Back Pain Resource Center - relaxation skills to help reduce back pain
A catalogue of our favorite ways for relieving back pain
I heard about the 90/90 position very soon after I hurt my back. It allows the back muscles to relax and often works when all other positions fail. It is a very basic idea - to lie on your back with your legs on top of a footstool, chair, or other surface so that your hips and knees are bent at 90 degrees (right angles). They even make chairs these days that allow you to recline in this position (for instance they carry them in the Backsaver catalog). This position can be a godsend - in fact I studied this way through law school and even listened to lectures this way in class (a few people thought I was strange - oh well).
There is a whole world of mind body techniques that may be helpful for reducing pain. I will cover some of these in the movement section, but here I will mention a few that are more meditative in nature.
a) The simplest of these may be just taking a deep breath. Often I find that if I take a deep abdominal breath and exhale slowly, I can feel some of the tension drain out of my muscles. The nice thing about this is you can do it anywhere and anytime. Try it at a stoplight when driving, and visualize the tension draining out of you as you exhale.
b) There are a number of muscle relaxation techniques I have learned over the years. At the pain clinic I went to they gave me some tapes for relaxation. One was a progressive relaxation tape where you tense and then release your muscles. In another technique you imagine your arms and legs becoming progressively heavier and warmer to relax your body. Yet another tape concentrates on your breath by having you inhale and exhale to a drumbeat. I usually get so relaxed using this tape that I fall asleep. I've listed the tapes that I enjoyed in the Resources section.
c) Biofeedback is a high tech way of learning how to relax your muscles. I did some training at the Pain Clinic and they also gave me a self tester I could take home to train with (it told me when my skin temperature was higher which indicated a higher degree of relaxation). It worked pretty well and did give me some insight into how to relax different parts of my body independently. I would advise you to find an experienced practitioner to help you learn this, at least initially, before investing in any equipment for you to use on your own.
d) More advanced methods of mind body training are found in Yoga and in the chinese equivalent Chi Kung. Both of these methods concentrate on using breath and visualization in a very advanced manner.
I have concentrated mainly on Chi Kung, and I really love it. One of the most basic parts of the Chi Kung technique is relaxed, abdominal breathing (a.k.a. belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing). I find that breathing in this way allows my shoulders and neck to relax a bit, although I often find myself reverting back to chest breathing which brings back the tightness. This type of breathing is also beneficial in that it brings in a lot more oxygen to your system. Chi Kung teachers believe that breathing in this way is natural and very beneficial to your whole body. In their belief, you are healthiest when you are a baby and if you watch babies, they breathe with their belly. By breathing in this manner, they believe you can bring back some of the softness you had when you were younger and thereby the good health. Does it work? I can't say it has reversed my aging, but I have found that I feel better and more relaxed when I breathe in this manner.
While there are good books on these techniques, I really recommend learning from a good teacher. How can you find a good teacher? This can be very difficult. Asking family or friends for their recommendations is often useful. But always try to sit in on a class first to see how a teacher conducts classes and whether they would be open to working with you to modify their techniques to fit around your back problem. See the Resource site for some books and tapes on Chi Kung that I really like. I really only learned Yoga with an instructor, so I don't have any particular books or tapes to recommend. I did like those Yoga techniques, though, that worked with props better since they accommodated my back limitations more easily. The movement aspects of these will be discussed in more detail in the movement section of these Survival Techniques.