[ Side note: this is part 2 of a 3 part back pain series. If you need immediate relief visit part 1 which shows you proven techniques that work quickly. ]
I have permanently fixed the vast majority of my back pain that bothered me for 4 years.
Previous to having a sedentary day job, where I started sitting for 40+ hours a week in a chair, I never had back pain. I never had any health issues actually, let alone chronic pain like back and neck pain.
My first job out of college I was working in a high school as a tutor. It was a pretty sweet gig, but compared to the jobs I had before (always on my feet, or moving) It was pretty sedentary.
I didn’t think it was much of a problem, until about 3-6 months in, when my back started aching every day. It wasn’t a bad ache – just a little bit here and there. I’d get up, walk around, maybe sit on my desk instead of the chair, and it pretty much went away.
But as time went on the ache was getting worse and worse. I spent less time sitting down because it was hurting my back and neck.
Eventually the year ended and I had the summer months free (aka not behind a desk). I didn’t notice much pain then. But a few months after, I ended up moving to China and enrolled in a university and I was once again sitting all day. Combine this with the fact that my “mattress” consisted of a 1/2″ thick piece of cloth, I was starting to get really severe back pain on a daily basis.
I couldn’t sit up in class – it hurt my back too much. I couldn’t even slouch – somewhere else my back would hurt. But the worst, by far, was that I couldn’t sleep because I was constantly awoken by back and neck pain. Thus began my long journey into insomnia and myriad other problems.
Back Pain is a Serious Issue
Back pain is the #1 musculoskeletal complaint in the United States, affecting nearly 80% of all adults. It has also been shown to be predominant among workers in enclosed workspaces (like offices — which I learned the hard way), and people who sit for more than 3 hours or who engaged in manual labor.
Musculoskeletal complaints are the #2 reason for physician visits, and approximately 31 million visits were made to the doctor’s office because for back pain in 2003.
The estimated value of lost work time as a result of musculoskeletal injuries was estimated to be almost $120 billion.
We are in the middle of a pain epidemic.
Table of Awesomeness
- Two Things Worked (When All Else Failed)
- The Gokhale Method: Why Pocahontas Never Had Back Pain
- Gokhale Method: Lesson 1 – How to Sit Without Back Pain
- F.A.Q., Common Mistakes & Other Awesomeness
- The Other 3 Techniques That Fixed My Back Pain
What I Tried (That Didn’t Work)
When I finally couldn’t sleep because my neck and back pain were so bad, that was my wake up call. I knew I had to try and figure out something, so I did what everyone else does: I went to the internet.
Google was mostly useless, check out the useless search results I got when I Googled “back pain”:
These were all advertisements for things:
A lawyer? Web MD? A chiropractic center? Advil? Surgery??
Unfortunately google is populated by total garbage, so that’s why I took it into my own hands and started doing research.
I first avoided a bunch of things, because I knew my pain was chronic and these likely wouldn’t do much long-term:
- Advil / pain killers
- Heating pads
The only thing that even remotely showed positive results was stretching – but that was short lived.
Stretching only made my back feel better for a short while, but it was obvious that it wasn’t fixing the problem.
Laying down and doing some yoga or stretching out the back might feel great, but it never seemed to work long-term for me.
I tried acupuncture and although it seemed to work for a while, my symptoms quickly returned. It was obvious that something I was doing every day was clearly messed up my back over and over on a daily basis.
Around this time, after being exhausted from the lack of useful medical information out there on an insanely common health problem, I started researching.
Two Things Worked, When All Else Failed
There were two key things that just about saved my life:
- Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back
- The Egoscue Method – Book: Pain Free
Here’s what they are in a nutshell:
#1 The Gokhale Method – Why do 90% of North Americans have back pain at some point, while in other countries only 5% of people have back pain?
Esther Gokhale was similar to many back pain sufferers. In college she hurt her back doing yoga poses, which required bedrest for several days.
A few years later, she did the same thing again this time requiring up to a week of bed rest. Again, a few years later when she was pregnant with her first child she had an agonizing bout of sciatica — and after the baby was born she underwent surgery for a badly herniated disc.
After this point the doctors discouraged her from having another child, and her pain once again returned.
Right around this time is when Gokhale started studying at the Aplomb institute in France, with a teacher who studied how indigenous people move compared to those of us in industrialized nations.
Hint: it’s way different.
What she discovered is that people in traditional cultures use their bodies much differently — more effectively — and as a result suffer from a fraction of the rate of musculoskeletal pain despite working all day under heavy loads.
You know those African girls carrying baskets on their heads for miles? No back pain. No neck pain. No headaches. They use the body like how it was designed.
She found that, by the age of 50, almost 70% of western folks doing manual labor (and 40% of sedentary workers — people that sit) show signs of disc narrowing. In some of the populations that Gokhale studied (India, for this one), at age 50 it’s still less than 10%.
Gokhale is a woman to listen to if you want to be pain-free even in your old age. We’ll talk more about her soon.
#2 The Egoscue method – Chronic Pain: The Modern Danger of Ignoring an Ancient Message
The Egoscue method became famous with celebrity endorsements like Jack Nicklaus and several NFL players — because it works!
The whole premise behind the system is that pain is a warning sign in the body that something is not right (obviously), and the reason for the rise in musculoskeletal issues is because we are living in a motion starved world.
We sit for 40+ hours a week at work, and then many of us sit for another 40+ hours a week at home. 7/10 Americans don’t move enough or exercise regularly, and we’re paying the price.
The Egoscue method revolves around one thing: motion. The body needs regular motion and activity to function properly. Do “frozen shoulders” (where you can’t lift your arm above your head) ever happen in kids? Never.
Pete Egoscue found that joint pain (including back pain, headaches, tendinitis, shin splints, foot ailments, etc) is prevalent in people whose joints are not aligned properly and are not bearing weight how they naturally should.
Note: for 99% of us, “mis-alignment” occurs from a lifetime of bad habits or lack of physical activity.
Many people will then get X-rays and look at their bones and say “Look! My bones are out of place!” Actually your bones are an indicator of what your muscles are doing – based on muscles that are over-compensating or muscles that are weak.
Just look at any guy who only works out his chest and arms in the gym – he has the gorilla posture – concave chest, hands in front of his body, etc. That’s a long-term muscular imbalance created by an imbalanced exercise routine.
The egoscue method has worked on every single thing I’ve tried it on – chronic knee pain, shoulder pain, headaches, lower back pain, elbow tendinitis (tennis elbow), etc.
Now that I gave you guys a quick intro let’s jump into specifics on each one. I know you want the goods now so you can experience relief.
Gokhale Method 101 – Pocahontas Never Had Back Pain!
A. Introduction – Why Pocahontas Never Had Back Pain
I’m gonna start with the coolest revelation of Gokhale’s work: there are many populations where people live painlessly into old age.
Yes, even while doing 10 hours a day of bending or hard manual labor.
According to Gokhale, there are women in African countries that bend in the water for 7-9 hours a day and report no back pain.
The truth is that there is a very observable difference in how certain cultures use their body compared to most of us.
How about how people today sit compared to indigenous people?
I’m going to emphasize three things: A. Sitting posture and B. Bending posture.
I’m assuming these three motions (mostly sitting) make up 95% of your bodily posture during an average 24 hour period, so let’s go with the 80/20 rule and get the best return for your time.
Gokhale Method – Lesson 1 – How to Sit – Stretch sitting
The first sitting method (stretchsitting) revolves around using the back of the chair as support. The second method (stacksitting) is how to sit properly without back support.
Let’s talk about #1: Stretchsitting.
Stretchsitting is basically a way to lengthen your spine against the back of a chair, which will help prevent any further damage and help your body to heal.
A couple of the key things that you will do are A) make sure the lower back curve is present, B) keep the shoulders in their natural position (relaxed back instead of hunched forward), and C) Restore proper head position.
The cool thing is that besides fixing your back pain, stretch sitting also helps fix things like carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive stress injuries related to the arms (like tendinitis in the elbow, wrist, etc). Improper head and shoulder position literally squeezes the nerves (which all originate in the neck/head), and reduces oxygen flow to the brain. Scary stuff! And the fact is that many of us who sit all day have horrendous neck posture.
This was one of the reasons why I have had such bad chronic neck issues, which (if you remember), originated with chronic back pain that progressed.
But the main reason for properly aligning the back is that any time the back isn’t lined up properly, you are putting pressure on your spinal discs that can lead to herniated discs and spinal degeneration, and looks like this:
I won’t even go into detail about how many auxiliary problems are resolved by fixing posture, but if you have chronic pain, this is the place to start.
So let’s talk about stretchsitting — in other words, sitting with a lengthened spine in your chair. It feels extremely good, and if you’re at work you can practice this all day.
Step 1: Sit Down, Placing Your Butt Far to the Back of the Chair
It’s important here to get your butt into the back of the chair. Many people just sit down, and if you have bad posture to begin with, you’re going to round your lower back. It’s absolutely crucial that your lower back is not rounding out.
Step 2: Use the Chair to Lengthen Your Spine
The important thing here is to relax your lower body – imagine you are pulling your body in two different directions. It’s like hanging from a pull-up bar: just left the upper and lower body relax and pull away from eachother.
Here what you are doing is using both hands and pushing up off the armrest in order to lengthen the spine – and then set it back into the chair in a lengthened position. You almost want to pretend that a “hook” is catching your spine and keeping it stretched out on the chair.
Step 3: Attach Your Mid-Back to the Backrest (or a cushion)
So in step 2 you manually stretched out the spine, by pushing off the arm rest and letting the back stretch out — now, you are placing that (now stretched out) back against the back of the chair.
Relax for a second. You will feel this almost tingly feeling in your back – it’s a fantastic feeling of relaxation, circulation and blood flow. That’s one of the ways you know you stretched it out well.
Step 4: Release the Tension in Your Arms
Release the arms, and relax for a second. Feel the chair taking the weight of your back, and feel that spine stretch and tingle as it gets better circulation and relaxes fully.
Step 5: (How to Tell if You Straightened Properly)
If your lower back feels stretched out a bit — you’re doing it right. Note: it may feel weird at first – Just give it time, you will be thanking sweet baby Jesus you discovered this technique.
If you aren’t sure whether you successfully stretched out your lower back, put your hand on your back just above the point of contact with the chair. You should feel a roll of skin there that the chair has pushed up. That’s what you want.
Step 6: Roll Your Shoulders Back
Many of us naturally hunch our shoulders forward and poke our necks out when seated — it’s naturally what happens when you slouch your lower back (instead of keeping the lower back arch).
Hunched shoulders and a head that sticks out lead to a whole host of issues: nerve issues throughout the arm, wrist, and hand (carpal tunnel syndrome anyone?), pins and needles in the arms and shoulders while sleeping, as well as potentially headaches due to reduced oxygen flow from the brain (see this video).
The basic movement is this: take one shoulder and hunch it forward as far as it will go, then slowly lift it towards your ear, and gently guide it backward (don’t push it), then let it fall. It should now be noticeably closer to the back than it was before. This will restore good arm circulation and free up anything that is being pinched or otherwise affected by improper alignment. As you can tell, modern humans are a piece of work…
Step 7: Lengthen The Back of Your Neck (Finished!)
Here’s the last step!
Remember what I said are the two biggest things that most people that sit a lot mess up? A. Letting the lower back lose it’s curve and B. Letting the head stick out.
Both of these lead to big time chronic dysfunctions down the road.
Here’s the final step on ensuring that your head position is correct, which is very important for those of you who have upper back pain (that burning between the shoulder blades).
Gokhale gives 4 or 5 recommendations for lengthening the neck:
- A. Imagine a helium balloon inside your head — release any tension in your neck, and imagine it pulling your head up into the air.
- B. Grab a clump of your hair at the base of your skull, and gentle pull your head back and up (see image above)
- C. Grasp the base of your skull with both hands and gently pull upward while lowering your shoulders
- D. Place an object on your head (like a towel — or imagine it), and push up against it
This is one of the two techniques I use every day when I work. Usually after an hour of sitting the back pain sets in and I have to be really conscious of my posture — that’s when I walk through the steps in stretchsitting (It seems like a lot, but it takes less than a minute when you get good).
Every single time I use this, it works. It’s a total godsend.
F.A.Q / Questions / Common Mistakes & Misc. Awesomeness
“I feel overly stretched”
If you feel overly stretched, gently pull away from the chair a bit and let your back slide down the chair a bit.
“I don’t feel the stretch in my spine”
If you don’t feel the stretch in your spine after you’ve completed all the steps, check for the roll of flesh above the chair (see step 7).
If you do have that fold of skin, then you are stretchsitting — sometimes it takes people time to feel it because they are used to being tight throughout the day.
“It’s uncomfortable where my back touches the chair.”
Sometimes I drape a sweater over the back of my chair so it’s a little bit of padding to put my back up against. Either your chair is not very padded, or you’re too skinny. If your case is the latter, you need to lay on the cheeseburgers.
Some of those big office “CEO chairs” have a back much higher than the person sitting in them. It’s virtually impossible to stretchsit in those, so stay tuned for lesson 2 which is stacksitting.
Stretchsitting Was One of the 4 Techniques I Used to Fix my Back Pain: The Other 3/4 are Below
If you’re like me, the vast majority of your back pain comes while sitting (or sleeping). The main two things I use on a daily basis (that result in virtually no pain) are the technique I described in this post (stretchsitting) and another technique known as stacksitting.
I also use two other things:
- Gokhale’s sleeping positioning known as stretch lying, and
- The Egoscue method’s exercises (better for short-term, immediate relief from back pain)
Grab the FREE Back Pain Report
***To read more about fixing back pain while sitting at work, check out this post.
***To fix back pain when sleeping, check out this post.