How I Recovered From 3 Years of Chronic Back Pain

chronic back pain

As some of you may recall, I’ve been seeking solutions to my chronic back pain, which I assume is partly related to my writing-and-sitting-at-the-computer lifestyle since the mid-1990s.

You can read the first installment here.

I’m very grateful to say that I’ve been pain-free for six months and have returned to long-distance running. (I can now run for a full hour and am logging a gentle 10 miles a week.)

I’d like to share what worked for me—especially since so many things did not work, and I know what a frustrating problem this can be, with little hope. I see the updates of friends and colleagues who suffer just as I did.

I’ll first offer some context on my particular history, but if you’d rather just go straight to the solutions, scroll down to the heading What Worked to Eliminate My Back Pain.

The Specifics of My Situation

I think it’s important to point out a few things about my own experience.

  1. I’ve been lucky to have no other significant health problems or limitations during my life. It’s rare for me to see a doctor more than once a year.
  2. I was an avid runner throughout my 20s, and had some minor trouble now and again with sciatica, almost always as a result of overtraining. Symptoms would disappear with rest, and regular weight training was the best prevention of all.
  3. I had a vicious and debilitating case of sciatica in 2011 that seemed to come out of nowhere, since I hadn’t been regularly running for several years. I went to physical therapy, but didn’t take it seriously, only doing the exercises during the appointments. I assumed with time I would fully recover and go back to normal. This was probably my most serious mistake of all, because I never went back to normal. While the sciatica symptoms disappeared, I developed low back pain that was at its worst overnight and in the morning, and became gradually worse over time.

What Didn’t Work to Fix My Back Pain

  1. Waiting. Two years of being very patient didn’t help. When I suffered a pinched nerve in my shoulder (with no discernible cause) that kept me home from work, I knew the problem was only becoming more serious, and that waiting it out wasn’t an option.
  2. My primary physician. The first thing I did was visit my doctor. She asked if I was exercising (I wasn’t), said that I should, then ordered X-rays. She said I had disc degeneration, and I anticipated that her next steps would involve injections or surgery. I didn’t like where the situation was headed, especially since I felt too young (36) for those options.
  3. Treadmill desk. I felt that sitting at my desk all day and bad posture were long-term contributing factors to where I had ended up, so I started using a treadmill desk for part of my work day. It had no effect.
  4. The Gokhale Method. To learn better posture, I took a weekend intensive workshop on The Gokhale Method. This was excellent at bringing awareness to my bad habits, but it didn’t eliminate the back pain.
  5. Strength training, stretching, and cardio. After seeing my doctor, I joined a gym and started strengthening my back with the help of a personal trainer. I undoubtedly became stronger, but it didn’t affect the pain. I also regularly participated in spinning, pilates, and yoga. It was good to be exercising again—and the back pain didn’t prevent me from exercising—but the exercise didn’t improve my situation either.

What Worked to Eliminate My Back Pain

  1. Consulting with an expert in traditional and alternative medicine. When I posted about my situation in the summer of 2013, I was lucky that colleague and friend Anne Carley (who lives in the same city that I do) wrote me and recommended a local independent health professional who has a holistic, alternative approach to medicine but a traditional background. I went to see her immediately and described my history and situation. She examined me and recommended a physical therapist who works to address problems holistically—since conventional physical therapy focused only on fixing the back pain may not in fact resolve the problem.
  2. Working with a physical therapist (PT) who also specializes in the Egoscue Method. After a 30-minute evaluation by the PT, I was given a daily 20-minute passive stretching routine that was primarily based on the Egoscue Method. Every 2-4 weeks, I would see the therapist again so she could evaluate progress and give me a new set of exercises to help me further advance. The pain began to lessen.
  3. Structural Integration. After four months of seeing the physical therapist, she recommended I also see a massage therapist who specializes in structural integration, a system of body work. This involved a series of 10 sessions of deep myofascial work and movement education. The goal was to balance my body’s musculature and connective tissues and, through better alignment, reduce any strain on my structure. The results felt like a near-miracle. Even if you know you have bad posture or that your muscles are wound tight, that doesn’t mean you can easily fix it, no matter how much you stretch. The structural integration was like pushing the “reset” button on years of bad habits, and allowed all the other activities—physical therapy, yoga, and exercise—to do their job better.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with back pain or other types of chronic pain related to muscles, joints, or connective tissue, I highly recommend looking for a physical therapist with a holistic approach, as well as trying a structural integration session to see if it might press the reset button for you as well. The results have been lasting; my last appointments were in the spring, and over the summer I started running again without any problems. It was a long road, but I have my health back.

Posted in Work-Life.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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73 Comments on "How I Recovered From 3 Years of Chronic Back Pain"

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DJPaterson

Thanks, Jane. I too suffer from back pain and have a fantastic physiotherapist, who always gets straight to the problem and explains why I am in pain, and gives me the exercises to address the weaknesses I have. Unfortunately I am my own worst enemy in that once the pain has gone away, I tend to forget to continue with the exercises – until I hurt my back again!

TheCreativePenn

Such an important topic, Jane! I had terrible back pain last year, so bad that I was having tests for spinal tumors because of night pain. With all tests clear, I was discharged to physio who helped me work with a swiss ball for micromovements and stretching. I have been working on a swiss ball instead of a chair for a year now and it’s brilliant – the constant micromovements keep me pliable, and I can back bend to stretch regularly – the pain is mostly gone!

Nancy Parish

Glad to hear this worked! I have a MS in Exercise and Health Studies, so I love hearing success stories like this!

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[…] Update (9/15/14): I’ve written a new post explaining what eventually resolved all of my back pain problems. […]

Ben Murray VirtualPioneer.com

Glad to hear you are feeling better Jane. I found myself in a similar situation which happened due to incorrect posture while working on the computer for long hours. Even after creating a new habit of sitting correctly and even taking some time to stand and work at the computer, I still catch myself slouching here and there.

Christina Katz

Yay! Glad to hear you were conscientious about getting better. This seems like an important message here. Never settle for anything less than totally cured. Way to go!

emccullough

This is so great. I’m going to look into the various methods you recommend and see if I can find them in my area. I’m working on a frozen shoulder that’s probably a result of too many years of desk work and poor posture.

loquacialoon
I terrible back pain – arising like yours from hours sitting at the computer. I also had sciatica, I was on pain killers and the specialist told me I’d just have to learn to live with it. No other therapy was offered. I tried a chiropractor, who pulled me around, cost me a fortune and only gave me temporary relief. Then i took up Nordic walking at a friend’s suggestion. (Here’s a video introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKTufkzpo8E). This is walking with a version of ski poles which you push against the ground as you walk, exercising arms as much as legs. Although… Read more »
Ed Cyzewski
This may not be exactly the same thing, but I went to a place that offered manual physical therapy, and I remember walking out and feeling strange. I finally realized… my torso was straight, perfectly lined up for the first time in a long time. My poor posture and stress had combined to really mess things up. So the manual physical therapy helped a ton, but I also have needed to strengthen the muscles around my shoulder blades. I’ve found that push ups really can work wonders for a simple exercise you can do on the cheap, but the physical… Read more »
Maggie Shayne

Just started using the Egoscue method and the results are stunning. So glad to hear it worked well for you. I want to be able to go running again.

Eileen Goudge

How awesome that you found a solution that didn’t require pain medication. Undoubtedly your story will help many others 🙂

kikiwin

I cured my chronic back pain by 1. changing to a standing position in front of my computer. 2. Setting a timer for 20 minutes and taking a break – a walk around, exercise… Worked for me. Oh – losing weight helps.

nhvwriter

I have fibromyalgia which causes all kinds of pain. I started getting therapeutic massages in January 2013. The massage therapist does the kind of massage you have had – the deep myofascial work. The day after a massage I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck, but after that I am much less pain and a greater freedom of movement that lasts for over 2 weeks. Glad you were able to find relief for your pain, too.

Debra Eve

Thank you so much, Jane! I’m guessing very few writers escape this issue. I too have a sciatica problem that has plagued me for decades. Structural integration recently appeared on my radar (a friend’s husband does it) and this is the second time I’ve heard great things about it. Now I’ll definitely check it out.

Elizabeth Sims

Hey, Jane. I’m so happy for you. I’ve used Egoscue’s methods for years, with great success. I did submit to shoulder surgery this year, though, due to some degenerative changes that couldn’t be helped any other way. But Egoscue has been helping my recovery a lot. Am very glad to hear about Structural Integration. Have had myofascial release in the past, so I understand it a little. Best wishes for ongoing success. Very, very happy for you, and thank you for sharing.

Lady Jewels Diva
At 18 I was told I had scoliosis, in my 30s I was told my L5 had arthritis and I’d had chronic pain for years. Four years ago I went to a chiro and she told me I was so out of alignment that I led with my nose when I walked into a room. I was bent, buckled, curved, squashed, you name it. No wonder I had back pain. Within one year she had straightened my back and the majority of pain was gone. My neck is now straight and the only parts of me still being a pain… Read more »
Adam A. Haviaras
Thanks for sharing this, Jane. I’ve had a lot of back pain over the years myself. Chiropractic was always the best treatment but the pain kept returning until one day I felt I was near paralysis. I couldn’t move and it scared the hell out of me. A boss of mine at the bookstore I worked at had had similar issues, and she recommended a brilliant book to me: Healing Back Pain – The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno. Here’s a link: http://www.amazon.com/Healing-Back-Pain-Mind-Body-Connection/dp/0446557684/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411143071&sr=8-1&keywords=Healing+back+pain+sarno This book changed helped me to eliminate my pain, change my perspective and, as a result,… Read more »
Felipe Adan Lerma

“…a series of 10 sessions of deep mysofascial work and movement education.
The goal was to balance my body’s musculature and connective tissues
and, through better alignment, reduce any strain on my structure.” –

I’d forgotten all the good things I’d heard and learned about myofascial work. And movement…well (smiles) –

So glad you wrote this, and esp you’re doing so well now. Thank you for sharing this!

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[…] How I Recovered From 3 Years of Chronic Back Pain […]

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[…] I saw Jane Friedman’s blog post on her back pain  I immediately looked for mine on back pain in previous years that I was sure I wrote. And you […]

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[…] How Jane Friedman recovered from three years of chronic back pain. It’s an injury that visits most authors at one point or another. […]

Sherrey Meyer
Jane, as a long-term back pain suffer resulting from degenerative disc disease, I have read both your posts with interest. I have had four, count them four, back surgeries — two to deal with stenosis on the right side causing sciatic, one for a fusion of L4-S1 which lasted 10 years, and two years ago a fusion from L2-L5 which I am happy to say has relieved all my pain. If I had been 36 when someone diagnosed my disease, I wouldn’t have gone in for surgery either. I wasn’t diagnosed until in my 50s and riddled with arthritis in… Read more »
Allison Poinsett Peretin
Allison Poinsett Peretin

Hi Jane, wondering if you’d be willing to share the name of the holistic care provider mentioned in the first thing that helped your back pain? I too, live in Charlottesvile and am becoming desperate for some answers to my chronic pain. Thanks!

Doc Dave

Jane getting active and getting the body in shape and in condition despite chronic pain is in my experience extremely important for eliminating the pain. I’m physician who recently published a book called think away your pain and for some people with chronic pain using a brain-based system that focuses on how you think about your pain and your emotions also proved to be extremely effective important in relieving chronic pain.

Steve August
Hi Jane. I’m a New Zealand physiotherapist; I’ve been treating backs and necks for 30 years. What I find actually works for upper back and neck pain is a simple collection of approaches, not just one single approach on its own. We’ve set up a free website with videos showing how to care for your own upper spine yourself – including simple home massage, strengthening and stretching exercises, posture and the Backpod. This is all particularly designed for people hunching over computer keyboards. The website is http://www.bodystance .co.nz The Backpod itself is an award-winning New Zealand physiotherapy innovation designed to… Read more »
Tina
Thank you for sharing this. about 3 months ago my SI joint locked. although that is no longer an issue anymore, i have that lower back pain like you described. I’ve been seeing a specialist with a holistic approach and am doing core strengthening and some stretches. Some days are good, some days are rough, so at the moment it’s hard to see if I am progressing. I believe a do feel a bit better than a month ago. However, I will keep in mind your final 2 points in mind if i find my progress platue.. I am considering… Read more »
Therese Walsh

Thank you for this post. I’ve had significant back pain since undergoing abdominal surgery over a year ago, and nothing (including PT) has worked. (I’m on the standing-desk step now.) I’ll be looking into egoscue and structural integration.

Karen Francis
Hi Jane, thank you so much for putting your story “out there” on the web. I’ve been dealing with chronic back pain for 2 years now. Gym, yoga and stretching is only getting me so far. I have been unable to work the last 2 years due to the severity of the pain. I will look into the holistic approach you tried. My down side is lack of financial resources and I am hoping that where I am with managing my pain that I can find someway to create an income that doesn’t involve sitting or standing for any extended… Read more »
Dave Carry
I have spent all of my working life so far in a desk job and I think that this is the main reason I suffer with pain in my back. I have never been to my doctor about the pain as I felt that there was nothing they would be able to do except prescribe painkillers, and I really did not want to go down that route as I was worried about having to take them for a prolonged period. My friend recommended that I visited a physiotherapist, and this has made such a difference. Not only has my pain… Read more »
Beta
Hi Jane, thank you for sharing your story. I also have been suffering from lower back pain for 2 years. All started when I was 32 years old and hearniated a disc L4-L5. The sciatica pain went away in the first months and I though the rest off the pain would also eventually go away. I was wrong! I have tried all kind of things since cortisone injections to Pilates and many physical therapists with no success. Two years later and this pain still affect my life in so many ways in a daily basis. I was so hopeless when… Read more »
Eric

I have chronic head pressure/pain. Very light. It used to be very painful but I managed to bring it down to mild pressure. A week ago I had a break through(back to normal) but then relapsed the next day. I was wondering if alternate medicine and physical therapy applies to me.
Also, I tried a therapist and it only stressed me out

Eliza Cranston

Thank you for your post, Jane! It’s nice to get some advice from someone that has tried out both mainstream and alternative methods for relieving back pain. My elderly father has been struggling with back pain and we’re trying to find a non-invasive solution. He has gone through some posture training but, like you, had few results. I had never heard of the Egoscue Method but it looks like it has some potential, so thanks for the link! I was wondering if you have ever tried acupuncture or other types of Eastern medicine and, if so, what were your results?

Nicola Doherty

Hi, thanks for the post – it’s great to know all your experience. I have a similar story with lower back pain – partly helped by yoga, PIlates and PT but still nagging 🙁 I’ve now started doing myofascial release and think it’s helping. I have tried Egoscue but weirdly, the stretches just made me feel worse. I’d like to try a Gokhale workshop but interested to see that it didn’t eliminate your pain – do you feel that it was worth it, however?

Nicola Doherty

Thanks Jane. Good to know!

Eddie O Grady

Hello everybody…Here is a link to a blog on my website which explains and simplifies the most common causes of back pain and treatment options…..there are a lot of lies and myths out there designed more to get money out of you than cure you…..As Jane seems to show above, it is often about the physical therapist you are attending and the techniques they use, along with their understanding of the condition..physiotherapists vary greatly in their skills. I hope the blog it is of interest and gives some insight into common types of back pain.. http://www.physiotherapiststralee.ie/back-pain-treatment-options-made-simple/

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[…] more trials and a surgery) but also very similar to that of Jane Friedman. Her journey, detailed here, included a primary care doctor, waiting to heal, ergonomic changes, posture work, and fitness […]

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[…] more trials and a surgery) but also very similar to that of Jane Friedman. Her journey, detailed here, included a primary care doctor, waiting to heal, ergonomic changes, posture work, and fitness […]

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[…] As some writers are all too familiar, many years of sitting at a computer and leading a sedentary life can lead to serious back trouble. (If this describes you, then read my post on finding solutions to chronic back pain.) […]

Amy

Very helpful, Jane. You always have so much valuable information to offer.
Amy

Christian Conti Farino
Christian Conti Farino

Please read this if you or someone you know has chronic/insufferable back pain around your lats that wraps around to your chest/stomach area.

I had back pain for over a year and a half because of a dislocated rib. My doctors kept x-raying my spine, back muscles and discs and couldn’t find anything wrong. Please ask about your ribs! Especially if your pain came about immediately after lifting something with poor form!

Matthew
Hi Jane, I’m slowly getting better after “only” 20 months of chronic back pain. I suspect that your 3 years may have involved a little bit of frustration and language that perhaps should not be repeated in front of Grandma, as was certainly the case for me. I’ve found that a stand-up desk (both at home and at work) has been been very helpful for me, combined with lots of walking and a fair bit of swimming. Lying down on the floor – as opposed to lying on the bed or a couch – for an hour or so, then… Read more »
Stan La Ferr
Several years ago, my back pain was so bad that I was walking around with 1-2 canes. And when I awoke in the morning, it took 30-45 minutes every morning to slowly inch my way out of bed, slide off of it and then crawl into the shower on all fours. I tried a few different chiropractors, acupuncture and physical therapy. The physical therapist (allegedly one of the best in the area) told me I was in too much pain for him to work on me. He apologized and told me that I will “need” surgery. He handed me several… Read more »
Peter Lopez

I have scoliosis and I do everyday yoga and mindfulness meditation. Having a positive attitude does help too.

Torrie

Hi Jane. I found this article by doing a search on “heal back pain blog”. The pain you describe sounds similar to what i am experiencing. After reading this post, I am looking into Egoscue, which I’ve never heard of. I’m curious to know how you are feeling 3 years later. Are you still pain free? Thanks for sharing this info!