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.

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