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When I first started writing about health issues, I would casually mention how some people find their sleep disturbed by pain, but I didn’t really think much about it, or what the effects can be. Today I find myself in that category due to a lifelong problem that used to flare up occasionally as lower back pain (usually if I executed an ill-advised bend-and-twist movements) but that now causes me constant pain.
Yes, I’m one of many people in the same “bad back” boat; about 50 percent of working Americans suffer from—and wonder how to relieve—lower back pain. My guess is that we’re all spending a good part of the day or night trying to figure out the answer. So, as you can imagine, I was interested to read about recent research suggesting that mindfulness may be an effective way to treat the problem.
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What Causes Back Pain? The Effects of Scoliosis
What causes lower back pain varies widely, but my lifelong back problem is scoliosis—more on that in a future post—but the pain is aggravated by a stubborn insistence on doing my own yard work (I am my own Big Strong Man). I consider it good exercise (believe me, it is), but of course, yard work involves those aforementioned illegal bend-and-twist movements… not to mention mowing two double lots and four ditches, since I am a kind soul and mow my elderly neighbor’s yard too.
Anyway, the upshot is that I’m not sleeping well due to pain waking me three, four, or five times during the night. This means I’m also tired much of the time, with the attendant general irritability (not good when there are two children in the house, one of whom is an equally irritable teenager), inability to concentrate, and risk for driving accidents mid-yawn.
How to Relieve Lower Back Pain: New Directions
The concept of mindfulness appeals to me mainly because I’m painkiller-averse when it comes to treating my problem. I’ve just never found over-the-counter painkillers to be particularly effective at blunting either my lower back pain or the pain I feel higher up my back.
The one time my doctor suggested I try opioids, I just didn’t like the effect—I felt as if I’d had one too many glasses of wine, and in all honestly, I’d rather have the wine.
The study I’m referring to looked at a practice called mindfulness-based stress reduction: a topic I’ve written about before, though it hadn’t ever really occurred to me to give it a try. Researchers compared mindfulness-based stress reduction to cognitive behavioral therapy and “usual care.” The researchers didn’t elaborate on what exactly constitutes “usual care,” but I’m going to assume it means over-the-counter painkillers.
According to the data, people in the mindfulness-based stress reduction and the cognitive behavioral therapy groups reported a significant improvement in their lower back pain and in their function one year after receiving eight weeks of treatment (in the form of weekly two-hour group sessions).
Attention! Mindfulness Makes a Difference
As I mentioned, I’ve written about mindfulness-based stress reduction before. It involves paying attention to the moment at hand. I find the best way for me to achieve this when I’m trying to calm down and sleep (instead of break down about the fact that I can’t sleep!) is to focus on each breath I take. I concentrate on the way my chest and ribs expand as air flows into me, and on the sound my breath makes as it flows out.
The idea is to let everything else around you fall away as you become totally attentive to that one thing. The theory is that learning how to hone your concentration in this way means you can avoid dwelling on the negative—such as pain—and instead let go of it, and simply accept things as they are. What (hopefully) results is a sense of control arising from the fact you’re choosing how to respond to your pain, or other stressors in your life.
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This study dovetails neatly into the recent publication of the National Institutes of Health’s National Pain Strategy, which outlined a framework for encouraging the use of multiple pain management options, including psychosocial approaches. Keep in mind, though, that the study participants had nonspecific lower back pain—that is, back pain with no clearly identifiable reason (such as that caused by degenerative disc disease, or by spinal stenosis symptoms).
There is no guarantee that mindfulness will help if you do have an underlying physical cause for your back pain. And if you’re receiving appropriate treatment for any underlying cause, you shouldn’t ignore your doctor’s advice in favor of mindfulness. But it can’t do any harm to utilize mindfulness as an adjunct to your usual care, and if—like me—you’re finding that pain is disturbing your sleep, then mindfulness has the added benefit of helping you relax and drift off.
You can read more about the study here, and I’ll keep you updated on how mindfulness is working for me. In the meantime, what are you doing to ease your pain? Whatever it is you’re doing could help others, so share your advice for how to relieve lower back pain in the comments.
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.