We've all experienced back pain. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, twinges when you walk and makes sitting a pain in the rear. There are many reasons a healthy person might experience back pain, and as a massage therapist, I think I've seen them all: too much exercise, too little exercise, overexertion, falling, pregnancy, a deformation in the spinečjust to name a few. Try any or all of these easy non-surgical methods to gain relief.
Drink more water. The more pure water you drink, the quicker toxic metabolic wastes leave your bloodstream, reducing muscle aches. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day (coffee, tea and soft drinks don't count).
Eat more fresh fruit. Potassium, found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, has long been known to help prevent or lessen muscle cramps. Remember this credo of pro athletes: "A banana a day keeps the cramps away!" Other potassium-filled fruits and vegetables include blueberries, apricots, beets, broccoli, asparagus, grapefruit and eggplant, to name a few.
Get a postural and gait analysis. Ask a nationally certified massage therapist to perform a simple 30-minute analysis of your posture, body symmetry (whether both sides of your body are the same size) and walking pattern. He or she will ask you questions about your sleep habits, whether or not you have various medical conditions and measure some bony landmarks. Knowing, for example, that you walk with your feet turned out could explain why your lower back is sore.
Exercise safely. One of the most common causes of back pain is overexertion. In the fervor to keep a New Year's resolution to lose weight or work out, we tend to overdo it, as if three hours on the treadmill can undo a whole year's worth of sitting in front of the TV. Remember the basics when exercising: Stretch gently and warm up before exercise; work out to just past your tolerance (but don't push it); then stretch gently and cool down after exercise. Get help and tips from those nice people who work at your gym.
Bathe! Fill the tub with water as hot as you can stand it. Pour in a cup of Epsom salts (found in any drugstore) and/or about 1/4 bottle of wintergreen rubbing alcohol. Soak completely for 10 minutes or until the water begins to cool.
Exercise the lower back. Lie on your back on a firm surface (such as a carpeted floor). Keeping the left leg straight and flat—you can have someone hold the ankle or hook it under the sofa, if necessary—bring the right knee as close as possible to your chest and hold for a count of 10 (feel the stretch in the buttocks). Release and lower your leg. Repeat, this time bringing the left leg up. Complete three repetitions on each side; finish with three repetitions bringing both legs up the chest.
Apply pressure. Place a tennis ball or other "tool" (see sidebar) under your back directly over the sore spot. Lie on the ball, pressing until you reach a 6 or 7 on a perceived pain scale of 1-10 (1 = no pain, 10 = excruciating pain). Hold for 30-45 seconds or until the muscle begins to throb. Gently ease off the ball.
Alternate heat and cold. Muscle pain is often caused by a lack of blood flow to the tissues. Manually force the blood through tight muscles by alternating a heating pad (10 minutes) with a wrapped ice pack (5 minutes).
Get a relaxing back massage. Ask for and select a nationally certified massage therapist to unwind, unknot and soothe aching back muscles. There are several helpful types of massage depending on where the pain is. Choose a technique you feel comfortable with.
The ideas and therapies in this article are not a substitute for good medical care. If the pain persists, gets worse or interferes with your regular life, see a qualified medical doctor to ensure there is no medical reason for your back pain.
Types of Massage for an Aching Back
Ask your massage therapist about any of the following modalities:
• Swedish is a relaxing massage using oils or lotions to deliver rolling, kneading and percussion (tapping) strokes to help improve circulation. Benefits of Swedish include: relief from aches and pains, decreased stress, enhanced mental clarity, improved appearance, greater flexibility.
• Deep tissue massage is a form of bodywork that aims to relieve tension in the deeper layers of tissue. It releases chronic stress areas due to misalignment, repetitive motions and lingering injuries. Soreness is pretty common after a deep tissue treatment; you should drink plenty of water to aid in flushing and removing toxins released during the session. Benefits of deep tissue include deep muscle healing.
• Myofascial release (MFR) is a technique using sustained pressure on "restrictions" to eliminate pain and restore motion. Fascia, the web of tissue permeating the entire inside of the body, maintains structural integrity, provides support and protection, and acts as a shock absorber. When fascia are tight, or "restricted," tension, pain or loss of motion can follow. Benefits of MFR include: increased strength and flexibility, improved posture, increased range of motion.
• Shiatsu is based on traditional Chinese medicine in which illness is thought to result from imbalances in the natural flow of energy, or qi (pronounced "chee") in the body. The massage therapist applies gentle finger or thumb pressure in a continuous rhythmic sequence to manipulate energetic pathways, or "meridians." Benefits of Shiatsu include: calmer nervous system, improved circulation, relief of stiff muscles, overall sense of balance, calmness and well-being.
Household Pain-Relieving "Tools"
• Tennis ball: Apply pressure to the lower back by lying on a pair of old tennis balls (if too thick, cut in half and seal inside a plastic bag). For firmer, deeper pressure, wrap golf balls in socks (to provide padding) and use in place of tennis balls.
• Rice neck wrap: Fill a clean tube sock 2/3 full of uncooked rice. Tie closed. Drape across the neck to relieve sore neck and upper back muscles. Tip: Microwave the neck wrap for 30 seconds on high for a heated pack.
• Rolled towel or blanket: Fold in half and roll a bath towel or blanket into a cylinder. Secure with rubber bands. Lie on the rolled towel to place gentle pressure on the back. The added thickness of the blanket roll, when used along the spine, will stretch tight chest muscles.
• Smooth, flat stones: Select from your garden two or three smooth, flat, rounded "river rocks" no bigger than your fist. Warm the rocks slowly in hot water (do not microwave) for about 20 minutes. Remove with tongs, wrap in a towel and place on sore muscles.
• Lima Bean Ice Pack: Frozen peas, corn, lima beans and other veggies make great ice packs. Use for five minutes, alternating with a hot pack (such as the warm stones) for 10 minutes.