Got back pain? You’re not alone. It’s estimated that eighty percent of Americans will suffer from low back and neck pain at some point in their lives. Technically, I joined this club back in 2003 right around the time my first child was born. At this time I was diagnosed with herniated discs at C4 and C5. Not that there’s ever a good time for back or neck pain, but this was the worst. Newborn in the house, both parents stressed out and getting no sleep…fun times.
Through PT and continuing an active lifestyle, my neck issues eventually resolved. Fast forward to November 2018. I started getting shooting pain in my low back and down my leg. An MRI confirmed disc and nerve compression around L5 and S1 (grade 2 anterolisthesis, if you’re curious), which likely started after a fall off a ladder a few years ago.
When your career is centered around physical activity, back problems can be career limiting. Long story short, after a few rounds of oral steroids, an epidural (Did I mention I hate needles? Again, no sympathy from my wife, mother of four.), and PT, I’m back on the road to getting fit for 50 (yeah, I turn 50 this year and I’m not going quietly).
Why do I tell you all this? Because I think too often back and/or neck pain scare people away from exercising. In some ways this is a normal reaction to pain – we’re afraid to do anything that might make it worse. And this feeds in to some prevailing myths about back pain.
Myth: Moving will make my back pain worse.
We have moved on from the time when total bed rest was believed to be needed, but there remains a fear of twisting, bending, and moving in general. This fear is understandable — it can be very painful — but it is essential to stay on the go. Gradually increase the amount of activity you do, and try to avoid long periods of inactivity.
Myth: Avoid exercise, especially weight training.
If you don’t normally lift weights, I’m not suggesting you go to the gym and start deadlifting or squatting. However, back pain shouldn’t cause you to stop doing exercise or the regular activities you enjoy. Exercise is now accepted as the best way to treat back pain and this includes weight training, where appropriate. As with anything, gradually build up your tolerance and confidence, but do not fear it.
Myth: Surgery is the quickest route to permanent relief.
When I was first diagnosed with the herniated discs in my neck my doctor told me surgery should be my last resort. Why? Because with surgery there are three outcomes 1) you feel better; 2) you feel the same, and 3) the pain gets worse. Hmm…I had a one out of three chance of feeling better? Those didn’t sound like great odds.
Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely circumstances that dictate immediate surgery. But for the majority of patients, various levels of conservative treatment and physical therapy should be the first option.
I have a handful of clients currently with or who have had prior back issues. One is my father-in-law (no pressure there, right?). With everyone, we work a lot on building core strength, reactivating muscles (e.g., glutes) that don’t fire as a result of pinched nerves, and overall functional strength. And I’m happy to report that none of them have had a relapse since they started training. In fact, each week when I see them they are more than happy to tell me that their back feels great and they are growing more confident to lead the active life they had before they had back or neck problems.
The moral of my story: if you’re suffering from back or neck pain, go to the doctor, get physical therapy – it likely isn’t going to go away on its own — and once you’re cleared, start or return to an active lifestyle.