BACKCoach Healthy Holidays Tip – Simplify, simplify, simplify

The year-end holidays are a challenging yet important time to make the effort to simplify, simplify, simplify. We can get caught up in the fantasy Christmas (or whichever holiday you celebrate) scene, and put pressure on ourselves to fulfill an unrealistic ideal of what the holidays should be.

As with any time when life gets complicated, it is important to begin with identifying your priorities. What are the most important aspects of the holidays that you would truly miss if they weren’t realized? This can be a short list or a long one – you get to decide.

Next, what are the items or activities that you would like to have happen, but would be ok if they didn’t?

And, lastly, what could you easily let go of and still have the holiday you desire?

The most effective stress management technique is to eliminate unnecessary stressors. What aspects of the holidays bring the least to the season and result in the most stress? These may be the first items to let go of.

After making the above lists, determine what kind of holiday you will create this year, and then decide which aspects will you let go of.

Can retirement planning help back pain?

I was scanning my Twitter feed this morning and came across a link acknowledging National Save for Retirement Week, and thought, “Great article about back pain!”

How does retirement savings relate to back pain? Well, we know that chronic stress is a primary contributing factor for back pain, and that people who are under a great deal of stress at the time of their triggering event are more likely to develop chronic back pain, and what could be a more persistent chronic stressor than not feeling secure about retirement?

Remember that it’s not the things that we might typically think of as stressful – a new job, moving, or the death of a loved one, as examples – that contribute to chronic back pain. Rather, it’s the more low-level chronic stressors like frequent daily hassles or being in a stressful relationship that can lead to the persistent muscle contractions that manifest as back pain. (more…)

The importance of relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing on back pain

OK, it’s a little odd to begin an article with, “The importance of breathing…”, my original title for this post. However, in working with clients with chronic back pain, proper, deliberate breathing is one of the simplest and most high-impact topics we discuss.

One of the problems with chronic back pain is that it is perceived to be complex when in reality its causes and remedies are usually quite simple. Breathing is a great example of this.

Let’s begin with some basic physiology. When we experience pain, we reflexively tighten up, or contract, our muscles. It can even happen when you anticipate pain, as I used to experience with speed bumps. The anticipation or experience of pain causes us to try to protect ourselves and the way our body does this is to tighten the muscles around the affected area. The other thing we do, which is a component of the stress response, is to shorten our breathing.

The result of these two occurrences is a body with tight muscles and shortened breath. This leads to increased pain and entry into the pain cycle.

Now, a muscle tightens when the brain sends a signal to it to do so. This tends to happen automatically, or without our deliberate attempt. However, we can choose to use our brain to instead relax a muscle and take deep, diaphragmatic breaths.

So, the next time you feel pain in your back or neck, notice if you are tightening muscles unnecessarily, and notice if your breath is shallow or deep. Then, take control by deliberately taking a deep diaphragmatic breath, followed by a slow, steady exhale. As you exhale, notice any tight or painful muscles, and deliberately relax these muscles.

This simple technique is one that BACKCoach clients report to be tremendously effective, and it is one that I still use today.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and back pain

Hurricane Katrina

As Hurricane Isaac moves through the area, I’m reminded of the days, weeks, and, ultimately, year of prolonged stress surrounding Hurricane Katrina – including the effect of stress on the body and how it relates to back pain.

As a Native Midwesterner (Chicagoan), I was very familiar with roaring thunderstorms and occasional tornadoes. Tornadoes were typically a last-minute, intense occurrence. The sirens would blare, we’d all go into ‘high alert,’ retreat to our best available shelter and hope for the best. In a matter of minutes, the tornado would materialize or not, pass or hit, then we’d come up out of our basements, assess the damage and move on.

Along the Gulf Coast we deal with hurricanes, which are entirely different. We watch as tropical depressions form in the Pacific Ocean, energize through the Carribean, and blast their way through the open Gulf waters as expert meteorologists debate where it will land, its ultimate velocity and expected destruction. If you are unlucky enough to be in its path, you endure several days of the hurricane approaching, making landfall, and barreling through open land, cities, towns, homes, churches, businesses, roads, and anything in its way. It can take hours or even days – as is the case with Hurricane Isaac – for the storm itself to pass through a community.

Then there is the aftermath, which in the case of Hurricane Katrina, lasted about a year where I live while folks on the Mississippi Coast and New Orleans are still recovering and rebuilding seven years later.

So, how do hurricanes and tornadoes relate to back pain? One of the primary contributing factors for back pain is stress, and many experts believe that in many cases it is the sole cause. The physiology is very simple and works like this:

Perceived Stressor  –>  Fight-or-Flight Response  –> Muscles Contract  –>  Pain

Now, when muscles contract, that hurts! It is not psychological, or ‘in your mind’ pain, it is real and from a known source and physiological mechanism.

I bring up the hurricane v. tornado analogy to demonstrate the difference between chronic and acute stress. There are stressful events in everyone’s life, many of them positive events such as marrying, starting a new job or buying a house, and while these happy events produce a stress response, they rarely lead to chronic pain. There is an increase in stress and its physical response, the back and neck may hurt due to muscle contractions, then we adjust to the life change and our muscles relax. Major life events are like the tornado: intense, but over quickly.

Chronic back pain is more like a hurricane. The anticipation, the event and the recovery are all stressors that occur over a long period of time, resulting in continued stress and muscular contractions. Isaac has reminded me of the days prior to Katrina: I clenched my jaws and had a tension headache for the three days preceding, the day of the storm, and for many days following as the realization of what had occurred and its impact became clear and we dealt with repairs and recovery.

Stress is a significant factor in chronic back pain, but it is most commonly prolonged, chronic stress that is the cause. It’s the hurricanes, not the tornadoes, that lead us into patterns – called the Cycle of Pain – that can lead to chronic back pain.

Just know that, if you experience chronic back pain, there is so much that you can do, and BACKCoach is here to help. When you understand the underlying cause and mechanism, and address it at this level, you can have a healthy back and go back to doing whatever you wish to do. Even if it is just cleaning up after the latest storm.