How to Release Back Muscles to Reduce Chronic Pain
How I Hurt My Back
I have suffered from chronic back pain for over ten years. My problem started when I was working in a factory stacking pallets and forty to fifty-pound boxes, four to eight hours a day—when I was just seventeen years old. It wasn't long before I tore my right lumbar muscles. If I had the foresight to understand just how life-altering my injury could be, I would have claimed some sort of compensation for my injury. That said, I wasn't smart enough then, and I haven't landed a Ph.D., or an M.D. since, so do not substitute this advice for that of a trained professional practitioner.
I was a factory-working 17-year-old. I played in a rock band jumping off stages. I fought the pain long and hard as a teen, and it has since has degraded into a condition of chronic arthritis, sacroiliitis, degenerative disc disease, and bulging L4/L5 discs. So when I tell you what's possible if you don't take care of yourself and your injury, I hope you will listen. I had to endure this long, painful journey to figure this stuff out.
Stress Contributes to the Pain
The harsh reality for those with chronic pain is that because no one can see your injury, it is often overlooked by everyone but the sufferer. Even your family and friends may not understand the magnitude of such an intense, fatiguing, I-really-don't-want-to-get-out-of-bed feeling.
The physical pain becomes a psychological pain when your body tries to fight what it believes to be a continuous threat. As the body exhausts itself with a never-ending, uphill battle, depression often creeps up alongside chronic pain. "How did I wind up here?" or "How did my life end up like this? Just a short while ago, I had all the doors open—and now, I can barely get through my front door!"
And often, even long after our bodies have become used to the injury, and we have developed coping mechanisms, the psychological pain still lingers—our "auto-pilot" or subconscious voice that speaks to us even while we are not listening. With chronic pain, the underlying message is "Pain! Alarm! Warning! Pain! Fight or flight? Flight! Flight! Ouch! Pain!" These stress signals only make matters worse, putting you into a never-ending cycle of physical and mental pain. To reduce your back pain, you need to relax your body and your mind.
Reduce Stress to Relieve Lower Back Pain
The first part of this process is getting our body back into a proper rhythm of breathing. When we feel pain, it's coming from a couple places. One of those places is stress.
When we are stressed, our body tenses up. Our muscles become tight, and we do not breathe as deeply.
So you need to breathe again. I mean deep, full breathes. Most of us only breathe with our upper chest. Instead, we should breathe with our diaphragms. We should feel our stomachs rise and our lungs fill our rib cage. This will supply your muscles and your brain with more oxygen to help you relax.
How to Release Lower Back Muscles: Step-by-Step
I have tried many techniques to get relief, but this one, in particular, is quick and easy and has helped me a lot. It comes from Elaine Petrone, although I am sure there are other similar techniques out there.
Things you will need to perform this home process:
- About 10 minutes
- A small rehabilitation ball/yoga ball; the size of a softball.
Step 1: Learn to Breathe Deeply
Simply letting yourself take in deep, full breaths is key to allowing our bodies to relax. A side effect of deep breathing is dizziness. To prevent this, let out a "Ssssssssssss" sound while you breathe out.
Pay attention to the area of pain. When you breathe, concentrate on sending the oxygen there. Because the pain has tensed the muscles, we don't actually feel the muscles very often. We only feel the pain. So by actively paying attention to the muscles, we are becoming aware of the area and feeling it again. This is very important because part of muscle pain is often the result of muscles being neglected due to our natural avoidance of injured areas.
Step 2: Lay on the Ground
Next, you will need to lay down on the ground with your legs straight. If you can find a small, very strong-skinned ball that is still soft, it will be ideal. Tennis balls and strong medicine balls will be too hard for this.
Breathe and relax. Slide your hand under your lower back. Notice there is a natural arch. This arch is where your lumbar muscles pull tight when your legs are straight. Now bend your knees with your feet still on the floor. Relax. Notice the arch has decreased and your lower back is touching the floor. When you bend your legs, the arch is reduced because the lumbar muscles are relaxed. Getting these muscles to stay relaxed when the legs are straight is key to this release technique.
Step 3: Place the Ball Under the Sacrum (Tailbone)
Gently lean over to one side and place the ball underneath the tailbone. Placing the ball gently under the tailbone and bending our knees creates a gentle pull—as if we are pulling from the tailbone away from the lumbar vertebrae. This is a slight elongation decompress our vertebrae.
The point of this exercise is actually to not exercise at all. We are going to completely let go of our muscles and relax into the ball. By simply letting our weight and gravity work to pull our lower back into the ball, the tension in our muscles will release. By releasing tension, we will relieve some of our pain.
Step 4: Relax Into the Ball
Now, simply relax. You don't need to fight the ball, flex the muscles, or do anything on the ball. Simply lay there and let gravity do the work. If the feeling is too intense, try two balls, on one each side of the tailbone for more stabilization. You should feel nothing but your calm, full diaphragmatic breathing and your muscles giving into gravity against the ball as you relax. Allow your muscles to relax for the next five minutes or so, then stop immediately.
To increase the intensity, you may lift your knees up gently so that they are directly above your hips. If you are having a hard time balancing on the ball, and you have to engage your back muscles to stay balanced, then this is wrong. Simply start over, reposition the ball in a place that makes it easier for you to stay upright, and resume. You should not have to use any muscles intensively. Remember to breathe, making a "Ssssssssssssssss" sound on your outward breaths.
During this technique, your body will realize that it is not in any danger, and your muscles will begin to autorelease. In combination with your breathing, this will relax your body. This relaxation will allow your muscles to rebalance themselves.
Step 5: Roll Off the Ball and Lay Flat on Your Back
When you are nice and relaxed, put your feet down, lean over, and quickly roll the ball out so that you do not engage your muscles in the low back/hips region. Lay down flat with your legs extended and relax, breathing. You should be able to notice that the arch in your lower back has lessened into a more neutral state.
To get the full benefit of this procedure, it may require several attempts. Some people feel relief immediately while others have to continue for a week or so before noticing any difference. Everyone's body/injury is different.
Repeat this as often as you like and for as long as you like!