April 21, 2020

A Vanderbilt spine physician provides guidance on back pain relief from the comfort of your own neighborhood.

Our “new normal” — social distancing, staying in, working from home — is causing all of us to shift our routines and upend our habits. We may have started the year by going to the gym or a fitness studio, or by taking a swimming class or seeing a physical therapist, only to find those activities off-limits in an instant. But that doesn’t mean that we can let our healthy lifestyles fall by the wayside — and that’s all the more important for those of us with chronic back pain, according to Vanderbilt Spine physician Dr. Byron Schneider.

“In a typical spine practice, we see two pretty distinct flavors of patients: One group is people who do something wrong and injure their backs, the same way you might roll an ankle and sprain or strain the ligaments,” Schneider said. “Those injuries are often unavoidable. The other group is people who have waxing and waning back pain — who may or may not have had an initial injury — but whose pain is much more tied into relative inactivity or lack of conditioning.”

If you’re a part of that second group, the key to avoiding injury and pain, Schneider said, is to stay active — to choose activities that are appropriate for your age and ability level, and to slowly increase that activity over time, safely and steadily. Need some inspiration for how to do so at home? Here are some healthy-back pointers to keep in mind as you relieve back pain and settle into your new routine.

Maintain — and even try to increase — your activity levels.

“As a spine physician, the most important message I can relay is that while we’re kind of tied up at home right now, we need to find healthy ways to stay active that are in line with our abilities,” Schneider said. “If you are someone who was going to your local YMCA three times a week before the pandemic, try to find ways to supplement that or even increase your activity level. Because we know that if that activity level declines, that can aggravate your back pain.”

Unsure where to begin to relieve back pain? Schneider recommends to start with the basics: walking (while maintaining proper social distancing, of course). “Try to keep track of your step count on your phone or on an accelerometer,” he said. “Maintain the step count you had before, and then try to increase it 10 percent a week, with the goal being 10,000 steps.”

Continue stretching and strengthening.

Maybe you were lifting weights at the gym or conditioning under the watchful eye of a therapist. The good news is you can continue your strengthening — or even begin a regimen — at home, care of streaming and app-based resources.

“Just be wary of what your internet search turns up,” Schneider said. “You may be shown moderate or advanced exercises like planks and sit-ups which are too advanced to start with initially, while you should actually be looking for basic-level core strengthening like pelvic tilts or clamshell exercises.” Target your search towards age-appropriate exercises to encourage flexibility and strength in your spine and core. “Even basic isometric exercises, which imply that there’s no movement involved, can be a very effective way of achieving this,” said Schneider. “Simply learning how to tighten your abdominal muscles can be helpful, as well as body-weight exercises done while lying on a flat surface.”

Remember: Slow and steady.

“One of the stronger negative predictors for people with back problems is fear of movement — people who are afraid of activity because they don’t want to hurt their back.”

Has it been a while since you rode your bike or went for a jog? If you want to start a new activity, be sure to start slow, gradually increasing your effort. This pertains to activities around the house, too. Two hours of strenuous gardening might lead to pains and strains — you’d be better working in the yard for 20 minutes at a time and easing your way into doing more.

If you start slow and steady, there’s not much you can’t do in terms of activity. “One of the stronger negative predictors for people with back problems,” Schneider said, “is fear of movement — people who are afraid of activity because they don’t want to hurt their back.” His takeaway? Don’t be afraid to try something new — just don’t jump into the deep end.

Focus on your mental health and good sleep hygiene.

Chronic pain is known to be linked to depression and sleep disruption. Add to that the stress of the pandemic and the isolation caused by social distancing — it’s a lot to handle. Be sure to take time to maintain your mental health, whether that’s through virtual social connection, meditation/mindfulness, yoga or other strategies for reducing stress. And be sure that you’re practicing good sleep hygiene. Your body needs quality rest to recover — and to fuel tomorrow’s healthy-back activities.

Man suffering from lower back pain

The Vanderbilt Spine Center treats patients from across the Southeast for back pain, sciatica, whiplash and other conditions of the spine, offering a full range of treatments including non-surgical options. If surgery is necessary, the Vanderbilt Spine Center team provides an extraordinary level of experience and expertise for each patient’s needs. For more information, click here or call 615-875-5100.

Byron Schneider, M.D., is an assistant professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation. His interests include non-operative management of the spine with a focus on fluoroscopic interventional spine procedures.