There’s an 80% chance you will see your doc about back pain during your life. In the last article, you learned the distinction between acute and chronic back pain, and how to not cause either. And you learned that breathing is the key to preventing and healing back tension. This article will explore, in greater depths, what is behind chronic back pain and what you can do about it.
As a Rolfer, I tend to treat people after they tried everything else. This in not because other treatments are ineffective – it’s because the tension that is causing the persistent problem is old. After many years of repeated back problems, the entire body gets tighter and more distorted. The original problem might have been from a childhood injury. Over the years, the body has more stress, more injuries and more patterns of compensation that all add to increased tension. At some point, the body exhausts its ability to counteract the original strain pattern. Now you are worse off – you have the original tension plus years of coping with it.
The Often-Overlooked Source of Back Pain
We all know we get shorter as we age. But it’s not our bones shortening—it’s the soft tissue shortening and screwing down. Here is a quick test to evaluate what your low back is up against:
Stand up, and place your fingers on your pelvis.
Push in a little until you feel that lower twelve rib.
Optimally, you should have the space of three finger widths between your pelvis and your lower rib.
Rarely do I find that much space. Two finger widths is great, one is adequate. When you are at no space or having your ribs inside your pelvis, you have a problem.
This is where we lose most of our height. Our discs are like jelly donuts being space fillers between the vertebras allowing the spine to move. They become pancakes from this compression. When the discs compress and the tissue around them tighten, they dehydrate from lack of circulation and movement. This sets up the bulging or ruptured disc that may require surgery. This chronic tension and shortness just makes you more vulnerable to back injury and pain.
Strengthening your back will often give your short-term gain; you’ll have increased movement, and you may develop a new pattern of compensation. Over time, the soft tissue just gets tighter.
We need to go in the other direction. We need to release and lengthen the tissue. Unfortunately at this point, stretching does not work for most people. Stretching these muscles is like stretching a steel cable. We need to make the soft tissue soft again.
What Is Possible
If the body created soft tissue strain, it can usually un-create it. When the correct amount of pressure is applied to the right area, the tissue begins to release. Over time, hydration, subtleness and movement returns. The body begins to unwind as it lengthens out. The space in between the pelvis and the ribs returns.
Once the body attains a level of order and relaxation, the change becomes sustainable. All our bodies prefer pleasure to pain. When we are so used to pain, it can take a while for our bodies to trust that our backs can be as they were when we were younger.
Part of returning this vibrancy to our tissue comes from changing simple behaviors. The first is learning not to protect your back. The natural behavior of holding to avoid or reduce your back pain over time only makes your back tighter. I have seen people where their pain is long gone, the back is loose, but the person still protects out of habit. Noticing how subtlety we hold is huge. A lot of little holding all the time adds up to be significant. A lot of subtle letting go adds up also.
Rolfing is certainly not the only means to releasing chronic tension; it just may be quickest, though. Teaching the entire body to deeply and consistently relax can do a lot. As mentioned in the previous article, learning to breath and dealing with stress can significantly improve chronic pain.