Following a day of travel, driving for about three hours, sitting in the airport, and on a plane, I woke up feeling stiff and achy in my lower back. Rather than reaching for a Tylenol or Zyflamend, I decided to practice what I teach students and patients: “motion is lotion.”

Starting with a few brief stretches while still in bed and even while brushing my teeth, I jumped, well, hobbled really, onto my exercise bike and pedaled a few miles. I followed this with about 20 minutes of tai chi and felt a lot more ready for my day.

Low back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It also is associated with opiate addiction. So many people suffer from this, that physical, psychological, social and economic costs are enormous.

So what to do with your aching back? A colleague is part of a multi-center National Institutes of Health $13 million grant designed to test how to use physical therapy and chiropractic care in preventing acute back pain from becoming chronic. Though a majority of us will suffer the acute back sprain or strain at some time, many folks end up with chronic pain that affects their lives and health adversely.

Many of these end up on opiates, which are not all that effective, reducing back pain on average less than 20 percent while hazarding the risks of addiction, accidents, bowel problems, cognitive and behavioral impairments.

Before reaching for a habit-forming pill, realize there are many options for back problems.

Activity is primary.

The less you move, the more your pain, the more your stiffness and weakness, and the less you will want to or be able to move.

“My back hurts too much to exercise, doc.” This refrain is common. However, participation in physical therapy, home exercise, water therapy and stretching exercises have all been shown to help with back pain.

Gentle movement therapies like yoga and tai chi have also been researched and found to reduce pain, improve function, reduce falls and improve quality of life. Adaptive exercise such as chair yoga or chair tai chi can be used for those who are too deconditioned or weak for standing exercise. Just walking regularly helps.

The worst thing is lying around on the sofa or recliner, taking pain pills and wishing your pain would go away.

In fact, an overemphasis on pain management rather than on improving functionality can be a critical mistake in finding a workable path to healing back pain. To give you an idea of exercises to do, and not to do, I checked with Dr. Google, who led me to the WebMD site: https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/ss/slideshow-exercises.

Besides motion and activity, there are many other options for improving your function and quality of life and reducing chronic low back pain. Among these are chiropractic treatments to mobilize tight and unbalanced tissue and bones, acupuncture, myofascial and other forms of deep body work and massage, cognitive behavioral and other mind-body, relaxation therapies. Addressing the psychological stress of having chronic back pain is vitally important in getting your motion lotion mojo on.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

(1) comment

Kelly Naschke

You couldn’t be more right Dr. Sierpina. I was running six miles a day, 5 days a week until sciatica decided it was time to kick in. The pain was too severe to continue running. Walking wasn’t as hard on my lower back, so I started walking. I also started wearing wrist weights which eventually turned into 5 pound dumbbells. To make a long story short, I currently walk 2.75 a day, 4 days a week, with 20 pound dumbells that I curl, shrug, kickbacks, fly’s and and do overhead presses with. I also do 250 push-ups a day, 5 days a week. And do one CrossFit day a week in my home gym. I just turned 50 and am in great shape. 225 pounds with a 36” waist. I still wear the same jeans I wore as a 185 pound runner. I refuse to even consider any type of pain killers, opiates in particular. I also refuse to let the sciatica turn me into a fat old man that can’t move around. Motion is most definitely MY lotion. Thanks for your article today.
Leroy Naschke III

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