Thrown Your Back Out?

There I was, minding my own business on Saturday night, pulling down a shade on the back window, when I “threw my back out.” At the exact moment it happened, it took my breath away and the pain was intense. How did this happen? I had just pulled down two other shades–as I do every night when it gets dark–without incident. What actually occurred?

What exactly is throwing out one’s back? It is the acute onset of low back pain (in the lumbar spine). It can be caused by a number of things: muscle spasm, arthritis, a slipped or ruptured disk, or sometimes for no reason at all (like closing a shade!). Most of the time the condition is temporary, lasting only a few days or weeks. If it lasts longer, it is worth consulting a medical professional as it could be something more serious like a muscle tear, herniated disk, or even a kidney stone.

This is–as they say–not my first rodeo. As someone who is very physically active, this happens every couple of years or so; most of the time it is a result of something silly like this time. My rule of thumb is that if the pain and lack of mobility in my back do not resolve in a few days, I contact my doctor. That happened only once and I was refered to a chiropractor; it took a couple of visits, along with some exercises to finally get back to normal.

Here are some things that can help with a back that has been thrown out:

  1. Treat the pain. Ibuprofen and Naproxen work well to reduce swelling; if you cannot use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), use acetamenophin (Tylenol). Pain patches can help as well. Always follow label instructions carefully.
  2. Apply cold. I usually use a cold pack wrapped in a towel and find it brings relief.
  3. Apply heat. Many people swear by this because they feel the cold causes the muscles to contract and cause more discomfort.
  4. Apply cold and heat interchangeably. It works for some people!
  5. Exercise. The common practice used to be to immobilize the back; the latest research indicates that exercise and stretching can shorten the time it takes to recover. It is best not to overdo it while working out (I have been using lighter dumbbells than usual), but the activity can prevent the muscles from stiffening up further. Certain stretches can help as well: Cat/Cows, Cobra Pose, Child’s Pose, Windshield Wipers (keeping feet on the ground), Supine Knee-Ins, and Pelvic Tilts.
  6. Rest. While your body recovers, it uses a lot of energy; be sure to give your body the chance to recharge.

It is Tuesday, and each day I feel better. Interestingly, many of the same exercises and stretches that I use with my clients who have chronic lower back pain are the same ones I am using now. Hopefully, I will feel myself again in a day or two. If not, I will contact my doctor.

In the meantime, is it a problem to leave the shades up at night?

Aching from Too Much Computer/Desk Time

Old man with bad back

A couple of months ago I suddenly found myself with a sore and stiff back. It got so bad some days that I wondered how I was going to get out of bed. Other days I could barely lean over the bathroom sink to wash my face. I saw my primary care physician who recommended a few stretches, and the DO who was working with him even did a few manipulations. After a week with little progress, I asked my doctor about seeing a chiropractor; he thought it might be a good idea.

I was surprised to see that my chiropractor was part of a holistic health center at the Cleveland Clinic; I had always assumed that chiropractors were in practice for themselves and seen as being somewhat out of the mainstream in terms of medical care. Thankfully, after a couple of visits to the chiropractor–with some new stretches and strategies–I was back to my old self.

The problem, he explained, was not an uncommon one–especially as the pandemic drags on and many of us are still working remotely. We are spending too much time just sitting in front of a screen. As a personal trainer, I used to be on my feet all the time; there was even a rule at the gym where I worked that we could not sit down while with a client unless it was to demonstrate an exercise or a machine. Now that I am training remotely–with the exception of my group fitness classes–I am almost exclusively sitting down. Even with a rolling stool (the kind you often see in a doctor’s office that requires good posture since there is no back), I still managed to put a lot of pressure on my spine and hips. Now I make an effort to get up and walk around every now and again, and sometimes to even train while standing.

A recent article on CNN’s webpage by Stephanie Mansour (, offers five exercises that can also help those who are stuck in front of their monitors or laptops for hours on end. The exercises are: arm circles, wrist circles, hip circles, ankle circles, and leg circles. Nothing too radical here! Rather what we have are simple exercises that can be done quickly and easily without any equipment. They have little cardio or resistance value, but keeping ourselves limber and out of pain contributes to our ability to do those kinds of exercises.

I imagine that virtual training will always be a part of my personal training enterprise, and that therefore sitting in front of my laptop will be part of the formula as well. I do not want a repeat of the back pain from late winter, so I will get up and move around on a regular basis…and try these exercises too!

Stay healthy, and keep moving!