I’ll never forget the first time I started having back issues. I tried to hop out of bed in the morning as usual and it was… excruciating. It took me several minutes to fully stand up straight, and I spent the day shuffling around, totally hunched over.
Sitting was incredibly painful, so I started working standing up. After driving, I’d spend several minutes awkwardly standing next to my car, trying to get fully upright again before I could start walking. At one point, my upper torso shifted to the left and locked up that way, forcing me to walk around crooked.
I finally got an MRI and discovered that I had several herniated discs. My doctor isn’t sure why —it could be something as simple as repeatedly lugging around my son’s (incredibly heavy) car seat. I’ve seen several back pain specialists and have been told that there’s nothing they can do for me, short of surgery or steroid injections, both of which I’d rather avoid.
After years of physical therapy, I finally found a solution that works for me: Biking and swimming, along with daily stretching and core strengthening at home. It requires time and energy, but I’ll happily do it if it means I can avoid back pain in the future. And so far, so good.
I know I’m not alone in my battle against back pain. According to data from the American Chiropractic Association, half of all Americans say they have back pain symptoms each year. And, with more people staying at home—and moving less—due to the pandemic, those numbers are expected to increase.
If you’re struggling with back pain, it’s a good idea to be evaluated by a specialist to try to figure out why you’re having issues, Christopher Wolf, MD, orthopedic spine surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. And, if you can figure out the source of your pain, you can work to avoid making the same mistake again, physical therapist Susan Fu, co-director of Rehabilitation Services at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Once you’re evaluated by a doctor or physical therapist, they can help determine next steps. But that generally involves some form of stretching, ice and heat therapy, and strengthening, Wolf says. And, to really make it work for you, you’ll probably need to do a lot of this at home on your own. Fortunately, there are many products that can help.
Here are some tools to pick up if your back pain struggle is real.
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Ice can help soothe pain when inflammation gets to be too much. The ColePak has a flexible ice pack that conforms to your back, as well as elastic straps, so you can wear this on the go. Keep in mind that gel packs like this one get really cold, so you might need to wear a shirt between you and your pack, Fu says.
Shop it: ColePak Comfort Reusable Ice Pack, $16, amazon.com
You can usually help work out a muscle spasm through massage, but that’s kind of difficult to do at home on your own. That’s why Fu recommends having a bunch of balls handy. You can place one up against a wall and lean into it. “The key is to allow yourself to relax when using it, and wait for the muscle to actually release,” she says.
Shop it: Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls, $16, amazon.com
Sometimes the source of back pain can be as simple as poor posture. But, when you sit and stand a certain way all the time, it’s hard to correct it. That’s why Wolf recommends investing in a posture shirt like this one from AlignMed. It helps move your shoulder blades and back into the right position so you can take extra stress off your spine.
Shop it: AlignMed Posture Shirt, $95, amazon.com
You can find this strap at most physical therapy offices. The Stretch Out Strap has 10 individual loops, so you can easily find the right length for whatever body part you’re trying to stretch. This a great tool to have handy if your lower back is the issue. “You can use it to stretch out your hamstrings, which helps your pelvis and back muscles relax,” Wolf says.
Shop it: Stretch Out Strap, $16, amazon.com
There are a few things you can do with a good exercise ball like this one, and it largely involves core-strengthening exercises like planks and side planks, Wolf says. They’re also good for getting to hard-to-stretch places, he adds.
Shop it: Black Mountain Stability Ball, $18, amazon.com
If you struggle with low back pain, “it can be helpful at home to modify sitting,” Wolf says. Using a balance ball chair makes it hard to slouch since you have to sit on your pelvis and keep an upright posture, he explains. This option from Gaiam has great reviews—and people rave about the comfort and durability.
Your butt muscles (aka glutes) tend to get weakened when you have lower back pain, which is why lateral leg raises and hip extensions with weights can help, Wolf says. The Cuff offers up a variety of weights that easily strap to your ankle to help push your strengthening game.
Shop it: The Cuff Ankle Weight, $13, amazon.com
Foam rollers are great for working out hard-to-stretch spots, like your IT band (a long piece of connective tissue that runs from your hip to your knee), Wolf says. And, he points out, a tight IT band can indirectly contribute to back pain. To use it, simply put the foam roller on the ground, lay down on your side on top of it, and roll the area from your hip to your knee over it while applying some pressure into the roller.
Shop it: Amazon Basics High-Density Foam Roller, $10, amazon.com
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