Simple Tips for Minimising Lower Back Pain

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As is the same for many poker players, I have been plagued with back pain issues for many years. Initially it was a moderate discomfort. Gradually it became a moderate, regular pain. Almost without realising, after some more time it had become a chronic, moderate and sometimes more severe shooting pain...

Honestly I did not realise for a number of years that this was such a universal issue amongst poker players, students, office workers, or pretty much everyone. It appeared to be some silently acknowledged part of daily existence. Some had it worse than others, but everyone experienced it from time to time.

With that in mind, it seemed that the elephant in the room was a specific activity [inactivity] in our everyday lives, so commonplace that we never consciously gave any thought to it: sitting.

That was until more recently. The health risks associated with sitting for significant amounts of time every day has been well documented in recent years. This has lead to a number of excellent innovations and initiatives to mitigate the risks this part of our lifestyle poses. Rather than regurgitating these, instead I would like to give you some straightforward tips which have benefited me greatly. I will preface this by saying that I would find coaching/grinding whilst walking on a treadmill awkward at best, but if it can work for you, that's awesome! I also think standing desks are a fantastic innovation and if you can utilise one of those successfully, that too is a major improvement on what I am about to suggest.

1) Don't obsess over the chair!! Poker players seem to be quite obsessed with their 'grind stations'. It's something of great pride and indulgence. Unfortunately I think the lifestyle/performance benefits of getting top of the market 'gaming chairs' is negligible (I might be wrong, I've never tried them). The way I support this argument is to suggest that obsessing over which chair to sit in is completely missing the point: sitting is the problem, and sitting in a better chair will not solve this problem. I acknowledge that some chairs will encourage better posture than others, and that setting a chair at the correct height relative to the top of a computer monitor/keyboard etc. etc. (Google this for recommendations) is important, but this has little to do with spending an extra $500. Personally I've just taken one of my dining room chairs which happens to be at a decent height, has good back support, and feels reasonably comfortable. Similarly my desk is the cheapest one I could find with the correct dimensions, and was about $65. Where even small performance increases can be found, I'm willing to pay a lot of money, but otherwise the cheapest will do just fine.

2) Add a pillow!! Personally I have found that adding a pillow hanging from the top of the chair down my back creates a lumber support. My dining chair+pillow=your $3k chair.

3) Wake up your muscles which go to sleep! It made sense when explained to me during an expensive consultation with a sports physio, that my back muscles were essentially going to sleep during protracted periods of sitting down. This is exactly because of what a chair does, creating the 'support' for keeping upright. After a while your core stabiliser muscles become lazy and basically go to sleep, leaving the chair to do the work. In turn additional stress is put on your lower back, and the compression leads to pain. It can lead to lots of different specific things, but essentially this=PAIN. To alleviate this pain - or indeed prevent the onset of it - we must wake up our muscles, or better still ensure they remain active before they go to sleep!

The best way to do this is to simply stand up and give your back a good stretch up-down-left-right a few times (keep your chest up, bend in the knees as if you're about to perform a squat, to avoid rounding of the back), and then sit back down again. Repeat this regularly, at least every hour or more often if at all possible. If your type of grind does not allow for this, then you either need to sacrifice your back, or sacrifice your grind. The choice is yours.

4) Strengthen your core muscles! Muscles work in tandem. This is the founding principle of functional training, from which has emerged crazes such as CrossFit. Basically whatever we do in life, we need to use various parts of our body in tandem. Applying this principle to sitting down, we actually have to sustain quite an effort to sit down with good posture for extended periods of time. This might sound stupid, but for me maintaining good posture is impossible. This could be as a result of bad habits, or as a result of sitting in one place for too long, or due to a lack of muscular strength in certain areas, or a muscular imbalance. In reality I think it's all of these things.

Try this: do a body plank exercise, keeping your abdominals tense, and count how many seconds (if minutes you're already seriously well conditioned) until you begin shaking. Shaking=your core muscles are too weak to maintain your stability, i.e. you begin shaking. At this point larger muscle groups try and help out. For this reason, it is a great exercise to strengthen our core muscles, and also to measure our progression. There's a number of variations of plank exercises you can try out, check out YouTube.

In the same vain, anything which strengthens core muscles will be beneficial. This can be things such as abs work, yoga, pilates, or actually training which often isn't associated with the core in mind, but may be as effective, if not more so - compound exercises (e.g. Squats, Bench Press (I prefer Dumbbell Press), Deadlifts etc.)

Another great exercise is to take a gym ball [yoga ball] put it against a wall, behind your back, and perform a squat with good form. To make this tougher you can hold a medicine ball against your chest. This is an excellent strengthening exercise, but also trains great form and posture too.

5) Avoid aggravating your lower back when you can avoid it! For anything to be healed, it should not be repetitively aggravated. One reason why back pain seems to be chronic for many people is because it is constantly being aggravated throughout the day. From the moment we wake up and jump out of bed, going straight from muscles half asleep to being fully activated to support this movement, bending down to tie shoe laces, picking something up off the floor blah blah blah.

So to start with, I got the great, and somewhat strange piece of advice to try and effectively roll out of bed, then stand up. This differs from just raising yourself straight up. Rolling does not put strain on the back, once you get to the edge of the bed simply put your feet on the ground and do a squat to get up. I then do some yoga arm raises to stretch out the back. Again this routine might sound dumb, but like with all things the body needs some kind of warm up before springing into action (which is exactly what is being demanded of it if your spring out of bed).

In short, whenever you have to reach low down for something, try to round your back less, and squat down more. This puts the effort more in your glutes, and less in your lower back.

These are just a few simple things which have, without exaggerating, changed my physical wellbeing and overall quality of life. As always, almost none of these ideas are my own, just learned from people and resources. I paid some money for physiotherapy, was lucky to be accepted as a volunteer at a lower back pain clinic at the University of Queensland, and scoured the Internet for good tips. I hope you can find something here which can help you.



Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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