- Half the battle of living with chronic back pain is adapting, learning, and being smart with your back.
- A simple and quick low-back care routine when you return home from an outdoor adventure is essential to the long-term health of your back.
- Check out this list of low cost and simple therapeutic tips that you can do at home to help keep your back feeling limber.
Managing Low Back Pain After Outdoor Activity
Have you ever awakened with low back pain the morning after an amazing outdoor adventure?
A simple and quick low-back care routine when you return home from an outdoor adventure is essential to the long-term health of your back. It will decrease your chance of injury and ensure that you can make it out the door next week feeling good and up for another great adventure.
Here are some effective and low-cost home therapy tips that have helped me enjoy all kinds of activities in the Colorado mountains despite living with chronic low back pain for over twenty years.
Do you stretch when you get back home, to your hotel or campsite? You really should. It doesn’t take long. Your lower back and supporting muscles will likely be tight after working for several hours to protect your back from injury. Even if your activity was just a light walk to the river to fish, sitting or standing for any length of time will put strain on your back.
Furthermore, if you exerted yourself and raised your heart rate up a little bit with moderate to high intensity, you will have produced some lactic acid in your muscles. This is a natural byproduct in your body when oxygen is used to break down glucose for energy so you can climb that mountain. Lactic acid can make your muscles feel sore and stiff. Stretching can help bring new fresh oxygenated blood to your muscles while flushing out the lactic acid so you feel good and fresh again.
Check out this helpful video I made on stretching to relieve back pain
click here: https://youtu.be/30mEoVlL0oY
HOW LONG DO I NEED TO STRETCH?
Specifically, when you get back to camp or your house, be sure to do some light stretching for 5 minutes minimum to get your muscles out of “protection mode” and into relaxation mode. You can do this while you watch T.V, listen to music, or relax with your loved ones.
Lastly, when your muscles go into a spasm, it’s because they are in self-protection mode from overuse or injury. Often we don’t realize just how tight they actually are until we are in a full-blown spasm. Therefore, take a few minutes to stretch it out after your outdoor activity.
Here are two products that I always have within arms reach:
- Fit ball. Fit balls are still one of the best stretching and core strengthening tools on the market.
- Yoga mat. I have one at the office, and at home. Throw one in your car and use it while adventuring outdoors or camping.
HEAT OR ICE THERAPY
Take some time in the first 24 hours after your outdoor activity to give your back muscles some TLC whether you feel like it or not. This will help decrease soreness/stiffness/pain and speed up recovery time so you can get after it again the next day, or the next week without missing a beat.
Also, speak to a medical professional about ice or heat and which one might suit you better for your diagnosis. Personally I use them both for different occasions and reasons. Ice in the first 24-48 hrs for a more acute or severe problem, and heat afterward when inflammation has gone down or as a chronic maintenance tactic.
To summarize, in general, heat is better for chronic pain and situations such as managing back pain after outdoor activity, and less effective for acute injury or flare-ups. Ice is more helpful for acute injury and reducing inflammation quickly.
YOUR BEST OPTIONS FOR HEAT OR ICE
- Hot tub, bath, or shower. Nothing wrong with stretching in the hot shower, just saying.
- Cold/Ice tub or bath. 5-10 minutes.
- Ice Cup. Freeze water in a paper cup, tear off the top two inches of the cup and voila, start icing in a small circular motion directly on the skin. I only use this method when I’ve hurt myself badly and have excessive inflammation. Be careful using this technique, your skin gets extremely cold.
- Ice compress. I find that ice cubes in a wet washcloth work best. Apply for 15 -20 minutes, once per hour if you have the time or 2-3 times per day.
- Massage or a self-back-massaging tool like Theracane handheld massager.
- TENS unit. Low voltage electric current that may reduce pain. Although conclusive research is lacking, TENS units are commonly used in rehabilitation. Consult your physician before using one.
- Heat pack. There are plenty of good heating devices on the market. I prefer an easier and less expensive option. Put rice in an old sock and tie it off in a knot. Then heat it up in the microwave for 1:30 seconds. Let it sit for 2 minutes or it may burn your skin. Then place it on your sore back or neck spots -RELIEF! If you need to multi task, stick it your back support belt while you make dinner or do the dishes. It’s like a mobile heating pad.
Heat therapy causes muscle fibers to dilate and increases blood flow to injured muscles and joints which reduces muscle tension and helps hard working muscles relax. It also bring healing nutrients to your muscle fibers and washes out toxic and harmful substances caused by exertion.
Ice therapy causes muscle fibers to constrict and therefore decreases blood flow to the area which slows the rate of inflammation, reduces swelling and reduces tissue damage. The numbing feeling caused by cryotherapy is another benefit. The first 1-3 minutes are the most painful, but once your skin numbs to the pain of the cold, it actually feels good.
A key part of managing low back pain after outdoor activity is to drink plenty of water after your activity and rehydrate your disc material and muscles. Drinking fluids is crucial to staying healthy and maintaining the function of every system in your body, including your heart, brain, and muscles.
HOW DRINKING LOTS OF WATER CAN HELP YOUR BACK PAIN
Remember, your body is mostly made up of water and depends on water to survive. Every cell, tissue, and organ in your body needs water to work properly. For example, your body uses water to maintain its temperature, remove waste, and lubricate your joints.
So, water lubricates and cushions the muscles, tendons, discs, and joints in your lower back to help reduce pain. Drink up.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I DRINK?
Drink to quench your thirst but then drink some more. Monitor the color of your urine to be certain if you have rehydrated enough to replace your fluid loss during exercise.
A darker more colorful urine color means you are dehydrated unless you just slammed a bunch of water-soluble vitamins. A pale yellow or more clear colored urine means you are closer to being properly hydrated. (Clear urine = good; yellow urine = drink more)
I’m sure you have heard the saying “Drink 8 glasses of water per day.” It’s a good general rule but not specific to your body, back pain challenges, climate, and lifestyle. Therefore, use urine color and thirst as your primary indicators and then drink some more.
What is it? A Yoga mat with tiny plastic spikes on it. Yes, spikes.
Why use it? A natural and inexpensive form of pain relief.
Documented studies and user feedback include benefits such as:
pain relief, sports injury relief, produces endorphins, better sleep, improved circulation, and muscle relaxation.
Does it Work?
Maybe, probably. It’s worth a try. I’m going to order one. In 2014, The American Society of Pain Management Nursing conducted a systematic review of research surrounding the effectiveness of acupressure mats in pain relief. “Fifteen studies were extracted for reducing dysmenorrhea (menstrual distress), labor pain, low back pain, chronic headache, and other traumatic pain.”
Here is the study takeaway:
“Acupressure has been shown to be effective for relieving a variety of pains in different populations. The implication for health care providers would be incorporating acupressure into their practice as an alternative therapy to facilitate patients who suffer from pain.”
I’ll let you know in a later post or in the ‘Back Pain Wise Outdoors’ Facebook Group, how I like mine after I use it a bit.
REST, BUT THEN GET BACK OUTDOORS.
Hopefully, your back pain symptoms are under control but even if they are not, or if you flare them up after activity, it is actually beneficial to stay active and not lay around too much.
Of course, rest and treat appropriately if there is acute pain. But seek to get back up on your feet and active as soon as you can at a slow pace at first. Activity and increased blow flow are your friends when it comes to healing injuries and feeling your best.
This is what WebMD says:
“Rest, but not too much. In most cases, it’s best to not stay in bed for more than a day or two after an acute injury. If you stay in bed longer than this, your muscles start to lose strength and their ability to support your back. Stay as active as you can, while continuing to listen to your body’s signals.”
Personally, I tend to feel better when I stretch out on the floor and lay down as opposed to sitting at a table or on the couch for several hours. I think putting additional pressure on your discs by sitting is the worst thing you can do after a day of outdoor activity. If you are like me, the drive home is enough sitting for the evening.
Try laying on your back with your feet up at a ninety-degree angle resting on the couch or coffee table. Or lay on your stomach and give your back some gentle extension. Your discs will want out of the flexed state that you have been in from your activity and the drive home.
Part of managing your back pain after outdoor activity is to talk your hard-working muscles into relaxing. If you are like me, several hours of hiking, biking, or paddle boarding severely tightens up my low back muscles and supporting muscles.
Massage is top of the list for me as a home therapy back care tactic. Essentially it’s a way to release deep muscular tension and stress, a state that many of us chronic back pain sufferers are in for much of the day. Ignore this therapeutic method for too long and your back muscles will be screaming for mercy. I would advise regular massages from a professional if you can afford it. But if not, here are some ideas that I like:
- Tennis ball massage. Lay on your back with a tennis ball or squash ball underneath you in your lower back area. Roll around and self-massage. If this is too painful, lean up against a wall and put the tennis ball anywhere on your upper or lower back where you feel tight. Lean backward into the ball slightly and move from side to side to self-massage the tight area. Keep one at the office and one in your living room.
- Trigger point foam roller massage. Similar idea as laying down on the floor with a tennis ball, just a little larger device and different feel. I would start with this device and progress up to a tennis ball.
- Theracane. A form of accumpressure that stems from Chinese medicine. This is a self-massage technique that focuses in on one muscle by applying and releasing pressure with the cane. It is also known as trigger-point therapy. I buy mine on Amazon but I have broken 3 of these canes by self-massaging too hard. Be careful- they are not made for strong powerful people like myself. Seriously though, I have learned to take about 25% of the pressure off and hold for a few seconds longer. I keep one in the living room as I watch T.V or sit with the family and one by my desk at the office.
- Handheld massage devices. There are plenty on the market, although I find that they are less therapeutic that the above-mentioned methods, and more of a “feel good” therapy. However, with the right device, this is still going to get below your skin and relax the muscles to an extent and increase blood flow, both of which will help your back.
BACK PAIN JOURNAL
If you are new to back pain, save yourself some time and heartache from somebody who has dealt with chronic pain and been in and out of medical offices for over twenty years. Get a back pain journal if you do not already have one.
Most of us with chronic back pain have a back pain journal or diary to help us keep all the ridiculous medical information straight. (No offense if you are a doctor, it just gets confusing after 7 doctor visits, 4 procedures, 12 medications and still a little uncertain how our back will get fixed.)
Living life successfully with chronic back pain is a series of learning lessons early on in the journey by trial and error. You have to experience a bit of pain and then swallow your pride to understand what you can and cannot do with your back.
LEARN FROM THIS FUNNY STORY
I remember going to home depot for some heavy bags of garden soil. As an experienced back pain sufferer I knew better than to bend over and put that in my cart. I called the garden employee over and asked for help. After lifting my bags into my cart, he got on his radio and asked his colleague to meet me at the front door to help me get the bags into my car. I was in business without much harm to my ego. When I got to the front door, this little dainty Home Depot woman half my size was waiting for me and said: “Hello sir I’m ready to help you with those bags of soil.”
Good grief. I guess its better than a trip to the ER and then physical therapy for 3 weeks. My pride was hurting, but not my back.
Anyway, make written notes on what worked for your back pain outdoors and what did not. Especially if you tried out a new activity or sport. The notes could be somewhat technical such as how to ice climb more safely or could be as simple as “Mental note to self, don’t take Dead Man’s Loop next time we visit these trails.”
Share this information with your medical professionals to help them better treat your chronic back pain. Similarly, if you experienced a back spasm or injury, document what you were doing or what may have caused it before you go to bed or the next morning in your journal.
I would sincerely advise adopting a journal as part of a purposeful strategy of getting the most enjoyment possible out of your outdoor activities. It will ultimately help you sidestep discomfort and back injury and theses are the main objectives!
Perhaps you would agree that half the battle of living with chronic back pain is adapting, learning, and being smart. We can’t just show up to activities or events without a plan and hope for the best.
DON’T GET YOURSELF INTO A BAD SITUATION OUTDOORS
One more case in point if you like stories, if not, skip to FINAL THOUGHTS. On our extremely memorable 9 hour river rafting “float trip,” that was advertised as 2-3 hours tops, you better believe that I made note, and I will not make the same mistake next time. The memory is permanently etched into my erector spinae muscles (paddling upstream for 9 hours) and my amygdala (part of my brain responsible for fearful memories). No need to record this in my journal.
We read on Facebook about an awesome river rafting trip nearby and the post said it would only take 2-3 hours. Thoughts of floating down Colorado rapids effortlessly under a clear blue sky in my rubber dingy holding on to the drink of my choice filled my head.
The clear blue sky happened but when this facebooker posted his suggestions it was in the spring, during what we call “Spring runoff” when the snow from the mountains melts into the rivers and fills them up with fast-moving water and great rapids for rafting.
Problem was, that fact was lost and we were reading it in August when there is barely any spring runoff water left in the rivers. There were parts of the river where I picked up my dingy and walked through rocks to get to deeper water. And when it was deep enough, I had to paddle hard enough to tow the kids behind me with an Olympic-training-like effort.
DECREASE YOUR LEARNING CURVE
However, on the positive side, I will take note in my journal that paddling on both sides distributes the exertion more evenly on my oblique muscles over an extended period of time (9hours) making my back muscles less stiff afterward. Also, after trying various watercraft, it was evident the seat in the kayak-type boat we were in was not made for people with bad backs. It was an ergonomic nightmare equivalent to sleeping in a hot-dog bed, only with a paddle. Next time I would need to bring something to help support my back or not use that boat.
And, I’d never go rafting in the month of August again.
Managing low-back pain after outdoor activity is essential to the long term health of your back. Do not exert your back outdoors and then come home and sit down for the evening. This will only increase the possibility of tight muscles and even a flare-up or injury. Experiment and see what works for your back but the key is to develop the habit of post-activity back care.
Failure to do a short “self-back-care routine” after rigorous outdoor activity could easily result in one of the following: poor night sleep, tightening of low back muscles, and other supportive muscles, an inflammatory flare-up of severe symptoms, or recurrence of injury.
I hope you find an idea or two in here that you have not thought of, and please send me more of your great ideas and comments to share with this unique community. Thank you for spending your valuable time reading this.
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Please consult your doctor before making any changes or to your current back care regimen. The tips suggested are from the author’s own experience only and Back Pain Wise is not responsible for any actions taken based on the advice contained within.
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