If you're on this page, backache relief is what you are looking for. The first step is to understand the problem, or you'll never really fix it. So read a bit. If we get boring, jump ahead, or skip to the links to the solution pages.
If you are like most people, you have a body-part that holds your head off your butt. It's your spinal column. If you are like most people, that column is not straight up and down like a post, rather it has curves along its length, in a stacked "S" configuration (one S curve above the other). Back pain happens when that optimum curvature gets out-of-whack. Backache relief happens when you nudge it back into alignment.
Assuming for the moment that you've got x-ray vision, or maybe a model or pictures of a spine, if you view a person's spine from the front or back, it should look quite straight up and down - as in that skeleton pictured to the left. Any non-temporary deviation to one side or the other is what the chiropractors call "subluxation" when it involves just a couple of vertebrae, or a larger-scale swerve is scoliosis or some other deformity, and it's not good.
The side view, however is different. Starting at the top, where it joins the skull (click the image for a larger view with readable labels):
That curve at the small of your back is of particular interest. It involves/includes the lower thoracic vertebrae and all the lumbar vertebrae. Excessive curvature there is called lordosis.
That's also where most common back pain is found. It's also where backache relief is to be found... once you understand the problem.
(We also deal with upper-back pain, it's one of our most popular topics.)
When you combine the overall multi-S curvature of the spine with the tension of the muscles that hold it, you have a big spring that can withstand shocks and weight.
That means, you can jump up and down, run around, lift and carry stuff, without your bones jolting into each other with every movement and without each little (and big) shock being transmitted to your brain. Look at it this way, the curvature and springiness of your spine ensures that you don't get a concussion every time you sit down a little abruptly.
If any of those curves flatten out, you lose some of that scope for flexing, and any kind of shock or heavy weight can really rattle your bones and do you harm - like when you jump off of something and land a bit hard and feel it from your heels right up to your head. Ouch! That's like when your car-springs bottom out because you hit a really deep pothole. Do that a bunch of times and you get chronic pain, and find yourself needing backache relief.
Proper curvature of the spine allows such shocks to be spread out along the length of the spine and attenuated into the springy muscles that attach to various points. The curves compress, storing energy in the attached muscles, then rebound softly when the force is removed or the jolt is over.
Lack of enough curvature limits the ability to flex and attenuate stresses. Backache relief for this problem needs the attention of a chiropractor, and repeated visits for a couple of years. If you've got this problem while standing, you are unlucky. It's less common than the other things we'll talk about.
A very common way that people have chronically too little curve in the lower spine is when they sit too much, or they sit with poor posture. Just visualize it. While you are standing, as seen from the side, your spine curves from your middle back, curving forward behind your belly, then back out at the top of your butt. That's the way it's supposed to be in the small of your back.
But when you sit, you tuck your butt under you and the curve of your lower back gets pulled straighter. If you slouch while you sit, it's even worse. Now, if you do that for hours and hours, that's a lot of the wrong kind of pressure on your spinal bits, for extended periods of time. Do that every day (say at a desk in an office or even at school), and you start to do some damage. Here's how that damage happens and how you start looking for backache relief as young as your thirties, without ever having blocked a linebacker or lifted the back end of a pickup truck...
Here's the problem. If the there's a gel-filled springy disk between the two slabs of bone, two vertebrae (and yes there is one of those between each pair all the way down the spine), and the hinge at the back keeps the space between them constant at the back... and a lot of weight comes down... the only place where the two bony plates can get closer together (and maybe even touch) is at the front. If you are sitting slouched in a non-supportive chair, that's the same as standing bowed under a big weight.
So, if those bony masses - the two vertebrae - touch at the front, or at one side (say you lean to one side as you surf the web), what happens to the gel-filled disk?
Yep, it has to go somewhere. Squish one part of it and another part bulges out whatever opening is available.
That usually means that part of the disk bulges out a back "corner" of its inter-vertebral space, to one side or the other of the hinge. Because, well, that hinge/joint isn't going anywhere (it's a pivot) so other stuff around it is going to give way.
Now, if that bulging happens too often, or just one time really, really brutally, then the disk ruptures and spills its gooey guts at that point.
But even if it hasn't ruptured yet, it's bulging out from between vertebrae, near the back, into a space where it's not supposed to be. In fact, it's intruding into the same space where major nerves exit the spinal column.
You see, the nerves have to exit at the back, where the hinge is, because that's where the spacing is constant - regardless of what flexing the spine is doing - and those nerves won't get pinched at the back of the spine. Well, that was the plan, anyway... before you started lifting things with your back rounded, or before you began spending seven to ten hours a day slumped into the exactly-wrong curvature.
So you begin to see the problem. The squished disk is bulging (or bursting) into the space where the nerves are. Nerves that serve important parts of your lower body (since we're talking about lower-spinal - lumbar - vertebrae and disks at the moment).
Now, here's the thing about nerves. They're delicate. even the thick trunk nerves that exit major portals (foramen) of the spine are delicate enough that a force no greater than the weight of a single dime is enough to severely diminish their information-carrying capacity.
So there's this nerve - say it's the one that senses and controls most of your left leg - this nerve is passing through a safe but snug area just outside the spine, when suddenly something else (part of a disk) crushes into that same space. The nerve has nowhere to go, it just gets mashed. It protests. You feel the protest as pain, and you start thinking about backache relief.
A minor intrusion causes pain close to the point of pressure, say in your lower back and upper butt, on that side. If the problem continues and/or the intrusion increases, the pain extends farther down your butt and then down your leg. The nerve pinch is getting rather severe when you have pain all the way down to your foot, or when it starts to wrap around to the front of your leg. That's when your chiropractor or doctor will start making very worried noises. You should, too.
Go the other way, and have too much curvature, and it's a problem in the other direction - like having your car springs over-sprung. Or like carrying around a big extra weight that pre-bends everything all the time, before you even exert yourself or experience a little slip or bump. That makes every slip or bump, or every exertion start out with a deficit in the spine's ability to compensate or attenuate the applied forces.
The lower parts of the spine generally carry more weight, so they are bigger - the individual vertebrae are physically more massive and strong in the lower area than the higher vertebrae - and the curve of your lower back is bigger and stronger, to support your entire upper body along with any weight you carry in your hands, on your shoulders, on your back. Again, for backache relief you'll want to visit the chiropractor. But there are some simple, basic exercises that you can do to balance the strength of your back and abdominal muscles.
Too much frontward curvature (swayback?), excessive lordosis, is a problem, just as is too little. To see why, look at the diagram.
If your back sways to far forward in the lower portion, the lumbar curve is exaggerated.
That's not actually putting excess pressure on the disks (like slouching or lifting with the back bent forward (above). Instead, the disks are actually stretched out and have less than normal pressure on them.
BUT, meanwhile, at the back of the spine, the muscles that criss-cross and anchor to the spine and other parts to allow you to twist and to keep you stable - those muscles just spend their lives clenched, trying to balance that big gut out front.
Just as above (previous section) you have large, important spinal nerves exiting at the back of the spine (by the hinge between each pair of vertebrae). But the surrounding muscles are cramped and irritated and inflamed from being overworked and under-stretched.
They put pressure on the big nerves, and you get pretty much the same result pain at one side or both sides of the lower back, extending into your butt and - if the problem is severe and/or long-standing - down one leg or both.
The situation is not helped by the fact that the lower spine is overcurved, leaving a smaller radius in the lower back (to compensate for the bigger radius out front, so those cramped and inflamed muscles are being cramped and inflamed in the smallest possible space... right where all those major nerve trunks are.
Not only are you likely to have back, butt, and leg pain (for which you are seeking backache relief), you likely also have problems with other areas served by big nerves coming from the lower spine.
Think of your intestines and lower-abdominal organs (is your liver sluggish? it will be if it's not getting the nerve signals it needs and if it can't relay its condition and needs back to the brain). Your sex organs are down there. Don't you suppose they need unimpeded nerve pathways to function properly?
How's your bladder been doing? Your prostate is at the outlet of your bladder, and one of the things it does when it gets insufficient feedback from the spine (perhaps due to impinged nerves) is that it grows, trying to compensate for the mis-perception of the situation. Enlarged prostate anyone?
The whole arrangement is "designed" so that when you assume a proper upright posture, the joints between all the vertebrae are (roughly) halfway open. Neutral posture means that each disk in the spine is neither compressed nor stretched. They, and the bones and the attached muscles are under the least possible stress in any direction - at least, while gravity affects you.
The only way to have even less stress on the spine is to be floating in water, so there's no need to resist gravity. (OK, you can get that effect if you're up in space - microgravity - but let's just assume that pretty well anybody reading this is not going to be in space any time soon.) Most people don't spend their lives in water (or space), so we - and our spines - spend most of every day dealing with our weight, the additional weights that we carry, and the effects of our posture. After a while, something gives way and you come looking for backache relief.
We've got this marvellous springy column in relaxed tension, with all the parts in the best possible alignment. As long as we don't do anything stupid, it'll serve us well for many decades. So we do something stupid. Or we do lots of somethings stupid.
Aside from disease, there are two main ways that you harm a body system:
Backs get both. Here's an example - you've heard about "road rage"? How about "driveway rage". Some young idiot gets pissed off that he spent two hours shovelling a parking spot (already placing a big demand on his back) in the snow-bank in front of his house (on his property, no less) only to have some visitor to the neighbor's house park his little crap-mobile in that hard-earned spot.
So our hero grabs the rear bumper of the little crap-mobile and lifts and heaves and hauls and shoves until the crap-mobile is sideways in the street. Righteous!
His lower back and a lot of his muscles hurt for several days, but after a week or so, he thinks he's recovered from his little... indiscretion. At worst, he goes to a chiropractor or a physiotherapist, gets some manipulation and some corrective exercises to put things right. Little does he know that years later, he'll be a middle-aged guy looking for backache relief.
Fine. Everybody's entitled to hurt themselves at least once in their lives, in pursuit of a little righteous indignation (previous section). Or, in pursuit of a turnover in the weekly football game. Ow. But you don't hurt yourself every week - just once in a while. And in-between, the muscles, the joints, the connective bits, they all recover, right?
Um... maybe. But what about if every day you do something that prevents recovery, or makes it harder?
What if you do something continuous and/or repetitive that annoys the heck out of your poor back, and each day it gets to look forward to more of the same?
What if you slack off on the exercise and activity that kept you strong and limber when you were younger?
Well, you end up on some guy's website hoping to figure out what went wrong and how to get some backache relief.
We'll get to that, but first, let's hammer home the point about the ongoing damage.
Your mother and your teachers were right - proper posture is important.
More important to you, since you are here reading about how spines work and how they go wrong... is that improper posture is harmful. Really. It's also insidious. It's insidious because it progresses ever-so-slowly, and it doesn't hurt. You can stand sloppy, sit sloppy, recline sloppy for years and years, and never feel pain. But all the while, the stress of being out of alignment and under unbalanced tension is causing slow, cumulative deterioration.
The other insidious aspect is that having any part of your body out-of-whack for a lengthy span of time causes other parts to shift and bend and twist in an attempt to compensate for what the body quietly perceives as injury or malfunction. So the original dysfunction or wrongness feeds off the reactions of other body parts that try to compensate.
In the short term, that's a survival mechanism - the body compensating for an injured area by helping to immobilize, or take some pressure off, that part while working around it to keep you going while the damage heals. That almost makes sense if you are a Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherer who keeps moving - though with a limp - and using all his muscles and joints while the hurt part is healing. But that protective response is effective only if your body is active like that, and only if you stop doing what caused the original injury. Your Cro-Magnon guy avoids wrestling with giant wart-hogs until his back feels better, but he keeps moving otherwise.
You, on the other hand, keep sitting in the same chair, slouched over to the same side (makes mousing easier, doesn't it?) and keeping the same awkward pressure that injured your spine in the first place.
If you keep applying the stress, the body keeps trying to compensate for the weakened or damaged part and other parts are overworked, stressed asymmetrically, and so on. It's a vicious cycle, and the more you do to perpetuate it, the further you get from backache relief.
We'll deal with the sore upper back on another page, along with some easy things that you can do to fix that part. Click here to go to the sore upper back page.
The seated posture is not the best for the spine. It stresses that final curve, near the bottom of the spine, and keeps it in that stressed position for hours and hours out of every day.
It helps in your pursuit of backache relief to have so-called ergonomic furniture, but there are actions you can take to mitigate the damage.
Standing, all by itself, is not so bad, but not if you don't keep moving. Also, your posture while you stand can put a lot of stress on the lower back. There are some easy ways to minimize that stress and to begin correcting the problem and finding backache relief.
Well, almost everything. Other than becoming aware of the specific postural problem that you are inflicting on your back, and correcting that, the single best thing you can do for backache relief is to move. And we don't mean Olympic workouts or running marathons. Oh... ignore Mr. Happy there; he gets excited easily.
Yeah, sorry. You thought you could get away with the total-couch-potato lifestyle. Nope. That's part of what got your back into its current, painful predicament. But the exercises that will get you back in fighting trim - or at least out of pain - are simple and easy to do and don't need much (or any) equipment. This is not a hard-driving workout. For backache relief, easy does it.
Here's the handy selection of our back-pain related pages on this Men's Health Tips (MHT) site:
|The MHT page||What the page is about|
|How and why your back hurts, and generally what you can do about it|
Painful Lower Back
Simple stuff you can do to alleviate pain in your lower back area, as well as in your butt cheek(s) and down your leg(s)
Sore Upper Back
|Upper backs hurt too, and here are some things that should help|
|Mid-to-upper backs hurt too, and here are some things that should help|
If this page wasn't where you wanted to be, then click here to return to the homepage from this backache relief page.
PLEASE be aware that by using this site you agree to our Terms and Conditions. Go head - read our barely comprehensible Terms and Conditions . Find out what you are letting yourself in for... hell, you've already agreed...
Do you have a great story about this? Share it!
Have you overcome a bad back?
Do you have more or better info on how backs work?
Search the MHT site using the fabulous DuckDuckGo.com search engine (above)!
Some links that we like:
We still don't get any money from any of these, but we like them anyway.
How to Boost Your Immune System
Simple, natural methods that can help you stay well and healthy
Sitting all day is killing you! Kangaroo Adjustable Height Workstations
For people with desk jobs - a workstation that lets you easily place your computer, keyboard, display(s) and "stuff" at sitting or standing height or anywhere in between.
Used and recommended by Men's Health Tips - we've had one since 2010, and we bought another one for the wife. Does what it says, no hype.
Keep your head from blowing up!Holistrol herbal hypertension remedy
Used and recommended by Men's Health Tips - we've used it since 2009. Another product that does what it says it will.
Beat yourself up... in a good wayThera Cane
Used and recommended by Men's Health Tips - we've had one for years. We use it.
Free your feet
to be the feet
your feet were
meant to be!
Used and recommended by Men's Health Tips - we've got several pair.
Relax with a classic book
This has nothing to do with MHT; we just think Project Gutenberg is a great idea.