7 Ways Firefighters Can Manage Back Pain At Home & Without Surgery
Since back pain is a plague in the fire service, we need to understand how we can deal with it in a way that won’t affect us on the job. Back surgery is rarely one of those good options, pain meds lead to addiction and they just mask the underlying problem. Luckily, we have options that can make working possible without all of the negatives listed above.
What causes back pain?
80% of Americans will suffer from back pain in their lifetime. While many there are many causes of back pain, the two main categories doctors place back pain into are Mechanical & Inflammatory
Inflammatory Back Pain
About 1/3 of people that experience back pain are suffering from inflammation around their spinal column. There are ligaments and connective tissue around your vertebrae and they can become inflamed.
What does inflammatory back pain feel like?
Inflammatory back pain starts under the age of 35 and can be characterized by several symptoms. If you’re suffering from inflammatory back pain, you will feel the worst stiffness in your back first thing in the morning or after you’ve been sitting still for a period of time. The pain may radiate to your buttocks as well.
Inflammatory back pain feels better with movement or light exercise. So if you’re sitting still a lot, you back will “lock up” and it feels better if you’re staying active.
According to Dr. Gerald Miley (a back pain and rheumatology specialist) it can take around 8 or 9 years to diagnose inflammatory back pain. People just don’t realize their backs aren’t injured, they’re inflamed.
Mechanical Back Pain
Mechanical back pain is just a term that simply means your back was used improperly and now it hurts.
Only 20% of the time this pain can be pinpointed to a specific trauma. That means 80% of the time they’re unsure of how or why the spinal column was injured. This means that you could be suffering from inflammatory back pain and not mechanical so it’s important to know the symptoms of both.
It’s most commonly caused by posture, bad lifting or bending motions and the pain is originating from the discs, joints and soft tissue of your vertebrae.
What does Mechanical back pain feel like?
Mechanical back pain is mostly in your lower back (the lumbar). This is the spot that takes on the most strain when lifting and bending.
Unlike inflammatory back pain, mechanical back pain hurts more with overuse or with heavy lifting. Something like a bulging or pinched disc in one of your vertebrae can cause numbness or tingling to your hands or feet when moving a certain way.
7 ways to deal with back pain
Whether it’s mechanical or inflammatory, you can apply some of the basics of good back care to help alleviate some symptoms of pain and stiffness
1. Strengthen your core
Staying physically active is a great way to relieve pain from both mechanical and inflammatory back pain. But, your core also needs to be properly used and engaged when lifting correctly.
Work the abs for a healthier back!
2. Improve mobility with at-home stretches
A simple google search of back pain stretches will help you with this. But my favorites are “knees-to-chest” and doing trunk rotations laying on my back.
Check out this video from Sacremento and strength coach Firefighter John Hofman. Here he talks about piriformis syndrome which is a type of mechanical back pain.
3. Good posture
Obviously we all think of sitting a little more upright, but posture also means that we’re lifting and bending properly as well. And the biggest offender today is probably posture during device usage.
You should not only pay attention to how you’re sitting but also to how long you’re sitting for. Taking a long road trip? Flying? You should be getting up often and moving so you can get that pressure off of your lower back and keep yourself moving.
4. Relaxation techniques
Deep breathing is a big deal when it comes to relieving back pain. Breathing techniques will help you relax, which most people find difficult when their back hurts.
Your posture also improves when you’re performing these breathing techniques.
This technique always causes a few eyebrows to raise. However, I learned something interesting about back pain:
Poor posture will lead to improper muscle use when breathing. Some people hike their shoulders up when breathing in. Some people breathe with their belly. Some people even fill one side of their chest with air before the other.
All of these poor breathing techniques cause the muscles in your back to be used improperly and imagine how many times you take a breath a day. It’s roughly 18,000 times! Each improper breath is causing a bit of back pain, so 18,000 improper breaths can explain a good amount of back pain, don’t you think?
Yoga is another great way to help with relaxation, movement and breathing.
5. Use CBD Regularly
Whether it’s mechanical or inflammatory, CBD has benefits that can potentially help alleviate your back pain. CBD is a potent anti-inflammatory and since it reduces inflammation it is very effective against arthritis. But from a mechanical injury, CBD will still help with relaxation and reduce any swelling from the injury itself.
CBD will also improve sleep quality, allowing your body to heal normally.
With inflammatory and mechanical back pain, anti-inflammatory medications like Advil or Tylenol are recommended. CBD is just a natural anti-inflammatory agent.
6. Improved sleep
REM sleep is where the body goes to heal itself. Any cell damage, muscle repair or cellular waste is dealt with while you’re in REM. You can’t just take a nap, it has to be deep sleep for the body to effectively heal. Getting good sleep is a hot topic in the fire service and that goes for all first responders as well as anyone who works night shifts.
Breaking that cycle of being up at night while you’re home is tough, but it can be done.
7. Ice and heat
Most firefighters skip over this one and it should not be neglected. Ice is great for pain and inflammation relief and the heat is great for relaxation. Both of these on and off are effective at quick relief. But, these are short term, so they’re best used for times where your pain is high.
As with any medical condition you have to deal with, prevention is the best medicine. If you stay active, stay healthy and stay flexible your chances of back pain significantly drop.
Back pain that is mechanical (injury or strain) gets worse with movement and lifting. Back pain from arthritis is inflammation and usually relieved with light exercise and anti-inflammatories
It’s still a matter of debate. Studies from several researchers have shown mixed results, the correlation between back pain and high blood pressure is not fully understood yet.
A minor muscle strain may go away on its own with rest. Back pain that does not go away or that causes decreased mobility is a sign of a more serious condition or injury.
The most common reason is because you’re not padding between your knees if you’re a side sleeper. A more rare but serious reason back pain can wake you up at night is from an inflammatory condition.
Improper lifting & bending, poor posture, and inflammation are the most common causes.
Back pain is either mechanical (injury or strain) or inflammatory. Both of these can feel similar but you can assess yourself to tell which type you have based on several symptoms and time of day the pain occurs.