Do you suffer from back pain?
Years ago I suffered from horrible back pain. At times I couldn’t even travel without being laid up in bed the next day. If that wasn’t enough, I also had excruciating sciatica. Fun stuff. The pain from these was so bad that I came to this realization: If I wanted my future ministry to involve travel, I needed to eliminate back pain.
I was only 30 at the time and wanted to do whatever I could to stay healthy enough to minister for the long haul. However, I wasn’t on track to make that happen. To reach this goal, something needed to change.
This blog covers 14 years of self-experimenting. Over the years I have shared this info with many people who have found it helpful. I hope it will help you to live the life you desire and accomplish all God lays on your heart. Like me, many of you may live or travel to locations where you don’t always have access to a chiropractor or other help. This blog will teach you to treat yourself.
These are things you can do anywhere, anytime.
Even if you do have access to a chiropractor or other help, learning to treat yourself will enable you to travel and not be restricted by back pain.
Don’t let back pain control your life.
I share my story because it highlights something foundational to overcoming back pain.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or chiropractor, nor do I play one on TV. This blog post is a list of resources, learning, and self-experiments that have helped me. I hope it helps you as well.
I was highly motivated to eliminate pain because I had a strong reason. I had a “why”.
Many people say they want to eliminate back pain, but they won’t do what is necessary. They wont make the changes and they won't put in the effort. I’m not saying they enjoy pain, but they want someone else to fix them. They play the helpless victim card their entire life and seek sympathy instead of results.
Please don’t be one of those people.
If you are reading this blog, you are probably one of the millions that suffer from back pain or have a loved one who does. Back pain can be caused by a variety of different reasons, but the end results can be debilitating.
There are some structural problems that we are stuck with. I cracked my tailbone twice while rollerblading in highschool (I used to be a little crazy with jumps), so this probably made me more predisposed to problems as a result. I can either make excuses and seek sympathy or I can make effort and seek results.
You may have your own struggles, but you also have the same choice.
Before diving into the tips below, identify what motivates you to eliminate your back pain.
Why do you want it? What do you want to be able to do as a result of overcoming or eliminating back pain?
If you want to seek results, keep reading.
I encourage people to do what I do:
I am constantly self-experimenting to see what works. Some of it helps, some of it doesn’t. But I am constantly learning and improving.
It probably isn’t ONE thing that causes your back pain, so you probably won’t find ONE thing that will eliminate it. Most people look for the quick and easy fix, the silver bullet to take care of their pain once and for all. It doesn’t exist. If you want your back pain to go away it is going to take experimentation and changing the way you do things.
Is it worth it? Absolutely!
The things I share in below have transformed my life. They have enabled me to have the ministry I do, to travel the world, and eliminate pain.
Some of it will help, some of it won’t make a noticeable difference. Find what works for you because every body is different.
Imagine your back is like a cup. Stress is like water coming from a tap into the cup. When the cup gets too full, it overflows. The overflow is back pain.
We will refer to the cup as your “stress cup”.
3 ways to keep your stress cup from overflowing into pain:
1. Turn off the tap: By turning off the flow of water (stress), the cup won’t keep overflowing.
2. Scoop out some water: By reducing the water (stress) already in the cup, it stops it from overflowing.
3. Build a bigger cup: By building a bigger stress cup, stressors that used to overflow our stress cup now don’t. We can handle more stress without overflowing into pain.
For optimal back health, and eliminating pain, we need to address each of these three issues.
Most people ONLY focus on step 2, scooping out some water by trying to remove stressors that are already in their back and body. This is why they never succeed.
Consider this: If your bath tub was overflowing, would you spend all your effort scooping out the water and carrying buckets outside? No way! You would figure out how to turn off the water.
Otherwise, you are fighting a losing battle. Scooping out the water is helpful, but it is only one part of eliminating back pain.
As you go through the list, don’t get overwhelmed. Pick one thing from each of the 3 areas you want to try (3 things in total). Start there. Experiment with yourself. It’s worth it!
The tips and resources grouped under the most relevant category.
1. Turn off the tap
Stress can be caused by any number of things, but the outcome is the same: pain.
If you can turn off the flow of water (stress) into your cup, it won’t keep filling up with stress and pain. You need to figure out what is causing the stress and tightness in your back. Where is the water (stress) coming from?
Mental & Emotional Stress:
When I am carrying a load that is meant for God and not for me, my stress manifests itself in back problems. My muscles get tense and tight. So when I have back problems, it is often an indication of a faith problem or a pride problem. Faith problems are when I don’t turn to God when He is right there waiting to help. Pride problems are when I think I am far more important than I am so I try to carry more than I should. Or, I am just in too much of a hurry and I place that tension in my back.
I need to take time for rest and replenishment.
I need to be still in my body. I am constantly self-experimenting to find what helps my body handle stress. Sometimes, I may have mentally overcome some stressful problems, but my body may still be distressed…or depressed. Figuring out what replenishes and energizes me physically helps me to prioritize key activities in my schedule. (Daily devotions, regular exercise, stretching, enough sleep, eating healthy, regular vacations, sabbath rest, internet/email breaks, fun activities, watching comedies, reading, solitude, enjoying nature, etc.)
I minister in body and soul. If my body burns out, I have nothing left to give. If I take time for regular replenishment, I will endure longer.
When I won’t slow down for rest and replenishment, it is often an indication of pride. Pride makes me think that my part of the work is so valuable that ministry would cease if I were to rest. But God doesn’t need me to accomplish His work. That is why God commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath, He wanted them to trust His work, not their work. We may be carrying burdens that aren’t meant to be carried alone. Our Father wants to help. Many times I think I am “casting all (my) anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7), but I tend to try to carry too much.
The book “Healing Back Pain” by Dr. John Sarno was extremely helpful for me to see how we can take mental and emotional stress and put it into our body. The key takeaway for me from that book was this (in my own words): If my brain put it in, my brain can take it out. So many times we don’t slow down enough to let go of the tension we are holding onto. We may have mentally or emotionally gotten past something, but have we allowed our body to release it?
I realized that much (if not most) of my back pain was a direct result of bottled-up emotions or mental stress. This caused muscular tightness, which resulted in back pain.
Once I began taking time to properly relax and release tension, my back problems greatly diminished. Once or twice a day, close your eyes and simply take a few minutes to sequentially relax your body, starting at your neck and working through each body part. Notice where you are tight and take the time to release the tension. I am not suggesting the practice of emptying your mind, but rather focusing your mind on relaxing the body.
The other part of this is noticing what causes emotional and mental stress (when you tense up, clench your jaw, etc.). Once you notice them, ask yourself: “What’s behind that emotion?” (Keith Webb).
Understanding WHY we are feeling a negative emotion is the first step to overcoming it. Many times we will discover that at the root of our fear or anger is an incorrect belief or value. Until we shine a spotlight on it, it will continue its secret rule over us. Once we know the root, we can replace the incorrect belief or value with truth from God’s Word.
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Causes include 1. Poor posture 2. Overworked muscles 3. Improper breathing technique 4. Inflammatory foods 5. Too much food 6. Lack of forgiveness
Chapter 1 from “8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back” on sitting has dramatically reduced my back pain.
Much of my back pain was caused by poor posture when sitting. When I sat incorrectly it forced my muscles to support my spine rather than allowing the spine to support itself. This results in the muscles getting overworked and eventually going into a muscle spasm. If you can sit with your spine properly stacked without needing to use your abs or back to hold it in place, this allows your muscles to not become overly fatigued.
A short video explaining stretch sitting:
There are also some chapters in “8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back” on how to lay in a way that reduces tension on your spine.
I have also found it very helpful to have my computer raised to head height using something to set my computer on. To do so, use an external mouse and keyboard. This keeps my spine in alignment because I am not bending my neck and hunching my shoulders forward. (I also use a cushion in my office chair that takes pressure off the tailbone. (similar to this)
On the subject of desks, you can also switch between standing and sitting to get more movement in your spine. Schedule regular stretch breaks if you sit for long periods.
I often find that a key cause of my poor posture is being in a hurry. I need to slow down! If I am in a hurry, I lean forward when I walk or sit, causing extra tension in the back. Slow down for better posture. Don’t always be in a hurry!
Somewhat related to this is if your belt is too tight, it can bother your lower back. I have found it helpful to use a belt that has some stretch to it.
Sometimes, I exercise too hard or do a work project that causes my muscles to be overly tight. This is just part of life, but massage (covered below) can help with this. Being careful with our posture when working is essential. Also, when working out, if you have to lose your form to get an extra rep, stop! The rep isn’t worth it. If you feel you must do more reps, do negatives instead. It is easier to maintain form on a negative than on the positive side of a repetition.
Improper breathing technique:
Use Deep Belly Breathing. By learning to breathe more through my belly instead of using my shoulder muscles, my neck muscles and trapezius are far more relaxed. When you breathe through your belly, it causes a small flex in your spine as you force air downward instead of allowing your shoulders to rise. This may seem inconsequential, but it can have profound effects. Another factor involved in this is your stress and cortisol levels. When you breathe through your belly, it signals to your body you are in a relaxed state and it decreases cortisol levels. When you breathe using your shoulders, it results in higher cortisol levels. More stress = more tightness.
I also use focused deep breathing to systematically relax from head to toe. Breathe in through your belly, when you exhale, blow out the tension. This helps muscles to stay relaxed and pain to stay away. In conjunction with this, I use some other breathing exercises and cold therapy that have been helpful for other health components. The breathing method is the Wim Hof Method. (See "The Way of The Iceman" summary)
The book “It Starts With Food” discusses how certain foods create systemic, low-grade inflammation in our bodies. When this happens, the body is constantly working to reduce the inflammation (using lots of our available energy). Because so much of our energy goes into removing this low-grade inflammation, it reduces the available energy to heal injuries or other problems as quickly.
Removing inflammatory foods reduces stress on our body and allows our body to focus on healing itself. Some of the key foods that cause inflammation are sugar, preservatives, wheat, legumes/beans, alcohol, and dairy ( some people also struggle with too much red meat).
The last nagging injury that I had for 6 months healed in only 2 weeks after I cut out inflammatory foods.
Fasting for half a day or a full day here and there is also helpful to give the body a rest. When the body is digesting food it is not able to repair very well. Fasting gives the body a chance to repair itself and heal. It is also a great way to keep weight off when traveling. Just skip breakfast and lunch if necessary. If we are carrying around extra weight, it puts extra stress on our backs.
I don’t typically eat breakfast so I can have a longer fasting period each day for my body to focus on recovery.
Good books to start with are EAT Stop EAT or The Warrior Diet
A poor mattress can have huge affects on your back. We have found that a high density foam mattress, with a 2 inch memory foam topper works very well for us.
Here is the great part. Even if you live in a country that doesn't have good mattresses, if you are traveling from the USA or a country where you can get one, just keep the mattress in the box and bring it as luggage. They come shrink wrapped, so you can just use the box as a checked bag or you can put it in a duffle bag. One missionary even brought a Sleep Number mattress in two duffle bags. Each passenger can bring up to about 10 bags per person (for an additional price per bag). Bags brought in this way don't wait months on a shipping container or have to go through customs. If you are moving overseas, it is nice to hit the ground and have a nice mattress. NOTE: If you are bringing more than 3 or 4 bags per person, just call the airline to confirm they have space on your flight.
If there is someone that we have not forgiven of some wrong or some perceived wrong, it does us more harm than them. If we fail to forgive, we carry that burden with us and it can cause tight muscles and many other minor or major physical illnesses/problems.
Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Is there anything that you are angry at God for or something that He has allowed to happen that you need to accept His will?
2. Scoop out some water:
If you reduce the water (stress) already in the cup, you will keep it from overflowing and bring it down to a manageable level. Many things can reduce stress and tension in your back.
Deep Tissue Massage & Acupressure with Arnica Oil:
Most of my pain was caused by tight muscles. This resulted in muscle spasms that would not release. I also ended up with sciatica for a time. (NOTE: If stretches and massage help reduce your back pain, it is probably a muscular problem, not a structural problem.)
Initially, I went to a Chiropractor in South Africa who did deep tissue massage with Arnica which worked wonders. We found immense help from chiropractors in South Africa because they first worked on the muscles. If the muscles remain tight, after a chiropractor adjusts you, the tight muscles continue to pull on everything and the pain will return. I found that often the muscles in my back were extremely tight because of tight muscles in my waist, hip, hamstrings, glutes, or calves. Since I wasn’t too keen on having the chiropractor massage those, I just did it myself. When my back was very bad, I did deep tissue massage/acupressure for myself 3 times a day for a few days. Starting with my neck, then my back, waistline (waistline, hips, and hamstrings were often my worst muscles), hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, calves, ankles, and the bottoms of my feet. When you find a tight spot, press and hold until some of the tension is released (see the Acupressure and Reflexology book mentioned below).
By doing this, I would get everything loosened up so that a tight muscle in my leg or waistline wouldn’t cause tension in my back.
Obviously, when doing deep tissue massage, you have to learn to push through the pain. When you find a tight spot, hold for 30 seconds until some of the tension releases.
The Arnica massage oil helps tremendously in conjunction with the massage/acupressure. It acts to loosen the muscles.
If you feel it would be helpful to go to the massage therapist, go for it. If they only work on your back, you can supplement by making sure your legs get loosened up. Tight hamstrings, claves, and the muscles surrounding nerve endings around the waistline are often the worst offenders.
I recently discovered massage balls (or you can use a lacrosse ball). These things work wonders. I have one that is lightweight to travel with. Start with the ball against the wall and use it to work out any tight spots. Then, move to the floor if necessary. These things will hurt like a deep tissue massage, but they keep your thumbs from getting worn out, and they can reach hard-to-reach spots on your back. They are a little harder than tennis balls, so they work better. My rule of thumb is, if there's a knot and it hurts, push hard and hold for 30 seconds. Short-term pain can eliminate long-term pain.
This is the massage ball I use.
You can also sit on the floor and use a foam roller on your back, hamstrings, T-band (side of legs), and calves. Remember, if your legs are tight, you will continue to have back pain because the tight muscles in your legs will cause your back to tighten back up and the pain will return.
When I am traveling, I just use my metal water bottle in the place of a foam roller.
I also press and hold for 30-60 seconds the acupressure points on the bottom of my feet and the fleshy part of my hand in between my thumb and pointer finger. If it hurts, push it and hold till it relaxes or you can’t take it anymore.
For other locations, you can check out the book Acupressure & Reflexology For Dummies.
I had never heard about this until we moved to South Africa. It uses the same kind of needles as acupuncture...but only a couple of them.
Acupuncture works with nerve pathways. Dry needling works with the muscle. When muscles are continually tight due to a muscle spasm, dry needling is used to create a small injury. They put one needle into the part of the muscle that is stuck in a spasm (aka. the areas of your back that feel like you have an embedded golf ball). The body responds by flooding the area with blood and nutrients which allows the muscle spasm to release. It will be sore the next day, but it will get better the next day or two. Worth it!
I used dry needling when I just couldn't get rid of a few muscle spasms and it helped to re-set everything. I hate needles...so it was a last resort, but it worked. My wife also had dry needling done to help fix her back/shoulder problem.
I know some states don't have it. This isn’t because it is dangerous, but because it is newer in the USA and it is more difficult to get a license for it.
If you suffer from sciatica, it is often caused by the inflammation of your piriformis muscle (deep under your gluteus muscles). This muscle is on top of the sciatic nerve. When it is inflamed it can cause terrible pain that radiates down your leg. I first suffered from this when sitting for long hours.
Aside from the other tips already mentioned, doing some stretches that focus on the area causing the pain was very helpful to me.
Here are 2 helpful stretches:
1. When stretching at work, you can sit up straight in your chair and cross one leg over the other so that the ankle rests on the opposite knee. Lean forward while keeping your back straight.
2. When at home, lay on your back with your knees bent. Cross one leg over the other opposite knee and pull your knee towards the opposite shoulder. You only need to do it slightly to feel it. It should not be painful, but you should feel a stretch in your buttock/hip area. Hold this stretch for 15-30 seconds and repeat 2-3 times. Watch below.
If you suffer from upper back tightness, here is a stretch that a Chiropractor gave my wife for the Trapezius muscle. 1. Link both hands behind your head, 2. Pull your elbows close together, 3. Slowly use your arms to pull your chin towards your chest. This works best while standing. You will feel the stretch in the center of your back at the base of the trapezius muscle.
Joint Mobility Exercises:
These only take a few minutes but work wonders. They are not muscular exercises, they are range of motion exercises. By opening and closing each joint it allows the synovial fluid to “grease” your joints. These are great to do first thing in the morning, before exercise, or after/during driving or flying. I typically do 10-20 reps of each.
Here is a YouTube video that shows you how:
Go for a Walk:
Getting out for a walk helps relax your muscles and get things moving. A 10-15 minute walk each day can be very beneficial to removing back pain.
3. Build a bigger cup
To build a bigger stress cup, we need to exercise our core muscles. This helps them grow stronger. When they are stronger we can handle more stress without overflowing into pain.
This is the most overlooked area, but I believe is more important than #2.
NOTE: Stronger does NOT equal bigger. So don’t worry about your waistline. If you follow the pattern below, it will build dense, lean muscle, but not bulky abs. If you want those, you are going to have to do a lot more repetitions than the one set used below.
Back and Abs Exercise:
Whenever I get lazy and don’t do my core exercises for my abs and back, I usually start having back pain soon afterward.
Lest you think you don’t have time… for these core exercises I spend 1 minute a day, 6 days a week. Yup, 6 minutes a week. Think you can fit that into your schedule? Consistency is key. One set for abs. One set for back. No equipment. I don’t even push hard enough to break a sweat.
I started exercising when I was 13, but did mostly weight lifting. When I started having back problems, I realized that I didn’t have functional strength.
Someone shared with me the book Convict Conditioning book with progressive calisthenics that has changed my life. I can do it anywhere in the world. It allows my body to work together well as a unit. The two exercises I do each day are leg raises for abs and back bridges. These have been especially helpful for back health.
I just pick the level of exercise that I can do for about 6-10 reps and do one set at 80% of my capacity. (If you could do 10 reps at an all-out, maximum effort, only do 8).
I also use the rest of the exercises in the Convict Conditioning later in the day a few times a week, but that is my normal workout. For the abs and back, I do them first thing in the morning and they take less than 1 minute each day.
The great thing about the ab and back exercises in this book are that they are also active stretches. While you are working your abs, it is stretching your back. While you work your back, it stretches your abs.
What about the bad days?
These tips will help, but sometimes it can take a while for the pain to leave. What then? If something is truly structurally wrong with your back, you may always have some pain. What then? (Note: by strengthening your back, you can often overcome the pain, even if you have structural problems!)
Keep relying on God’s strength to get you through. He will enable you to do what He calls you to do. You may struggle off and on with pain. Keep working on it, but keep relying on God.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Our weakness reminds us that He is strong and will get us through!
If you are experiencing back pain, I feel for you.
I understand the struggle.
I truly hope this helps you both find relief and be able to minister for the long haul!