’re not done when you’re done. Back injuries have a delay period that accompanies the healing process, whether it’s muscle reconstruction from working out or trauma recovery. When you think it’s all healed, do not resume athletic activity. Add a day or two for that delay period, and if you still feel ok, then you’re good to go.
- Breathe. Lower back pain is very frustrating, like punch a hole in the wall with your face frustrating. Just breathe, and imagine that breath filling the space where you feel pain. Like a kettle full of steam. And relax.
Lower back pain is one of the most frustrating things you can face. If you have a muscular injury or are living with chronic back pain, you’re not alone. I can’t express enough how strong you are.
If I could grab my twenty year old self by the shoulders, I’d tell her to lose her monster of an ego and seek help from a medical professional. Above all, have patience. Patience is not weakness. “Patience is not passive, on the contrary, it is concentrated strength.” — Bruce Lee