Updated: Feb 10, 2020
So, you’re here again, in the cages of back pain. You probably lifted something off the ground, stood or sat in a weird position for too long, or just turned around to say, “hi” to someone. It was a small, simple movement that you’ve done over and over, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Your body is screaming at you that it’s had enough. For some, it may feel like a stabbing pain, and for others, it may feel like an unstretchable cramp. But, no matter who you are, panic is probably setting in and negative thoughts are now swirling around in your head.
“Is my back broken?” “I can’t go into work with this pain, but I have a big meeting today.” “Is this going to last forever?”
Take a deep breath and let’s do something about it. At this moment, it is crucial that you listen to your body because it’s telling you exactly what you did wrong. Even the smallest motions such as lifting your arm are going to be painful, but which arm is more painful when you lift it? Can you lift one higher than the other before pain sets in? These are the little signals that you need to listen to in order to get out of the back spasm you are currently in. Let me guide you through the steps.
Step 1: Find Your Positional Preference
First, you must find a position where you are pain-free or at least able to tolerate the pain. This may seem impossible right now and even transitioning into different positions might bring on immense pain. However, finding this position is crucial because this is your ground zero, your jumping-off point. From this position, we will start to get stronger and start to begin our recovery.
So, choose a neutral position.
I recommend lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. If you are unable to achieve this position, standing is the next best option followed by quadruped or tabletop (hands and knees). Sitting is the least desirable position as it limits your spinal motion and biases you into flexion. The position you choose should be the one that is easiest to get into and is most comfortable once in that position.
Step 2: Breathe
Now that you’re in the position that is easiest for you to be in, I want you to breathe. This may sound very elementary, but bringing awareness to your breath is key in managing this acute pain. Focus on taking deep belly breaths. You’ll want to feel your stomach expand with each inhale and contract with each exhale. Though the air is not actually entering your stomach, this does allow you to utilize the lower lobes of your lungs which are notoriously underutilized.
Spend about 5 seconds on each inhale and 5 seconds on each exhale. These very long, very deep breaths will help activate your core and hopefully start alleviating some of the pain from your back spasm. Throughout this entire process, do not discontinue the deep breathing!
Step 3: Arch and Sag
In your position of comfort, whether it be on your back, standing, sitting or in quadruped, you’ll want to try arching and sagging your back. Flexion is going to be arching your back up and tucking your chin, while extension will be sagging and looking upward.
Which one of these feels best? If you feel the most relief with flexion, hold that position for a few minutes until you feel more stability and relief. The same goes for if you feel the most relief in extension. And don’t forget to continue deep breaths.
Step 4: Stabilize
While still remaining in your position of preference, try lifting your left or right arm slightly. Do you feel more discomfort lifting one arm over the other? If so, keep the arm with MORE DISCOMFORT elevated. Now, you do not need to raise your arm above your head. Just a subtle lift will do the trick. And this position should not cause severe pain. If it does, you may be raising your arm too high or you may want to go back to just arching and sagging your back.
With one arm raised, hold that position for one minute and BREATHE. Keep taking those deep belly breaths with long inhales and exhales.
As you feel your body stabilizing, you can put your arm back down and try the same sequence with each of your legs. Find which leg is more uncomfortable to raise, hold it up, and breathe. Keep in mind that, again, this should not be causing immense pain. You should only be feeling a small amount of discomfort while doing this exercise.
Once you’ve completed the leg portion, you can try lifting your arm and leg at the same time. Typically, it will be your opposite arm/opposite leg that will cause the most discomfort. This is because diagonals cause the same rotational force in your back. Continue to hold this position and breathe as you feel your body continue to stabilize.
Step 5: Mindset
More importantly than all of this, you must have the right mindset when experiencing back pain. Though it may seem like the end of the world and you can no longer move, it is always good to remember that pain does not mean that your back is damaged or that you will damage it more by moving. Allow your body to rest, use an ice pack to calm down the inflammation, and go see a physical therapist who can help you identify why your back gave out in the first place. I know this is a very scary and difficult time, but have hope that the spasm will subside and remember that your back is resilient.