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How Getting 'Back to the Basics' Is Helping Me Manage My Back Pain

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Editor’s note: The following is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before making changes to your diet or exercise routine.

Another day of pain. Same ole, same ole. I can’t expect anything big to change from here on out. More doctors, more pills, more shots, nothing new. September is Pain Awareness Month. Every month is Pain Awareness Month for me.

I have a sitting disability, meaning it hurts when I sit. I have sciatica giving me sharp jabs down the left leg and a dull but growing pain in my low back. To compensate for the sitting, I angle myself in different positions that cause pain in another area of the back, or the hips, or the neck. I lie down, which after a while is unhealthy. I stand, but then my ankle pain comes back or my knees buckle. I can’t win.


At this point, I cannot expect a doctor to save me. I’ve been down this road too many times and all I can do is… all I can do. Remember the Serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes the serenity prayer is the last thing I, as a chronic pain patient, want to hear. I need to focus on getting what I call “Back to the Basics” – sleep, diet, exercise, companionship.

Sleep is the number one issue for me, and a big one for most people with chronic pain. Not getting enough sleep causes more pain, more pain causes lower quality sleep, which causes more pain. I hate relying on the sleeping pills my doctor prescribes me, but I need to do what I need to do for restorative sleep.

I need to go to bed earlier and get up earlier. We’ve all heard the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” We’ve also heard, “The early bird gets the worm.” That’s good for the bird, but not for the worm. He should’ve stayed in bed! The point is, I need a full eight or nine hours sleep, but it has to be quality sleep.

I need to prepare myself for sleep an hour before hand. No TV, computer, laptop or phone. Instead, I practice light yoga and easy reading. I prepared a “Before Bed” playlist of music and a “During Sleep” playlist for deeper sleep. It’s important to prepare these ahead of time so I’m not fumbling around with the phone, searching through my music when I’m supposed to be off technology before bedtime.

Getting up earlier helps me go to bed earlier, which in turn helps my sleep cycle. Being awake when the sun is up is beneficial for me, which is why I prosper in the summer and flounder in the winter, with both depression and higher pain levels. Benjamin Franklin also said, “The early morning has gold in its mouth,” which is relevant to me too because early morning is my daily golden period. The first few hours in the morning are like unicorns and winning lottery tickets because I am not in very much pain, if the previous night’s sleep was successful. I spend a considerable amount of time talking about pain, so it is helpful for my outlook on life to notice times when I am not.

I start these mornings with movement, not too much though. Stretching, easy walking or yoga. I find that movement combats my pain any time of the day, but starting off the morning with walking benefits the rest of the day.

I medicate myself with food. When I am in pain or feeling anxiety, nothing calms me like fat, sugar and salt. They are more comforting than any drug but can be just as dangerous. We are what we eat. We eat foods we cannot pronounce, and we eat too many of them. And then we have the highest cost of healthcare in the world. Go figure. Diet and exercise are important for fighting any illness, whether it be a sitting disability, depression, diabetes or cancer. In other words, I need to try harder at this.

I’m not going into diet specifics here. First of all, I’m not qualified. Second of all, by the time you read this, there will have been 100 new diet books published that all have different opinions on what you should eat. There is not a special diet for a sitting disability. There are foods that help pain and foods that cause inflammation, or pain. Because the causes of chronic pain are different for everybody, ask a doctor and a nutritionist about your specific diet. Doctors often aren’t taught about nutrition specifics. They are taught to treat illnesses after they happen, not before.

Generally, the things I really, really want to eat are the things I really, really should not eat. Diet books will argue one food over the next, but I know ice cream and potato chips probably aren’t the “right” things to eat. Damn! Having a healthy weight is important for my pain. I am a little bit overweight and recognize that as a man, I carry the weight in my stomach, surrounding the area where I had my back surgery, a lumbar fusion at L5-S1. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that carrying extra weight in that area is a bad idea. It does take a rocket scientist to keep me away from that extra slice of pizza or ice cream.

Vegetables. I need more of them. Everybody does. The one thing every fad diet book agrees with is that vegetables are safe, although you might have particular ones to avoid due to your particular illness, and again, ask a doctor and a nutritionist. In the morning, I go into the fridge and take out the raw vegetables I will eat for the day and place them in a bowl. This usually includes a handful of leafy greens, red pepper, baby carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini and squash. I buy them in bulk and eat a little bit of each vegetable each day. By setting them near me, or taking them with me when I travel, I am guaranteed to get through the bowl by the end of the day. It also makes eating a big bowl of vegetables less daunting. I do the same with fruit. Eating sugar from fruit helps me to fight my sweet tooth late at night.

There are many causes to illnesses we don’t know about. We don’t know that food X causes disease Y, yet. But we do know that food that comes from the earth is generally good, while food that is highly processed is generally not. In 20 years from now we might have more answers, but even without a scientific study, we know pizza and ice cream are the obvious bad choices. Trust me, I hate this fact too.

Exercise is difficult when you have chronic pain. But it’s important to stave off further pain. I have to exercise within my limits, which means several small walks throughout the day. I prefer resistance training to aerobic because the controlled movements are less jarring on my joints. However, my doctor stressed that aerobic exercise is also important, especially for my fibromyalgia.

Most importantly, I cannot isolate. This is my tendency when I am down and out and in pain. I have to try to make that dinner date with a friend or go for a walk with a friend who understands my limitations. There are people in this world who will understand my illness and there are people who won’t. I need to surround myself with the former and not beat myself up for not being able to do more.

Those are just the basics. They are the things I can control while facing an illness I have no other control over.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd.

Originally published: September 15, 2017
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