I'm inspired to write this post as a succinct way to respond to people who ask me all the time how I got rid of almost %100 of my chronic back pain. I was in pain for almost seven years and I would say I felt pain at various levels 80-100% of the time. It was exhausting, frustrating, depressing and expensive. I spent a lot of time and money seeing various practitioners, doing research, getting an MRI, getting a cortisone shot (something that didn't work for me and I considered a bandaid anyway). I stopped short of back surgery because I was self-employed and my insurance was not very good and a lot of what I read about back surgery for chronic pain was not very inspiring. It's very invasive surgery and often doesn't work. I do know back surgery has worked for others and certainly what worked for me may not work for you, but I want to help get information out there that might help without too much trouble and expense!
I also had a whole slew of other chronic conditions in addition to the back pain: indigestion, fatigue, sinus headaches that were near migraine, restless leg syndrome (RLS), low libido and fluctuating weight (most of these other conditions I suffered with for over twenty years). When I was deciding about the back surgery, I figured I should give a natural approach one more shot. It didn't even occur to me that what I would do would also alleviate most of my other chronic conditions, but here I am to tell the tale!
#1 - Read Chris Kresser's Book: "The Paleo Cure" (no I'm not 100% paleo)
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Chris Kresser by a friend of mine and he took me on as a patient. I'd heard of a Naturopathic alternative to Western medicine and figured I would give it a shot. Functional Medicine is now the terminology used to describe Chris' approach and I respect that it's not a bandaid. The approach tries to get at the root of the problem (often a whole slew of problems) and then to work at curing these problems in natural ways. There seems to be some controversy about the validity of Functional Medicine on Wikipedia, but it worked for me, so that's what counts in my book. I won't get into all of what we did to work through my conditions but the short list is:
- Getting rid of a parasite in my gut
- Rebuilding my gut flora
- Replenishing vitamins d and b12 (I personally attribute the lack of b12 in my system for the RLS - a month into the protocol I completely stopped getting restless legs - and if you've ever had it you know how miserable it can be. I've only felt it a handful of times in the three years since my treatment and I just pump up my b12 and voila! It's gone!)
- A Paleo Reset************
******** The Paleo Reset. I think this was the key to reducing my back pain to almost zero. If you have a whole slew of conditions like I did, you may want to visit a Functional Medicine practitioner like Chris, but if you can't afford it, or you're just trying to test out getting rid of your chronic pain before considering something more serious and invasive, read Chris' book. Really it's about doing an elimination diet to reduce chronic inflammation in your body. Inflammation is often the root of many conditions. The idea, is that if you eliminate common inflammation causing foods or foods to which your body is sensitive, you will likely reduce the inflammation in your body that might be causing your chronic conditions. After your month-long journey (not easy!) you start adding back into your diet certain foods and listen to your body about what then produces the pain again. In my case it's a sensitivity to gluten and dairy. I also keep mostly clear of nightshades (like tomatoes and eggplant), eggs, peppers, etc.
So no, I'm not 100% paleo (I could never give up corn and gluten free bread!), but I am almost 100% organic and grass-fed and mostly steer clear of what I now know causes inflammation. And Seriously, I have a direct reaction almost every Christmas and every time I go to the midwest for my annual family vacation in Wisconsin and go overboard on gluten, dairy, alcohol, etc. - it starts with crackly ears, then I get the sinus headaches, then a full-on cold, indigestion and last Christmas, I went so overboard, I actually "threw out" my back. I was laying almost flat for a week and that didn't even happen the first time I hurt my back! Thankfully, I quickly recovered and I am still almost 100% pain free.
#2 - Superfeet!
If you can't afford to go to a podiatrist or chiropractor, try Superfeet! I now have custom orthotics, but it was the suggestion of a friend who had similar foot issues to mine that suggested I try Superfeet - easy to pick up at REI or online and inexpensive compared to custom orthotics. If you want to see if better foot support helps your back, this is a good way to start. Put them in your workout shoes first and if it helps, go on to put them in your work shoes, slippers, etc. If it really does help, you may want to get checked out for custom orthotics for the long-term just to make sure you've got the best fit. Not cheap, but it was worth it for me.
#3 - The Gokhale Method - Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back
This book really helped me when I was in acute pain. For the most part, I sleep and sit differently after reading this. Every once in a while I find myself rolling over onto my stomach when sleeping and have to correct myself (I was always a stomach sleeper). If I don't correct myself I'll really pay for it. Same with getting lazy on the couch. It's WAY better if I sit according to the direction of this book (and no, it doesn't mean you can't lounge when watching TV - there's just a better way to do it!). Bending over and picking things up correctly is also helpful and I'm forever correcting myself with my posture when sitting and standing, but for the most part my posture is auto-corrected by habit. The Gokhale Method does have extensive paid workshops, but they also offer free workshops all over the place if you just want a taste of it.
#4 - Strengthen Your Core!!!
I know you've heard this a million times, but REALLY - STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE. It's one of the best things you can do for yourself. This should almost be number one, but every one of these tips will lay your foundation for a pain-free back, so there really is no order of importance. If you are in acute pain, check with a physical therapist for some very basic core strengthening exercises so you don't injure yourself. but here are some (at home) core strengthening tips:
- Beginner Power Vinyasa Yoga - I have been doing yoga on and off for 25 years so picking up a beginner yoga video seemed odd for me, but I was considering going to a Core Power yoga studio regularly and since it's REALLY hard, I figured I would try it at home first for a while so I wouldn't embarrass myself again at the studio (I almost passed out). What I found was that although the video is really basic, it's really a very good overall yoga workout with a focus on the core. After doing this video many times and memorizing the sequences, I ended up shortening the routine to fit with my schedule since I didn't need the extra coaching on getting the positions right. I never did go back to the studio and don't go regularly to another yoga studio either because it's expensive and time consuming and I do fine on my own, but once in a while it's a real treat to go to a yoga class - it's just not Core Power when I do. Too hard! Ha! So I just looked and it looks like you can't get this video anymore! I think we should all write to Lisa Richards and ask her to re-make it for a download!!!
- Once you feel strong enough, you can add in more intense core workout videos and alternate them in with your yoga practice. I continue to workout at home because I (and THF) am all about building practical and affordable wellness solutions into my everyday life. I find Jay a little annoying, but the J-Core videos are really good core workouts. Jillian Michaels also has some good ones. Just be careful and don't overdo. Do your core power yoga on alternate days so you don't hurt yourself!
- Now that I'm almost 100% pain free (and running two businesses) and have a super strong core, I now stick with the New York Times Seven Minute Workout followed by a short stretch routine that I've developed based on all of the work I've done and been exposed to over the years. Stay tuned for a video of this workout which I hope to produce within the next month or so! This routine along with the seven-minute workout fits in with my crazy life, maintains my core strength and is short enough that I don't dread doing it four to five times a week. It's really good for maintenance - but not for weight loss!
#5 - Lose weight
Ugh. This is something I continue to struggle with, BUT in my quest for a pain-free back, I lost 25 pounds through diet and exercise. I have since gained about 15 back, but because I was successful in doing all of the other steps to alleviate my back pain, I have not gone back to the chronic pain despite the weight gain. I'm willing to bet if I were really good about being 100% gluten free and could shed that 15 pounds again I would likely be 100% pain-free all the time. Some habits are just REALLY hard to change permanently. Really, there just is no magic formula for losing weight. It's reducing calories and increasing exercise. Bottom line. Here's what helped me:
- Controlled portions through boxed diet meals - there are a lot more organic and healthy options these days. This is an easy and inexpensive way to start to learn to control portions.
- When you plateau you might step it up to Weight Watchers for a while.
- The Jillian Michael's 20 minute workout is really hard, but it really helped me shed the pounds. Plus she's really cool and it's only 20 minutes! Remember, the Seven Minute Workout is good for maintenance but to lose weight you're going to need to step it up for a while.
#6 - A standing desk
I don't stand all the time, but I would say I stand the majority of time at this point. I already had an old Ikea Fredrik desk (sadly it doesn't look like they make them anymore) that Brennan adjusted for me to make a standing desk, but there seem to be lots of options online. I also wear supportive shoes (think orthotics, danskos, superfeet insoles, etc) and I bought a thick standing pad like the ones they use for grocery store checkout clerks. Someday I may convert to a treadmill desk, but I'm not quite there yet. I still do a lot of retouching for my photography business and there's too much finessing to be walking at the same time. Plus it would be a bit more complicated to switch out for the chair when I want to sit. The chair I got is a drafting chair with supportive back. The office supply stores have not wised up yet on the standing desks so they don't really offer any of this stuff so online if your best bet.
#7 - Walk and ride your bike as much as you can for errands!
Seriously, unless you are in acute pain, build as much movement as you can into your everyday routine. I know you've heard this one before too, but it really helps to keep moving.
#8 - Pay attention to your vitamin and mineral intake
Build up your immunity and find out what will help reduce inflammation. Omega-3 high quality fish oil supplement is important if you don't get enough omega-3 through your regular diet. I try but don't succeed so through a recommendation by Chris Kresser I use a supplement. I've used the Green Pasture formula for a few years, but noticed when writing this that there has been some recent controversy. Please read Chris' recent article on what he now recommends.
#9 - Stay Hydrated
Seriously. Drink a lot of water. I have a friend who says when she gets a "crick" in her shoulder, she drinks a ton of water and it goes away. I don't have such direct and immediate results as she does. but I do notice a difference in a lot of things when I'm dehydrated.
#10 - Change Careers
So, not only did I have all this inflammation in my body and even though I thought I was healthy - obviously I was not before I did all this, I also am in a career that is VERY hard on the body - both mentally and physically. This is why I'm so passionate about starting The Healing Farm and yelling from the mountaintops about not needing to live with chronic pain! I've been a photographer on and off for twenty years and a wedding photographer for almost fifteen years. It's a killer on the body and although everything I've done to strengthen my core and all the other things have helped, my body is still trashed the day after I shoot a wedding. It's time to change careers and do something that's better for my body and mind. It's what I will be passionately working on in the present and near future. I hope through The Healing Farm and The Healing Farm | Retreats that I will be able to share practical wellness solutions for so many people who need to know these simple solutions! Good luck to you and let me know if you have any questions and come to our Paleo Reset Retreat , listen to Chris Kresser talk about his approach in person and kick-start your reset with this week-long retreat!
The Healing Farm - Cultivating Practical Wellness.