Back Problems Are a Pain in the Butt

There are, of course, many types of back problems and, unfortunately, this article only speaks to one of them, the one I have been battling for years. I think it is common enough, though, that it’s worth sharing some of the strategies I’ve put together to keep myself off of the chiropractor’s table.

The author uses a jigsaw with a massage adaptor to loosen tight quad muscles, while also working the gluteus maximus by sitting on a knobby roller. All photos courtesy of the author.

If you have ever “thrown your back out” or experienced sharp, debilitating pain in your lower back – it feels like a pinched nerve in a vertebra, which it kind of is – and are unable to stand up straight after doing something seemingly inconsequential, something you might do without any problem on a different day, such as lifting the laundry basket, read on.

With a combination of three important practices – stretching, hydration and deep-tissue massage – as well as an increased awareness of muscle tension in certain key areas, you may be able to avoid putting yourself out of action for several days and/or having to visit a chiropractor.

I used to get “cracked” a couple of times a year. I would hobble in and lie down on the table, and the doctor would twist me up like a pretzel and sort of throw himself on me. Crack, crack! Quite scary, but also very satisfying when you can stand up and walk again and feel three inches taller – a miracle! He would tell me that, again, I needed to stretch and would give me the same prescription of stretches, emphasizing “windshield wipers,” which I’ll describe later.

In trying to deal with these periodic, debilitating lower-back issues, I also tried various massage therapists who pushed me to the limits of my pain threshold with pointy elbows. It sounds like torture and it kind of is, but it always helped. However, I should note that when my back was “out” and causing me serious, near-constant pain, massage was even more painful and did not seem as effective. In this case, I would resort to heat-and-cold therapy and stretching, and perhaps the chiropractor, though fortunately, I have been able to avoid getting to that point for years.

My first and foremost recommendation is getting a good, deep-tissue massage, and if it’s not painful, tell them to go deeper and use elbows, particularly on hamstrings and glutes. While it’s not covered under most insurance, while the chiropractor sometimes is, and it’s more painful than the chiropractor, it takes care of more problems and can alert you to other muscle issues you may not be fully aware of. If you’re going after your lower-back issues, they need to look below your lower back. Yes, you need to find some nice person you can pay, or ideally, barter tree work with, to stick their elbow on your butt.

A jigsaw with a massage adaptor, a knobby roller and the Thera Cane massager.

Sorry, that sounds crude, but that was where I, with the help of a massage therapist, discovered the root of my back problems. I’m a tight-ass, it turns out. There are various reasons I had big, deep knots in my back pockets. They are caused not only by physical work – and I use those muscles a lot as a single-rope-system (SRS) climber – but also from stress. The large muscles in the backs of your legs and your butt might unconsciously clench as you experience any type of stress, your body’s primal response to prepare for fight or flight. This is similar to how many people clench their jaw muscles, perhaps restraining a primal urge to bite someone’s head off. Luckily, that only occurs as a figure of speech these days! Anyway, tightness and knotting in these large muscles gradually builds up and moves higher and higher until your low back seizes. If you are paying attention to your body, you can feel it happening.

Another reason muscles clench up, as I was reminded recently after falling backward over a log, is to guard an injury. I noticed that my back was more painful than from just the injury itself, that the usual muscles had tightened up, making me “crooked” again.

The author with the Thera Cane massager. “One of my favorite moves is to use it as a crowbar, pushing off of a leverage point and driving the knob on the end of the hook deep into the problem area,” says Greenbaum.

Professional massage (before your back is out) is the most effective way of keeping your back in line, but requires finding a therapist you trust; you need to feel comfortable enough that you can relax your muscles and let them work the knots out, and you’ll need to bare part of your butt to them. After a few sessions, they will know where your problem areas are and will be able to assess if these are improving or worsening. Unfortunately, it can be expensive (though worth it, especially if back pain is causing you to lose income). A good massage therapist should be able to name the muscles where they find the biggest knots, and you can look up various ways to stretch or massage those muscles.

Luckily, there is also self-massage. It’s a lot cheaper, and you can do it just about any time, anywhere. You can work on key areas you might not feel comfortable letting somebody else work on, around your hip joints and inner thighs.

There are three tools for this I’ve found so far that are quite effective and not that expensive. They are the Thera Cane massager, the knobby roller and, most recently, a jigsaw with a massage adaptor. The first two have been around for many years, and I am always surprised when people ask me about the Thera Cane, which I sometimes carry around with me to work on knots whenever I have a free moment. Most people know about foam rollers, but I think it’s important to use a knobby one, not just the typical smooth one. I just started using the battery-powered jigsaw as a massage tool last year and, other than the noise, it’s incredible.

When you’re on the massage table, it’s best to relax all your muscles as much as possible, but when you’re working on yourself, you obviously need to use some of your muscles to massage other ones, so it’s impossible to let tension go to the same degree. Also, effectively getting to those key muscles on your back or butt, hips or hamstrings, with your hands or elbows is difficult at best. The tools I use are a way of using minimal muscle power to attack deep knots that generally require a good deal of pressure. The Thera Cane uses leverage, the roller uses gravity and the jigsaw uses batteries. All of them can cause a good bit of pain – the good kind of pain – but with some practice, the pressure is pretty easily controlled.

The Thera Cane – I recommend getting the brand-name one; there are cheap knockoffs that I tried, but they all snapped – comes in green or blue, and I like the “j” hook vs. the “s” hook. One of my favorite moves is to use it as a crowbar, pushing off of a leverage point and driving the knob on the end of the hook deep into the problem area. ($30 on amazon.com)

The knobby roller – I like a short, 16-inch one for portability, and haven’t had any need for those giant, 3-foot-long ones – works best on the butt, rolling one cheek at a time and down the back of the leg to the knee, using your body weight to get the knobs deep into the muscle. The knobbier the better, just put weight on gradually. (Rumble roller: $50 on amazon.com)

The jigsaw with a massage adaptor is a poor man’s version of the TimTam massage gun! If you happen to have a 12-volt battery system, they might make a jigsaw for batteries you already have. I happen to have Milwaukee, but I think most of the major brands would be equally good, though I haven’t tested others. A jigsaw costs around $100 without batteries, and I got a massage kit on eBay for about $30 with five or so different rubber attachments (ball, cone, flat) with shafts attached to fit in a jigsaw. The only downside is that it’s very loud, and the loudness and the intensity can take some getting used to. Sometimes I put on hearing protection and use the whole battery up in one go and feel like happy Jell-O for a while afterward.

Sometimes I combine massage and stretch, if I can move my body in a way that brings the muscle closer to the surface and elongates it as I work on it. I think this is a technique used in Thai massage. This leads me to stretching.

Stretching

While just about everyone knows that stretching can help avoid injury, they may not know which muscles need to be stretched to avoid back problems. Additionally, there are stretches that not everyone is aware of. The muscles and muscle groups that can affect your lower back can include everything from those just above your hips – including the iliotibial, or IT band, a tendon that runs down the length of the outer thigh, from the top of the pelvis (ilium) to the shin bone (tibia) – down to your knees, primarily posterior.

Butt stretch: One of my favorites is some version of the yoga position “pigeon” in which you lie on the ground, extending one leg in front of you, knee bent (or alternatively, cross one leg over the other while sitting in a chair) and fold forward to feel the stretch in the hips and glutes. I usually get my leg on a high stool or sturdy table, or the tailgate of a truck, so I don’t need to get on the ground.

Hamstring stretch: There are various ways to stretch your hamstrings that most people are familiar with, such as bending at the waist with one leg crossed over the other.

Windshield wipers: Lie on your back, hug your knees for 15 seconds, and then, keeping your back flat, twist both knees to the left for 15 seconds, back to the middle and then to the right.

Butterfly stretch: With feet together, push the legs down with the elbows. I find groin/inner-thigh muscles often very tight after climbing on spikes all day.

Hydration

Lastly, a word about hydration. For some reason, I’ve never been a big fan of drinking plain water, especially when it’s cold outside and I don’t get as thirsty. I started using something called Hydration Multiplier, an electrolyte drink mix designed to deliver hydration to the bloodstream faster, and have significantly reduced major muscle cramps, so I am sure it helps avoid muscle knots, too. Also, I think it tastes good (it does contain a fair amount of sugar, which is apparently part of the science), so I tend to drink more of it at one time than plain water.

Dan Greenbaum, arborist and CTSP, is the owner/operator of CT Greentree, a four-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Connecticut.

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