Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I have chronic low back pain that has waxed and waned for more than 30 years. I don’t want to take drugs. Any suggestions?
—Peter M., Tucson, Ariz.
A: Chronic low back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical advice. First and foremost, it’s important to work with a provider who will take the time to understand the history of your pain. Good questions for a doctor to ask: What makes the pain worse or better? When did it start? Is it progressing?
Almost all pain is exacerbated, if not caused entirely, by inflammation, so it’s always worthwhile to engage in natural anti-inflammatory practices. The first recommendation is to be well-hydrated. The “shock absorber” discs between the bony units of the spinal column are mostly made of water (as is the rest of your body). Being well-hydrated will keep those discs turgid, thus providing internal traction.
Anti-Inflammatory Diet & Nutrients
Try to reduce your consumption of animal foods such as cheese, ice cream, and meat. Vegetables need to be at the center of your diet—eat several at every meal. Also, eating less in general helps reduce body wear and tear (which causes inflammation). If you really enjoy breakfast, make sure you have dinner early enough to allow for a prolonged fast. This also helps rest your digestive system.
Give natural pain relievers and anti-inflammatories a try as well. My favorites include bromelain (take without food), turmeric, MSM, and CBD oil.
Options for Treating Sciatica
A low backache that comes with a buzzy, unpleasant sensation down one or both legs (sciatica) usually means an intervertebral disc is pressing on a spinal nerve. The range of treatment options includes traction (e.g., gravity boots or hanging from a chin-up bar), or spinal manipulation. You can also consider a well-placed steroid injection if local inflammation is confirmed, and as a last resort, some kind of surgery to relieve the pressure (such as shaving off the protruding edge of the disc, or, less popular now, laminectomy).
Sitting Too Long Can Cause Low Back Pain
Very frequently, low back pain is caused by chairs. If possible, sit on a large ball at work. Standing desks are okay. It’s not great to stand all day either—better if your desk is adjustable and you can alternate every few hours between sitting and standing.
Try to push yourself all the way back in the chair to preserve the natural arch in your lower back. Pull the belly button back toward the spine and gently engage the perineum upwards. Set an alarm on your phone if you have to. The perineum lift is like a Kegel exercise for women. These are subtle movements and require keeping your buttocks relaxed.
Did You Know?
Standing all day can be just as bad as sitting. The best bet is to alternate every few hours.
Core Toning for Reducing Low Back Pain
Another essential element for preventing or reducing low back pain is core toning. There are many readily available programs for the abdominal muscles. Find one that is simple (you can quickly commit to memory), and engage daily. Classic sit-ups are out. You just need to lift your shoulder blades off the floor and shorten the rectus abdominus (muscle group from front rib cage to pelvic girdle) by bringing the bony points toward each other on each exhale. Repeat up to 100 times. Start with 10.