Back Pain. It is something we have all experienced, and it can really put a damper on your life. But how often do we just chaulk it up to being, “back pain,” and don’t give it much more thought?
As a fitness instructor, I see a lot of people in the run of a week so I am in the position to hear about these uncharacteristic aches and pains more often than the average person. I always ask participants how they hurt themselves, where it hurts, what movement bothers the injury, etc. to try and determine whether or not it is safe for them to exercise, and what types of modifications I should provide them to keep them save. But those instances are almost always acute injuries – the injuries that occurred suddenly after a specific accident or incident. It’s very rare that someone talks to me about chronic or ongoing pain that has slowly developed over time. In my experience, those with that type of pain often keep it to themselves, and that is what bring me to today’s post.
A month or so ago I was contacted about helping to raise awareness for Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) Awareness. As a fitness professional, I feel I am generally pretty well informed on different conditions and diseases that concern the muscular and skeletal systems, but I had no idea what AS was and had to Google it to find out more about it.
What is Ankylosing Spondylitis?
What I discovered was that AS is a type of inflammatory arthritis and an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is one where the body’s immune system becomes confused and begins to “attack” the body. In people with AS, it’s the joints in the spine that are the target of the immune attack, resulting in pain and stiffness (inflammation) in the back.
The inflammation usually begins at the base of the spine where the spine attaches to the pelvis (sacroiliac joints). This can spread upwards to involve other parts of the spine and, in severe cases can involve the entire spinal column. As the inflammation continues, new bone forms as the body tries to repair itself, which causes the spine to become very stiff and inflexible. Even though new bone has formed, the existing bone can become thin, which increases the risk of fractures.
What concerned me even more, was learning that in people with AS the auto-immune attack may also cause inflammation in the eye, a condition called uveitis or isitis. And was particularly interested to learn that those with AS can also sometimes develop IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) like crohn’s and colitis. Many of you know that my husband has IBD. Well, he has also had back issues for years, which is another reason why I felt it was important to be a part of this awareness campaign. If I, as a fitness professional and wife to someone with a diagnosed auto-immune disease had still never heard of it – how many of my readers, participants, friends and family didn’t know anything about it either?
Who Is At Risk?
AS affects between 150,000 and 300,000 Canadians, and affect three times men than women, but the severity of AS can be the same in either gender. While people of any age can develop AS, it usually appears between the ages of 15 and 30.
What Are The Symptoms?
AS can cause very different symptoms in different people. Some individuals may have mild back pain, while others may have severe chronic pain accompanied by stiffness of the spine which affects their posture and daily activities.
The most universal symptom is chronic low back pain, lasting for more than three months, which seems to come and go for no apparent reason. It is generally worse in the morning when getting out of bed and improves with stretching and exercise.
The areas most commonly affected are:
- The joint between the base of your spine and your pelvis
- The vertebrae of the lower back
- Where your tendons and ligaments attach to bones, mainly in your spine, but sometimes along the back of your heel
- The cartilage between your breastbone and ribs
- Your hip and shoulder joints
When Should You See A Doctor?
You should see your doctor if you have low back or buttock pain that came on slowly, is worse in the morning, or awakens you from your sleep in the second half of the night – particularly if this pain improves with exercise and worsens with rest. See an eye specialist immediately if you develop a painful red-eye, severe light sensitivity or blurred vision. If you have gastrointestianl issues or a family history of IBD, mention these to your doctor.
There is no cure for AS, but an early diagnosis and appropriate treatment help in the management of the disease and contribute to reduce severe damage to the joints. Most people with AS can lead active and productive lives with the help of the right treatment, in some cases surgery, exercise, rest and joint protection techniques.
What Can You Do Right Now?
Concerned about your back pain? The first step is to determine if you are experiencing mechanical or inflammatory back pain. Take the 30 second quiz on the Stand Up To Back Pain website to determine whether or not you should make an appointment to see your doctor.
And in the meantime, I’ve put together a series of spine-friendly back stretches below that anyone with back issues can do to help to start to relieve lower back pain right now.
As with any exercise, if something doesn’t feel “right” when you move into any of these stretches, it is best to play it safe and stay away from those stretches until you’ve consulted your physician.
Alternating Knee To Chest
While laying on your bed or the floor, bring one knee in towards your torso as you exhale, hold for 2-3 breathes and then return your foot to the floor and repeat with the opposite leg.
Repeat for a total of 5 times on each leg.
From your hands and knees, with your knees directly under your hips, and hands directly under your shoulders, take a deep breathe in and as you exhale, arch your back up dropping your chin and tailbone like a halloween cat. As you inhale, slowly lift your tailbone and look upwards. Gentle alternate back and forth stopping to take a few deep breaths any place that you feel tension.
Repeat 5-10 times.
Similar to Cat/Cow, but here we are isolating just the SI joint. Begin on your hands and knees with knees under your hips and hands under your shoulders. As you exhale, gently tuck your tailbone as though you were drawing in under you. As you inhale, gently allow your tailbone to return to a neutral spine.
Repeat 5-10 times.
Still on your hands and knees, this time you are going to exhale as you extend your left leg straight behind you, foot flexed with toes pointing towards the floor, while simultaneously extending your right arm straight ahead at no higher than shoulder level. If you find it difficult to lift both the opposite arm and leg at the same time, start by lifting the leg, then add the arm. Try to keep your hips level, minimizing the twisting through your spine as much as possible. To do this place more weight in your supporting arm to help balance you. Keep your head looking straight down during this exercise to keep your neck in line with your spine. Lower your left leg and right arm back to their starting position, and repeat on the opposite side.
You may feel unsteady, that is ok and is the nature of this exercise.
Repeat 5 times
From your hands and knees, sit back towards your heels allowing your forehead to rest on the floor, stacked hands or fists, or use a pillow for full trunk support. If this is difficult for your low back try opening your knees so that they are further apart which can be more relaxing for a sore low back.
Stay here for 30 seconds up to 2 minutes.
I’ve also recorded a video of these stretches for you. 🙂
I hope you’ve found these stretches helpful, and I hope that you will take a few seconds to complete the quiz on StandUpToBackPain.ca if you haven’t done so already, and then share this post with your friends and family. Early diagnosis of AS is key, and it’s hard for your doctor to diagnose you if he/she doesn’t know you are having unexplained back pain. Your spine is not something to trifle with, please – if you are having ongoing issues that have no yet been diagnosed or treated, please take the quiz and then make an appointment to see your doctor.
Disclosure: This post has been sponsored by AbbVie Corporation. All opinions expressed within this and any post on this site are entirely my own.