12 Ways To Relieve Back Pain Through Lifestyle Change
Exercise and hands-on therapeutic techniques are effective ways to help with back or neck pain, but lifestyle change is just as important.
Physical therapists tend to get a bad case of “tunnel vision” when it comes to treating someone for their pain problem. We default towards only seeing the structure as the source of the problem. Sometimes that is the case–and when it is, it is usually pretty straightforward and predictable recovery.
But, we are human. We are complex, and our pain problem can be complex with a myriad of contributing drivers of our pain.
So let’s talk about other ways you can help get rid of your back pain, other than exercise!
Take a look at the list, pick and choose what you can readily apply today to help with your back or neck pain.
**Disclaimer: This is not intended for medical advice. This is all for informational purposes only.**
Lifestyle Change #1: Change Up Your Work Space
This is probably a no-brainer here. If you spend most of your time at a desk or standing at work, you need to have a good set-up for success. Therapists have preached on posture for a while now. I don’t like categorizing posture as good or bad. I like thinking of it as optimal for the task at hand, or suboptimal. It sets you up for the functional task you are doing.
You can read more about that here.
If you can, ask for a standing desk so you can adjust it often instead of sitting all day. If that is not an option, put those Amazon boxes to use and stack them up with your laptop on top so you can work.
Lumbar supports are great for those who sit a lot. Check the positioning of your computer and keypad, your hips in your seat.
For a better visual, check out this video for a quick run-down of ergonomics.
Whether you have to be glued to your computer, or standing dispensing meds all day, move often. Take a movement break as often as possible, even if it’s just for a minute or two! The research hasn’t shown a causal relationship between posture and pain. Some people have suboptimal posture and feel fine with no pain problems. But if you are prone to back or neck pain, posture matters. It can worsen or improve your pain.
Lifestyle Change #2: Take A Break From That Phone
You may thing I am going to say that looking at your phone constantly can cause neck or upper back pain, and that is why you should take breaks from the phone.
Good guess, BUT research has not shown any association between “text neck” and neck pain prevalence. You can check out one such study here! I think people would benefit from intentional time away from their phone/social media/news platforms for their mental health, which directly affects one’s physical health.
If you want more ideas for overcoming pain, ditch the phone and go outside. Focus on being present more so than consuming all the information out their on your pain problem.
Lifestyle Change #3: Watch What You Eat
This may not seem like a simple change for those of us who love food (pointing at myself here). What you eat and when you eat really does matter though, and can either increase inflammatory processes or decrease them.
The topic of diet and which diet is a popular topic people like to debate over. I am not here to tell you the best diet. There are too many out there, and every person is different.
However, modifying your diet has been shown to help with pain and inflammation. The source that I like to go to on this is Dr. Joe Tatta. He works primarily with people with persistent pain and recommends diet modification to help decrease pain and inflammation.
To combat chronic pain, a diet focused on whole foods, no artificial sweeteners and additives, and more adding more vegetables and fruits is the way to go.
For longevity, a diet like the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be beneficial. For more information and the source, check out David Sinclair’s podcast episode. He’s a Harvard researcher, and knows his stuff on tools to increase your longevity.
Lifestyle Change #4: Check Your Relationships
Humans are wired for connection. I think we all quickly realized that in the pandemic. Your connection (or lack thereof) with others is important. Even at the cellular level, we are wired for connection (Just check out the molecule tachykinin). You need a support system to handle the curve balls life has thrown at you.
When you have at least one supportive relationship in your life–someone who is an “anchor” for you–this helps to build your resilience. You can face adversity better if you have people you can count on that root for you.
So, make it a point to connect with those you love, even if this is your pets.
On the flipside, make a point to create boundaries with those who may drain you. Let go toxic relationships that are dragging you down. This will have a huge impact on your physical and emotional health.
The best and worst thing for your nervous system is someone else’s nervous system. (Check out Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on 7 1/2 Lessons About The Brain)
Lifestyle Change #5: Practice Mindfulness
We often get so caught up in our thoughts of the past and of the future. It is difficult for any of us to be present. Especially with those dang iPhones in our pockets.
Practicing mindfulness isn’t a complicated practice, it’s just goes against the grain of our human nature and our culture. Practicing mindfulness can have a positive effect on pain. There are numerous studies supporting this.
I encourage you to practice paying attention to your present internal state (or interoception), and external environment (your exteroception). Find moments to notice the sights, smells, sounds around you. Bring your attention to the present moment, even when that present moment is mundane. You’re here for it.
Check out this YouTube video I made on a simple grounding technique that is great for bringing you into the present moment.
Lifestyle Change #6: Meditate
Evidence has been growing on the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness. All of us in the west can benefit from meditation.
Just stopping what you are doing, quieting your mind, and paying attention to your breath can seem like a feat in and of itself. However, meditation has been shown to help with one’s pain experience, even decreasing their pain sensation.
So why not try it?
I would recommend using an app like Headspace or Insight Timer to learn how to meditate.
Lifestyle Change #7: Breathe
What is the first thing you do when you stub your toe, or hit your shin really hard on a table?
You hold your breath.
Where do you notice your breath when you are stressed or worked up? Oftentimes, your breath will be more shallow and there will be less action from the diaphragm. Taking deep breaths where the diaphragm actually does it’s job, can increase parasympathetic tone.
Practices focused on improving one’s breath control can help calm the nervous system, amongst other things. Most of us are what I would call “dysfunctional breathers” who tend to breath mostly from the apical (or top) portion of the lungs/chest.
Just practice connecting with your breath throughout your day, and when you need more calm, extend your exhale longer than your inhale.
Lifestyle Change #8: See A Mental Health Professional
I think all of us can benefit from seeing a (mental health) therapist. Past hurts, traumas, the stories that play in your head all affect not only your psyche but also your physical body.
I won’t say that trauma is “stored” in an area of your body, but your brain’s main job is to survive. If you are subconsciously in a state of threat all the time, this will negatively impact your nervous system.
Lorimer Moseley said “thoughts are nerve impulses, and negative thinking alone can drive pain.” Your thoughts matter, and can have an effect on your mood and your pain.
See a therapist who you connect with and like so you can process the hard stuff–the stuff you may tend to shove under the rug.
Lifestyle Change #9: Get Outside
Do I have to explain this one? 🙂
We have evolved into a species that stays inside in our climate controlled houses, without much access to nature unless we are intentional about it.
Going for a walk first thing in the morning, letting in the sunlight in your eyes helps your circadian rhythm. Getting out of the house can help clear your head. Going on a hike reminds you just how big the world is and how beautiful nature (and life) is.
Be intentional with getting outside. It may surprise you how helpful this one is in regards to your health.
If you can’t get outside frequently, check out a lamp that helps with mood! As always, check with your physician first to see if this is a good option for you.
Lifestyle Change #10: Get Good Sleep
We all know by now that good sleep is critical. If we are lacking good sleep, it can have very poor effects on our health. Your body repairs itself when you sleep. It’s a “reset.” If you aren’t sleeping enough or well, the repair process is hindered and this can definitely impact your pain experience, and quality of life.
For more on that, check out this podcast here with neuroscientist Andrew Huberman.
Have a good mattress and pillow. Try to avoid big thick pillows (like the ones in hotels), but down pillows are good because you can adjust them to your neck. If you have back issues, consider a small pillow around your waist line to keep your spine in a more neutral position. You can also use a neck pillow like this for your neck.
Turn off screens around 2 hours before you go to bed. Create a good pre-bed routine for yourself for sleep hygiene. Go to bed at the same time every night, and get up at the same time every morning.
Lifestyle Change #11: Practice Self-Care
I once read that self-care is not chocolate and wine binges, but creating a life you don’t want to escape from…I love that.
However, it is important to be intentional with taking time for yourself, doing the things that bring you joy. Yoga, hiking, reading, best-coffee-shop-hunting…whatever it is, make time for it.
Value yourself enough to make time for yourself.
Lifestyle Change #12: Learn To Let Go
Sometimes, we need to learn to let go of the struggle, whatever the struggle may be.
There is a weird, complex interplay between pursuit of the life we want to have and learning to let go in the process.
Let’s all loosen our grip on things.
There are more ways than exercise and massage that you can do to help your pain, especially if it’s persistent pain.
We focus so much on the tissue and structure, that we lose sight of the fact that lifestyle change can have equal or more positive effect on our pain problem.
Just some food for thought for you.