If you suffer from back pain, you’re not alone. According to the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University, nearly 65 million Americans report a recent episode of back pain and about 16 million adults (8 percent of adult Americans) experience persistent or chronic back pain, making back pain the sixth most costly condition in the United States.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases points out that back pain can result from an accident, a fall, lifting something heavy, changes that happen in the spine as you age and/or a disorder or medical condition.
Some people, like Molly Murray, a Graphic Designer, were born with a medical condition from birth that leads to back pain. But instead of letting it get her down, Molly Murray found a way of dealing with it. We spoke to her recently to find out more.
How Molly Murray deals with back pain
Molly – when did your back pain start?
I was really young, it must have been in elementary school. During a routine nurse’s check-up, they noticed some abnormalities in my back. After visiting a specialist, we found out I had scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.
That must have been really scary – especially at such a young age.
It was. Luckily my curvature at that point was at 28 degrees so I didn’t need to have surgery – they recommend that for people who have a 40-degree curvature, or more, because that’s when it affects your internal organs. But it runs in my family, my father has it too. When he was young, doctors suggested surgery and he ended up having herringbone rods (steel) put in. But he’s very active, so I wasn’t too worried about having inherited the same problem.
What did doctors suggest for the back pain?
When I was fifteen, a specialist suggested I wear a back brace. But they warned me it would be hard for me, especially as I was at high school and going through the usual teenage stuff. I decided against the brace, but I did suffer with lots of aches and pains all during this time.
Did it get better, or worse, when you went to college?
That’s when the pain got really bad. During my college years I got into bodybuilding: free weights and machines, squats, deadlifts and dumbbells, and I started to get significant migraines. My mom and I worried the migraines might be neurological so I was sent for an MRI but the reading came back as totally normal.
The migraines were connected to the back issues?
Yes. The migraines were related to muscle tension in my upper back, due to the way the curvature in my back restricts my shoulder blade – I literally can’t pull my shoulder blade back without specific exercises.
Tell us about those exercises.
I do specific accessory work to engage the muscles that otherwise would not be activated. The most effective has been crossover symmetry which works on scapular retraction using resistance bands that are hooked up to the wall. Working the smaller muscles in my back helps correct my posture and prevent shoulder injuries from the scoliosis-related imbalances. I do a lot of core work as well. It’s one of the keys to avoiding lower back hyperextension.
At work, many people, including you, have a sit/stand desk.
Yes, I find it helpful to be mindful of how long I’m sitting down, and to adjust the desk so I can work standing up.
Rather than seek surgery, wear a back brace as a teen, or take pain medication – you’ve tackled the situation head on and have found a set of exercises that allows you to live with the problem.
Exactly. Last summer I spent 6 months working with Evolve, a sports performance team based in Austin, TX. In that time, I learned the most I ever have about my back issues. Their methods focus on identifying the root causes of imbalances and weaknesses and programming accessory work to target those areas. It was the first time in my life where the solution was proactive, not reactive. Through this work I’ve addressed back pain as an athlete – rather than as a patient. It takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
Have you continued with the passion for bodybuilding?
I’ve been doing Olympic Weightlifting for a while now, working with a trainer at a local gym here in Austin. Bodybuilding-style exercises are worked into the training and geared toward improving the major lifts. To minimize problems, I’m very intentional about accessory work and stretching before training. Specifically, I focus on rolling out my quads and hip flexors and using crossover symmetry. I know my body, and I know where the potential problems are. So I address them before problems occur.
Do you compete?
Not yet! I’m sure it will be in the cards down the road though. Staying active and strong is a very important part of my life and I don’t let my back problems stop me. Here I am at the gym recently doing a clean and jerk complex. Something I wouldn’t have been able to do before understanding and tackling these back issues.
Very cool! So, a final question: Based on your experience, what advice would you give to people reading this who might have back pain?
The pivotal moment for me was deciding not to just accept the “surgery or pain killers” prescription I’d been given my whole life. I read widely, looked up alternative treatment options, discovered workouts, and really started to understand how my body works and what I can do to help. So I would say to people, don’t just take the quick fixes. When you really understand how you work, you can change your reality. Don’t live with the pain. Find a way to help your body, rather than fight it.
Hey, you’re welcome.
More suggestions for back pain solutions:
Inversion therapy: If you’re a fan of 1980s movies (or 1980s fitness protocols), you might remember Richard Gere strapping on “gravity boots” and hanging upside down from a reinforced door frame in “American Gigolo.” This is called “inversion therapy” and, while helpful for some with spinal compression, the Mayo Clinic isn’t convinced the health benefits are there. Plus you’ll need an extremely ripped core for this one.
Chiropractic treatments: Some people find help in chiropractic adjustments which increase joint flexibility. The National Institutes of Health has a guide to how chiropractors work, and are certified, here. Caveat here: If you seek this sort of help, beware of the potential oversell, costs could rack up if you drop in every two weeks, or whatever frequency they suggest. It can also be disconcerting to lie sideways on a black treatment bench while a professional – literally – cracks your back. Not for the faint-hearted if you have fears about neck snapping.
Massage: It depends on the cause and location of your back pain. The Mayo Clinic notes that massages can help to keep muscles supple, but it’s not for everyone.
Surgery and pain meds: Depending on the cause of the back pain, doctors might suggest surgery (for disc problems or spinal injury) and/or prescription medication for the pain. But, according to Harvard Medical School, and others, the overuse of narcotic pain medication has contributed largely to the opioid epidemic, and many in the medical profession are conscious about this situation.
Preventative steps: The bad news – or the good news, depending on your willingness to change your entire life – is that much back pain due to modern living is largely avoidable. Pay attention to correct posture (yes, sit up straight), maintain a healthy weight (to protect joints), take regular breaks, if you work in an office ask them about ergonomic consulting to ensure your chair/desk are simpatico to your body frame. Then try these exercises from the Mayo Clinic to keep your back alignment strong. They claim that 15 minutes a day (yes, every day) will keep you standing strong and pain-free.
Tai Chi: As an aside, if you’re based in the Bay Area, and a very early riser, you’ll probably spot elders of Chinese ancestry doing tai chi and qi gong in the local parks. These mind/body practices involve deceptively gentle movements which keep the entire body supple and help to prevent back problems. Maybe find a teacher near you, or look on YouTube to establish your own practice with a virtual guide.
Attention! Now sit up straight and take a break really soon to help your back.