Tuesday 19 March 2019

15 ways to manage back pain

After suffering from back pain since childhood, Arlene Harris tried and tested fellow sufferer Steve Timm's self-styled methods. Now 'pain-free', she shares his, and other experts' tips on reducing those niggling aches

Woman with back pain
Woman with back pain

Arlene Harris

Like most of the adult population, I suffer from a bad back - the result of a childhood injury. Having tried several forms of treatment over the years, I happened upon the Chilean-born, Australian-native, Steve Timm, a fellow sufferer, who devised a series of yogic exercises in a bid to cure his own back pain.

Not only did he succeed but he also developed a short programme of daily exercises which he eventually chronicled in a book entitled Mind Your Own Back (MYOB).

"My back began to fall apart in 1974 when an accident at work, while carrying a heavy piece of equipment, left me frozen with pain and flat on my back in bed, unable to move for a whole month," says the 76-year-old. "After numerous treatments by osteopaths, chiropractors and physical therapists, I was told nothing more could be done. I would have to live in pain for the rest of my life."

But Timm decided to work on a cure himself and combining his skills as an engineer and a new-found knowledge of yoga, he devised the simple plan which, in recent years, has brought relief to countless sufferers. Since meeting with Timm in 2010, I am now pain-free. With a new edition of his book available this summer, Timm, along with other experts, offers numerous ways to minimise back pain and deal with symptoms when they arise.

Read more: 'Don't ignore back pain, but ignore me lying on the floor...' - Ivan Yates


Timm, often dubbed 'Miracle Man', says the most important step to managing back pain is to learn how it works. "Education is crucial and ignorance is dangerous," he says. "Everyone should understand the human spine and its needs. Learn how to move and use your spine and body safely - this is more important than learning to drive. People also need to learn how to lift heavy weights safely and know the limitations of how much weight they can safely lift."


The retired IBM engineer says it's equally important to move as much as possible as this will benefit your spine and ultimately, your back. "Avoid long hours sitting crunched down in front of a computer," he says. "Also avoid long hours in a sinking position on a sofa watching TV. And do your best to not spend too much time in enclosed rooms devoid of fresh air."


"After nine months in a foetal position, we are born and the spine opens up and stretches out like a flower in spring," says Timm. "The proper opening and balance of the base of the spine is fundamental to the whole structure. So it's important to create balance which, when properly set, makes many stretches and exercises really beneficial. Due to stress or psychological problems, some people go back to partial foetal position, as if looking for emotional refuge, and back problems may occur, so it is important to stretch it out and also do some gentle aerobics and muscle building exercises."

Read more: 15 things you didn't know about back pain


Joey Boland, clinic director at Sports Physio Ireland, agrees and says stretching from bottom to heels will help strengthen your back and upper legs muscles.

"The bottom to heels stretch should be a part of your warm-up and morning routine," he advises. "Get on the floor on your hands and knees, making sure that your hands are a little behind your shoulders and the knees behind your hips. Slowly fold down your lower body, until your buttocks touch your heels. Do not take your hands off the floor, but extend them as your body moves towards the back. Hold the position for 20-30 seconds and repeat eight to 10 times. Make sure to use a sports mat with a smooth surface to avoid bruising your knees."


Dr Anne Reicherter, professor of Physical Therapy at the University of Maryland, says walking about is also essential to prevent back pain. "Don't sit slumped in your desk chair all day," she advises. "Get up every 20 minutes or so and stretch the other way. Because most of us spend a lot of time bending forward in our jobs, it's important to stand up and stretch backward throughout the day."


Compulsory wearing of high heels has been a contentious issue of late, but back guru Timm says we should exchange our four-inch pumps for flats or low heels (less than one inch) because high heels "may create a more unstable posture" and increase pressure on your lower spine. "Unnatural shoes like high heels are not good and can be very damaging," he says.


Timm says his technique is designed to create balance and a healthy spine from the bottom up. "It begins by resetting the angle and position of the pelvis in the most effective way," he explains. "By restoring balance at the very foundation of the spine, it naturally corrects the distortions and deviations that ageing, muscle weakness and other causes, (high shoes) have created throughout the vertebral column. Gentle exercise is good, provided that there is no imbalance at the base of the spine but I am against forcing a 'good posture' as it should come naturally when you do your MYOB routine as you can't help but stand tall and proud."


Richard Brennan of the Alexander Technique Centre in Galway says the key to minimising the chance of getting back pain is to learn how to relax properly.

"The Alexander Technique is a method of personal education which involves self-awareness and releasing muscular tension," he says. "This excessive tension slowly accumulates over many years of stressful living and often starts in childhood. And if left unchecked, can give rise later in life to common ailments such as back pain.

"Through the Alexander Technique you will discover ways of sitting, standing and walking which will put less strain on the bones, joints and muscles, making your body work more efficiently."


Steve Timm agrees: "Learn to manage stress and emotional tension as this will help you to feel better," he says. "I have also found it beneficial to learn how to promote structured inner silence every day. Also try to learn and practice a scientifically proven good meditation, as it will be like having a shower on the inside every day."


Negativity can have a profound effect on how we feel physically and Timm says it's important to develop a positive frame of mind and try to ensure you feel emotionally strong and secure. He says while this isn't always easy to achieve, there are a few steps you can take towards positivity.

"Try to have clear good purpose in your life," he advises. "And do something to help your fellow beings. Also make sure to eat healthy fresh food, avoid overeating and drink plenty of water."


"MYOB is completely natural and is also a form of therapy so is not suitable to be passed on in a class or group situation," says Timm. "Every session needs to be adjusted to the individual needs of each person so for this reason giving everyone a fixed version of MYOB could be damaging. So I would advise people to check out my website and book for more information. Also I will be in Dublin on August 6 and may be able to see a few people personally."


For those who won't get to see Steve Timm on his Irish visit, Sports Physio Ireland director Joey Boland, says a knee roll is a very simple exercise that aims to improve the strength and mobility of your spine. "Place a mat on the floor and lie down on your back," he advises. "Lift up your knees, until both your feet sit firmly on the floor. Without moving your upper body, roll both your knees to the right until your right knee touches the floor. Hold the position for four to five seconds, and repeat in the opposite direction. It is recommended to do eight to 10 knee rolls for each side, but do not attempt to stretch your back muscles further beyond comfort."


Despite all our best efforts at trying to prevent back pain, sometimes injury gets the better of us. Dr Anne Reicherter of the University of Maryland says the first port of call for pain relief should be ice. "Ice is best in the first 24 to 48 hours after injury because it reduces inflammation," she says. "Even though something warm feels good because it helps cover up the pain and relax the muscles, the heat actually inflames the inflammatory processes. But after 48 hours, you can switch from ice to heat if you prefer. However, whether you use heat or ice, remove after about 20 minutes to give your skin a rest and if pain persists, talk to a doctor."


Sleep disturbances are common among back pain sufferers, but rest helps repair strained muscles and soothe inflamed joints, according to the HSE. "Start with a good bed and experiment with different sleeping positions - try sleeping on your side and on a firm surface," advises a spokesperson. This helps to prevent any curvature of the spine which could lead to or worsen back pain.


It's not always the best idea to simply rest and wait for back pain to subside as resting can cause certain types of pain to worsen and decrease muscle strength, according to the HSE.

"Instead of lying down, start with gentle stretches and try experimenting to see what ways you can move without pain," says a spokesperson. She also advises going for a slow, easy walk, and picking up the pace if it feels good. "Regular gentle exercise is also a good idea as strengthening and stretching muscles can reduce many types of back pain," she adds. "However, it's best to discuss your current routine and any changes with your doctor."

* For more on Steve Timm, see mindyourownback.com. Also, see Pat Henry's tips on strengthening your back.

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