This is a vital self help guide to a healthier spine from senior MFML teacher, Sally Parkes.
The amount of people experiencing back pain in the UK on a regular basis is now massive with 20.3 million people in the UK alone, which is a third of the population, having a musculoskeletal issue or condition (1). With so many people experiencing back pain, back care and movement for back care is a vital topic.
Why are so many people experiencing back pain?
The reasons for this are numerous and are often lifestyle related. Factors include sitting, standing and/or driving for too long, below average levels of healthy mobility, above or below ideal body mass index (‘ideal’ will differ from person to person), poor nutrition, smoking and stress. Female related experiences such a pregnancy, giving birth, postpartum, menstruation and endometriosis can also create discomfort in the spine, especially the lumbar area, due to varying degrees of uterus distention and possible inflammation.
These challenges can lead to acute symptoms in the body which can be helpful in that they tell us that something is out of balance.
Imbalances can display as:
- A muscle strain or spasm
- Muscle stiffness in the lower back and hip area in particular
- Shallow breathing leading to anxiety due to tightness in the diaphragm
- Frozen shoulder
- An irritated spinal disc
- Neck strain and/or headaches
Then there are chronic conditions of course, which require day to day management. Some examples of these include:
- Osteo & rheumatoid arthritis
- Degenerative disc disease
So as we can see, there are so many conditions of the spine as well as variable factors affecting the back health, it is impossible to cover it all in one blog. However, in my experience of living with back pain related to scoliosis and a degenerated lumbar spine, having an awareness of the different factors involved in back pain in general, can be helpful when trying to manage discomfort on a day-to-day basis, no matter what the cause.
Let’s explore some of them and see how we can help ourselves by employing day-to-day selfcare.
Conscious Breathing for Back Care
It is common for most people to breath into only the chest area as opposed to expanding the whole ribcage. Furthermore, when we are in discomfort such as when we have back pain, one often transitions into high alert mode and the breath becomes even more shallow. This can then set off a cascade affect within the nervous and endocrine systems, leading to a fear response. This often displays as shortness of breath, muscle tightness and lack of movement in the diaphragm, which ultimately signals a danger response to the sympathetic nervous system. A message is then sent to the endocrine system to release enough stress hormones to move us away from the perceived danger.
This is how we get caught up in what is know as the ‘Fear, Pain and Tension Syndrome’. However, we can in part gradually break this loop by regaining control of the breath with conscious breathing.
The simple act of being aware of our breath can be profound, as can the practice of pranayama. Ocean breath, Alternate Nostril Breathing, Bee Breath and Golden Thread Breath can all be helpful for moving out of a place on tension in that is allows the chest, diaphragm and back muscles to relax and allow any anxiety to disperse. Try some breathwork classes on MFML.
Alkaline Nutrition for Back Care
We know that good nutrition is essential to our well-being for so many reasons, but let’s consider for a moment, how eating and drinking a healthy diet can help with the overall health of our backs.
Firstly, when dehydrated, we are more likely to exhibit increased muscle weakness and decreased muscle endurance, both of which can increase the likelihood of muscle spasms. Increased delayed onset of muscle soreness post exercise is also more likely (2). This is because the fluid that is the blood flow in which chemicals that are required to make the musculoskeletal system move, are released in to, have now moved towards the dehydrated vital organs to help them out instead. In addition to this, the spinal discs shrink a little when dehydrated, which in turn creates more pressure on the nerves that run through them as they are less protected.
For some people too, a sluggish digestive system, often the result of a lack of fluids and a low fibre diet, can result in ongoing constipation with pressure building up from the bowel on to the inside of the lower back. In addition to the affects of dehydration, foods with a high acidity will increase the likelihood overall inflammation in the body (including caffeine, alcohol, sugar, table salt and processed foods).
The good news is that we can easily neutralise our diets and increase digestive elimination!
How to neutralise your diet?
- Lots of legumes
- Sprouted beans
- Fermented tofu
- Fresh vegetables (leafy greens are highly alkaline)
- A little fruit such as melon, cherries, plums and nectarines.
- Grains such as spelt, quinoa and buckwheat are also alkaline foods.
- Plenty of water
Oils are also hugely important in not only helping to manage blood sugars, but they also help us to absorb nutrients and escort saturated fats out of the body too, which helps to lower overall acidity. Olive and coconut oils are great sources and foods such as nuts and seeds, avocados and oily fish are also deemed helpful in regulating acidity in the body (3).
Add to this, eight tall glasses of water a day and a turmeric supplement, and we are massively increasing our chances of lowering inflammation and discomfort in all joints including the spine, especially in the lower back area.
Posture and Healthy Movement for Back Care
Our postural alignment is paramount with regards how we feel overall and as yoga students and teachers we often refer to ‘good posture’. But what does good posture mean and how can yoga help?
Signs of postural challenges often show up as neck and/or lower back pain and tightness across the chest area, all of which can contribute to shallow breathing as discussed. In addition to building up our consciousness of our breathing however, we can also build more of an awareness of how we physically hold ourselves, and then considering what muscles need strengthening and what requires stretching.
For rounded shoulders for example, the chest and front shoulder area requires stretching whilst the upper back muscles need strengthening. This will help to realign the whole shoulder joint and open the chest space, creating balance as opposed to disharmony.
If there is a tendency to drop the pelvis forwards, known as an anterior pelvic tilt, pressure can build up in the lumbar spine. If we try stretching the hip flexors and strengthen the gluteal and pelvic floor muscles though, a more neutral pelvic alignment can be adopted, releasing pressure from the lower back thus reducing distention of the abdominal wall, allowing the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles to work better.
When we adopt positive postural alignment of the skeleton and the muscles and connective tissues that are wrapped around the skeleton, we are able to breathe well and feel more grounded, and are ultimately more at ease in our bodies. Then, when we practice yoga, the yoga postures themselves have greater benefit as the body can settle into the yoga postures more comfortably and easily, increasing their effect.
Maintaining healthy posture with age
Moreover, as we age, we lose muscle tissue due to the decline of collagen production, especially in women over forty years of age, and bone density also decreases. Weight bearing activities such as walking, resistance training, Pilates and yoga can be hugely beneficial though, helping to keep the body at its’ optimum, so regular sessions are vital to include throughout the week.
In particular, standing yoga postures (Warrior 1 and 2, Triangle and Side Angle Pose, Plank, Sun Salutations, and balancing postures), are hugely beneficial.
The benefits of Standing poses:
- Every muscle group being involved
- The joints have to move through a whole range of movements.
- Working against gravity meaning you expend more energy than when seated
- A boost in feel good hormones which when combined with a stronger body with above average range of join movement, leads to improved over all postural alignment and therefore wellbeing.
5 simple but effective tips to improve our posture:
- Walk and sit with the chin parallel to the floor as much as possible
- When standing, position the feet hip width distance apart and with the weight evenly distributed through the feet
- Imagine drawing the tail bone down towards the earth to give a sense of length through the lower back
- Roll the shoulders back and down often
- Breathe broadly and deeply often to create expansion in the ribcage and improve elasticity of the lungs as well as reducing the bodies stress response.
Mindset – final thoughts from Sally
In my experience of teaching yoga and Pilates students with back pain and of managing my own sometimes intense back pain over the last decade or so, I have always found the discomfort is more manageable if self-care is made a priority. This includes everything mentioned above, as well as taking rest when needed and not taking on too much. This is not always possible of course and it is certainly a practice of sorts, but as some of you with chronic back conditions and injuries will know, your spine will certainly speak up very loudly if you push yourself too hard.
So, I invite you to listen to the whispers first before they become louder, by being kind to yourself. Let yourself off the hook often, things can wait, because putting yourself second just isn’t an option when managing the care of your body.
Disclaimer: Please note that this article is in no way meant to replace medical advice, especially as back pain can sometimes be a symptom of a serious health condition. I advise always seeking medical advice if you have concerns.
Thank you to Sally Parkes for sharing her wisdom on maternal mental health – Sally Parkes BSc specialises in pregnancy and postnatal yoga and wellbeing and is the author of bestseller ‘The Manual of Yoga Anatomy’ and teacher for MFML. @sallyparkesyoga @sallyparkeswomensyoga
- The State of MSK Health 2021 (versusarthritis.org)
- How Does Dehydration Affect Your Muscles? — Coastal Movement Specialists
- energiseforlife.com – alkaline food charts
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