Yoga For Chronic Back Pain
Millions of people live with chronic back pain. Millions! Arthritis of the neck and back are probably the most common causes. Some of the other more common causes come from fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, trauma and cancer. I have been suffering from chronic back pain, now, for close to 20 years from arthritis and an old tail bone fracture. My pain ranged from moderate to quite incapacitating, leaving me unable to enjoy many activities that I had always loved. I’ve tried a myriad of anti inflammatories and anti depressants, physical therapy and chiropractic therapy. All provided limited and very temporary relief. The meds had too many side effects that weren’t worth what little relief I was getting, so I usually stuck with over the counter meds like Aleve. Up until a couple years ago, I had never really considered yoga for my chronic back pain.
About 15 years ago I saw a chiropractor. At first, I experienced huge relief and fairly quickly. Then, after several months, it seemed like the treatments just weren’t helping anymore and, in fact, seemed to make it worse. I sort of gave up and started accepting the idea that living in pain was just the way it was going to be.
Accepting My Plight
I, finally, just accepted the fact that I was going to be uncomfortable with chronic pain the rest of my life. As the arthritis progressed, I was having less and less range of motion in my neck and I started developing a limp from the old back injury. When the tail bone fracture healed, it left one hip higher than the other which caused some curvature and pressure to the lumbar (lower back) region of my spine.
Pain Med Addiction
I refused to take anything stronger than Aleve, for fear of becoming dependent on pain meds. Chronic pain management can include a list of drugs that can become addictive. According to results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 2.4 million Americans used prescription drugs nonmedically. This means use for nonmedical purposes or used more often than prescribed.
Pain And Stress
Stress can exacerbate pain, whatever its cause. When you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, your pain tolerance may be lower. And, of course, a vicious cycle often ensues, since being in pain can be stressful. Since stress can cause muscle tension throughout the body, you may end up feeling like your entire being is one big ball of pain. This can be so overwhelming, that all you want to do is stay in bed and sleep. However, this is the last thing you want to do! As they say, “move it or lose it!” Studies have found that people who exercise and stay flexible manage their pain much better than those who don’t. Yoga, as perhaps the best overall system of stress reduction ever invented, can help interrupt this vicious cycle. Just remember to always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Yoga For Chronic Back Pain
Recent studies have indicated that practicing yoga for pain can cause physical changes in the body to promote healing. There has been research to measure markers in the body that indicate inflammation. These markers have actually been found to decrease after people do exercises like yoga. Additionally, yoga can help you become more aware of your body, which can lead to a reduction or localization of your pain.
For me, yoga has been the best answer for my chronic back pain. The physical postures of yoga help relieves pain in a number of ways. The most obvious is the ability to lower stress levels. Stress makes muscles more likely to go into spasm, causing more and more pain. The practice of yoga (more specifically, asana), beyond its ability to induce relaxation, can be an effective way to relieve muscle tightness. In contrast to many other forms of exercise, yoga promotes both strength and flexibility in muscles.
Asana can also be very helpful in conditions such as back pain and degenerative arthritis, where poor anatomical alignment and dysfunctional movement patterns are usually contributing to the problem. Posture plays a huge role in back pain, neck aches, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a variety of other conditions, and here again asana can be very helpful. When the head is positioned directly above the spine, it takes relatively little effort to maintain its position. But when you hold your head well in front of the spine, the muscles in the back of the neck and upper back get stretched and can become painful.
Unconscious muscular gripping or tightening can cause headaches, neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and even carpal tunnel syndrome. By bringing your awareness to areas that are tightening, like the muscles of the face and jaw, it will allow you to let go. By engaging muscles that aren’t working properly, and relax ones that don’t let go when they should, you’ll help bring the bones into better alignment, relieving compression of joints and soft tissues.
A regular asana practice can also improve sleep. Poor sleep can worsen pain and is thought to be a major contributor to the pain in such conditions as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Be sure, however, to avoid vigorous practices too close to bedtime. Sensitivity varies among individuals, but generally it’s a good idea to put a few hours between vigorous asana and sleep, and to balance active practices with a good dose of restorative and relaxing ones, especially when practicing later in the day.
If you’d like to practice yoga for pain or integrate yoga principles into your current treatment regimen, try a few of these techniques to get started:
- Focus on the breath. One of the core principles of yoga is pranayama, also known as yoga breathing. To help relax the body and reduce pain, find a quiet, comfortable place to lie down. Then, relax each part of your body, one by one, from head to toe as you inhale and exhale deeply. Think of the scalp and head, then breathe into that area and let it relax as you exhale. Then, move to the jaw and do the same thing. Then the shoulders, arms, chest, and so on down to your toes. You should start to feel a real difference within 8-10 breaths.
- Cobra pose:
Yoga positions that stretch the spine, such as the cobra pose, are great for relieving tension in the back and maintaining flexibility. To perform the cobra pose, lie face down on the floor and stretch your legs back, with the tops of your feet touching the floor. Press your thighs and groin firmly into the floor, then inhale and straighten your arms, lifting your chest off the floor. Only rise as much as is comfortable for you, then release back to the floor after a few seconds. Engage your ab muscles to protect the lower spine as you are stretching into the curve. Back bend poses like this will relieve pain from a bulging disk where the disk is being pushed into the spine because in this pose the disk is pushed away from the spine. If you have known disc disease or a pinched nerve in the neck or back, you should first check with your doctor before attempting these moves. The cobra pose can also help counteract problems like headaches, which are often due to neck tension from rounded shoulders and a hunched-forward sitting position.
- Dolphin pose:
The dolphin pose is a great overall body stretcher that can relieve some of the body stiffness often associated with fibromyalgia or other painful conditions. It also improves the strength of the core muscles, shoulders, and upper body. To perform the dolphin pose, start on your hands and knees, putting your knees directly under your hips and your forearms on the floor. Curl your toes under, then exhale and begin to straighten your legs, lifting your knees away from the floor. Continue to press your forearms into the floor and keep your back in a straight line, taking care not to round it. As you stretch, you can straighten your legs, but keep them bent if that’s more comfortable for you. Hold for several seconds, then bend your knees and release to the floor.
For me, yoga for my chronic back pain has been the best form of therapy that I have tried. If you’ve never tried yoga, yet, I highly recommend it. Try starting with the few techniques I’ve described, here, and then go from there. The goal, for me, was and is to avoid pain med dependency and to live a more active lifestyle. As of now, I am no longer on any meds, prescription or over the counter. I am regaining range of motion in my neck and am more flexible now than ever at age 55!
For more on yoga see my other posts:
BACK CARE YOGA DVD WITH RODNEY YEE