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Healing the Lower Back

By Rev. T. G. Morrow

Healing the Lower Back

In 1977 my lower back, the sacroiliac, went out. As I had done so often before, I began to go to chiropractors and osteopaths looking for relief. Though they'd been most helpful before, this time they were no help at all. The pain seemed to get worse and worse, to the point that sometimes when driving I would feel every bump as there seemed to be a pinched nerve in the back. My previously vigorous athletic activities came to a standstill.

Then, one evening, driving to a concert from Connecticut to New York, I made a great discovery. The back began to sense every bump again in pain, so I placed a cushion under my right buttock, the painful side. This only made things worse, so I tried putting the cushion under the left buttock. This provided a small amount of relief. But, as I continued driving the pain became less and less severe. By the time I returned home the back felt pretty good--after an hour of driving!

After that I began using the cushion all the time, substituting a book during classes. The back got better and better. I remembered one osteopath had some years back recommended my putting a lift in the shoe of my shorter leg, the right, to prevent further problems. I had done this and immediately my back had gone out again. Out came the lift. It occurred to me after my recent discovery that perhaps the lift would work in the left shoe, even though that leg was already longer. I tried it and it worked. The back felt better and better.

It dawned on me later that all this made a great deal of sense. By raising the left side, I was creating a kind of natural traction on the right side, the one with the greatest muscle spasm. The right side began to relax more and more.

Shortly thereafter I was getting my upper back checked out by a doctor and he remarked that the sacroiliac was perfectly even, with both legs the same length. For the previous 15 years my back had always shown a tilt to one side, the left leg slightly longer than the right. This time there was no tilt. Wearing the lift had evened things out.

Tennis, golf and basketball: must they destroy the back? Absolutely not. I had acquired a "sacro-belt" during one back "outage" and it occurred to me that this might help to keep everything together during some of these sports that tend to devastate the back. (A sacro-belt is a belt of non-elastic canvas about five inches wide with a piece of styrofoam in the back to press against the bottom of the spine when the belt is pulled tight. It can be purchased at a drug store.) I tried it and voila! It worked beautifully! Wearing such a brace all the time weakens the back but just for a tennis or golf game, it's great preventive medicine. It works on the same principle as the weight lifter's belt-protection. You can play with utter abandon knowing that belt is keeping the back in order.

Later, I discovered another great technique to stretch the back properly while sitting: Put a small, firm pillow in the arch of the back, about 6-8" above the bottom of the seat. This seems to stretch the back in such a way that your back actually feels better when you stand up, not worse. Many others have tried this and it has done wonders for them. This is especially worthwhile for your car seat, while you are driving.

"Okay, so what do I do when my back goes out, to get it back in order in less than a week, rather than 6-8 weeks?"

Good question. Here's what I do. I immediately buy a pain relief patch from the drug store (actually I keep a supply at home), and put that across the lower back. The common brand for this nowadays is called Salonpas. The size you need is 5x7 inches - that's the largest they have. If your drug store doesn't have it, get it on the internet. It's a light, piece of adhesive with capsaicin in it. This keeps it warm and supports it. They recommend you leave it on for less than a day, but I often leave it on for several days.

Next, I put on a sacro-belt (made by Futuro), again to support it and to make sure it doesn't get tired. This is so important - not letting the back get tired. Standing up and walking around actually helps the back more than lying down if you keep it supported like this and you keep it from tiring.

When I sit, I have one firm cushion under the buttock of the good side, and another in the arch of the back. Once I threw the back out mildly and played bridge that night. I religiously did all the above, and the next day it felt very good. So good, that I wrapped it up and played tennis. No problem. More on that in a moment.

There are certain minerals you can take to help your muscles, during this time, and anytime, for that matter. Magnesium, calcium, and potassium, can all be helpful. Check with your nutritional doctor on some of these.

Ordinarily, within 4 or 5 days of this treatment, I can stand up straight, and walk normally without pain. A far cry from the 6-8 weeks it used to take me.

I was fascinated by the way I once got my back spasms to relax completely only a week after I threw it out. I had to drive six hours to visit family and with the two cushions, one under one side and the other in the arch of the back, plus the mild vibrations in the car, all of a sudden after three hours of driving, I felt a tingling feeling. When I got out of the car, I discovered the back was loose as a goose. No spasms.

Someone could make a fortune by building a vibrating machine with support and wet heat in the arch of the back to get it loosened up. I am sure someone will one day.

About playing tennis after a sacro-iliac outage: when the muscles are all tied up in a knot back there you can get away with it. But when they are ready to relax from the spasm state, you can't. I discovered this one year when my back went out about five times. A week after it went out, with the above treatment, and wrapping it tightly with a sacro-belt (and the back plaster), I could play, no sweat. But, two weeks after it went out, every time it went out again. I realized from this that when the back is relaxing is a dangerous time to play sports. If I waited another week or two, no problem, but two weeks after the outage was not about to work. That number might vary from person to person, but whatever it is for you, it's a good number to know if you like playing sports.

Okay, that's how to fix it quickly. Now, what to do for prevention? The one thing that has helped me most has been stretching. I use the usual exercises they recommend, plus one more. The standard ones are:

1. Pulling one knee up to the chest and holding it for a time, then the other, and then both. Repeat several times.

2. Rock the pelvis back so that the back is flat against the floor or bed (wherever you happen to be). Repeat several times.

3. Lift one leg straight up and hold it for a few seconds, and then the other, to stretch the hamstrings. Repeat several times.

4. Crunches (half sit-ups). This never helped me much.

5.*** Sitting on the bed or floor, reach your hands toward your toes with you legs slightly bent (if they aren't bent, this will just stretch your hamstrings, which is not the primary object here). Try to touch your nose to your kneecap. This really stretches the muscles in the lower back. You do it gently and wait for things to loosen up, and then stretch a bit more, etc. I have come to be able to touch my ear to the side of my knee after years of doing this exercise daily.

Should you do this on the floor or in bed? Probably on the floor, but I know I won't do it first thing in the morning (which is a good time) if I have to lie on the floor. So, I do it in bed, right after waking up. It actually makes waking up more gradual, which is a great thing. I pray my morning prayers while I do it. It works fine.

At first, I must admit, I was afraid to do this fifth exercise. I felt so darn vulnerable. So at first, I did this stretching by lifting my legs over my head and stretching upside down. But as time went on, my confidence improved, and now it is no problem at all.

Something else which proved helpful was to do some exercises at the gym to strengthen the lower back. The most useful exercise has been that where I lay face down over the edge of a table with my feet held down and hang my torso down and lift it up and down. I think it's called "back extensions." This really builds strength in the two muscles on either side of the spine and protects the back. When I first went to the gym, I was afraid to do this exercise too. Again, it was such a vulnerable feeling. But, once I got used to it, no problem. I even do this exercise while recovering from a back outage.

Another discovery I made at the gym was to do crunches (half situps, or even 1/4 situps) on a Pilates ball. The latter is like a strong beach ball you can get at many discount stores or on the internet at A 55 cm. ball should cost under $20. This is amazingly helpful. One woman who was so desperate about her back problems that she was going to have an operation, got one and began to use it. Within two weeks she had no pain at all! (Be careful when you use this ball to be near a bed or some other stable object so you don't fall off the ball.)

Backs are tricky things. Orthopedic doctors seem to know little about them. Chiropractors seem to know more. But not all of the latter know these little tricks, which can ease the misery of back pain considerably.

Many people have tried these things, and have had almost miraculous results. I hope they will help you!