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Did you know that one of the most common reasons to visit the doctor is lower back pain? It makes sense, considering it can be pretty unpleasant, especially if you practice yoga a lot. As someone who has struggled with lower back pain on and off for the last two years, I have begun to weed out the things I’ve been doing wrong, and embrace the things that work. Here they are:
1. Get it checked out!
Lower back pain can mean several things. Many times it’s plain old overuse that causes the trouble, but sometimes it can be a bit more complex. The SI joint (sacroiliac joint), located between the sacrum (tail bone) and iliac bone (hip bone), at the lower end of the spine is often overlooked, but can be a culprit. Getting a physical exam can help identify the origin of the problem. Your doctor may then request additional lab tests, X-ray, or MRI to investigate further.
2. Strengthen your core.
Move smart by doing exercises, stretches, and yoga poses that contribute to relief and not additional pain. Almost every yoga class I teach has some kind of abdominal exercise; maybe a gentle yoga bicycle and a few twists.
Bottom line: It’s difficult to have a strong back without a strong core.
3. Tighten up those glutes.
These are the muscles that stabilize the pelvis. Damaged ligaments in the pelvic area can also be a culprit, and are very common for yogis. Bending like a Barbie doll should never really be the ultimate goal in a stretch class or yoga class, and going for “sensation,” not pain should always the goal. I love pyramid pose (with blocks), pigeon, and half moon (ardha chandrasana) for a bit of booty action.
4. Release the psoas.
Another area associated with lower back pain is a tight psoas muscle, which connects the spine to the leg. This long (often tight) muscle helps us straighten the lower (lumbar) spine, and also works as a hip flexor. Releasing this muscle could help turn the key to reducing lower back pain. Lunges are often recommended to stretch the psoas along with ball exercises and deep tissue massage to help provide some release.
5. Always modify.
If you suffer from back pain, perhaps a yoga class full of forward folds isn’t for you. Be sure to modify poses when you need to, i.e. keeping the knees bent when forward folding, and using props like blocks to reduce the distance between the ground and the floor whenever possible.
6. Eat to combat inflammation!
The foods we eat are directly associated with how we feel physically. Eating anti-inflammatory foods such as wild-caught fish, ground flaxseed, and raw nuts can work wonders and reduce the amount of ibuprofen or other strong anti-inflammatory medicines your doctor may prescribe. Additionally, herbs like arnica are used as homeopathic supplements and can be applied topically as a gel, or taken orally.
On the same note, we need to pay attention to sugar consumption, because this directly causes inflammation. Next time you eat sugar, head to a yoga class and see if you notice a change in flexibility of the joints. Sugar is inflammatory!
7. Get spicy.
Spices like capsaicin (the heat-producing component of cayenne and other peppers) can help to ease pain. There are also great lotions and salves found at many health food stores that contain capsaicin and can be applied to painful areas to provide temporary relief without drugs. Also, spices like turmeric can be used as a supplement, or added to veggies, meats, and stir fries.
8. Find an emotional rescue.
Pent-up emotions have to be stored somewhere, and much of the time pain in the body can be the end result. Finding effective ways to release negative emotions from the body, i.e. meditation, restorative yoga, reading, journaling, talk therapy, etc. are like little rays of sunshine to your physical body.
9. Regular massages and bodywork.
Stop feeling guilty about getting massages and think about it more from a health standpoint! Regular and/or deep tissue massages can help release the muscles in the entire body to keep our blood flowing smoothly, and can aid in the de-stressing process. I also roll bodywork balls against the muscles alongside the spine before and after every yoga class, and they’ve brought me tremendous relief.
10. Try acupuncture.
Acupuncture has helped many of my clients and students who suffer from chronic lower back pain and is definitely worth checking out. An analysis done at the University of Maryland Medical Center has concluded that acupuncture is clearly effective, providing significant pain relief.