back pain

Radical Back Pain Relief Exercise

This is one man’s experience with back pain from spondylolisthesis. It may apply to you and it may not apply at all. It’s entirely on you to decide if it has any value. There are many other opinions on the cause and cure of back pain. I don’t know the answers. I just know my answer. This is what I did to cure my back pain.

In 1995 at the age of 47, I spent six weeks on the floor after something got pinched in my lower back. I had intense back pain with a numb, weak, tingling right leg for the next year. A spine surgeon took xrays and diagnosed spondylolisthesis, a genetic defect that had not bothered me until I became inactive and spent too many years at a computer. The simple lifting of a 15 pound object to a shelf above my head was all it took to break something. Spondylolisthesis means the vertebra are not locked together by bone flanges at some point along the spine, but are free to move out of alignment if the muscles get flabby and one or more vertebra have moved forward relative to a lower vertebra.

After 8 years of daily pain and a spine so fragile that I dared not jump off a curb, lift more than 30 pounds or turn around too fast, I read, “The Multifidus Back Pain Solution” a book by Jim Johnson, a physical therapist (PT). He had a radical idea that the multifidus, small overlapping muscles along the spine itself, were the key to a healthy spine. In his practice he found that most back pain was accompanied by weathered or weak multifidus muscles. These muscles attach on vertebrae and extend two or three vertebra up and down the spine, overlapping and pulling each vertebra into alignment with the one above and below. Most people have no idea they are there, yet they are the muscles that extend the spine when you stand upright and try to lift your head as high as possible. They are like a fist around the spine, but this fist is three feet long.

I ignored the book and its suggestions for another six months before deciding to do some of the exercises. As a physical therapist, Johnson recommended somewhat traditional leg lifts. I did not like the idea of leg lifts since I had tried them for months when my problem first arose. I did like his exercise of the cross stomach muscles. The original PT back in 95 had recommended sit ups and leg lifts. All these PT exercises are worthless to me, but they may do you good. They concentrate on long voluntary muscles that have nothing to do with these small overlapping muscles along the spine. I think that any benefit you get from traditional exercises is due to unconscious exercise of these core muscles. When I got interested in his ideas, it seemed obvious you needed to exercise the spine muscles, not all these long voluntary muscles that pull you up in a sit up or keep you from falling as you bend over. Most of Johnson’s exercises do work the core muscles and these are important. My belief is that you need to exercise these multifidus muscles before anything else and they are the only essential muscles.

The problem was that nobody is conscious of these muscles. Maybe I was just more motivated, but I did get control of the muscles. They are slow. There is no jerk capability. They felt like molasses instead of any other voluntary muscle I knew. They can be felt and controlled by doing this extension exercise. Sit or stand and tense up the backbone or core muscles in the stomach and pelvis. These muscles on the spine are slow to move, you will feel the spine lengthening as they contract. It’s very hard not to tense the stomach muscles at the same time, but the important reaction is this contraction around the spine itself. Start at the pelvis, let the contraction flow upward along the spine. It takes time to let it creep up the entire spine to the skull. At the end your spine is at maximum extension and a firm strength can be felt along it’s entire length. Many other associated muscles are entrained by this exercise and your entire core will feel the tightness as the cross muscles of the stomach press your guts back against the spine. The vertical stomach muscles you use to do sit ups are not part of this exercise. Forget about them. We are interested in the crosswise muscles that suck your guts inward and make your trunk a firm cylinder of support.

After six months of this exercise, visualizing the spine and the multifidus muscles pulling things back into proper alignment, my pain was gone. And has not returned in the five years since I started the exercises. At the end of that six month period, I noticed one of the normal bumps along the spine had moved outward and to one side by 1/4th inch. Those floating bones had actually moved away from the spine and taken up a new position that did not cause pain. I can only imagine that the stronger muscles along the spine have pushed the loose bones away from the location where they were causing pain.

These days, I don’t even think about my back. But I still can’t lift more than 40 pounds without problems. The ruptured disk is probably still ruptured, but something is healed and nothing hurts at all any more.

Tense these multifidus muscles every morning. Let that grip flow upward as your spine lengthens. Do it several times each day. And never do anything that hurts. Move up to the hurt and back off. Never endure pain when doing these exercises. We want to gently encourage it to move and go away. When an injury is fresh, you may need to wait until the freshness is healed and you are dealing with ongoing pain instead of the transient pain of fresh damage. Don’t try these exercises with a fresh injury that needs to heal.

Do not consider this to be medical advice. If you can find some value, great, otherwise let it alone. Your back and your injury may be totally different from mine.

John Burch has a Masters Degree in Engineering, 18 years in the electronics field and 9 years in 3D animation.

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