I have dealt with chronic back pain almost all my life. After persistent and painful back aches in fifth grade (and a subsequent rolling backpack), my mom took me to see my pediatrician, who explained that I had “very mild” scoliosis that would need to be checked once a year.
Unfortunately, my “mild” scoliosis took a turn for the worst, and by sixth grade, I had a curve that measured over 50 degrees (I wish I could find that x-ray; it’s absolutely alarming). Double unfortunately, my growth plates were in the final stages of fusing, so my doctors felt that it was too late to brace me and try to correct my curve.
Through middle school, I struggled a little with back pain, but I played a sport every season (lacrosse, swim team, soccer, indoor lacrosse/basketball), and all that movement, plus very little stress, helped me keep any discomfort at bay.
High school was a completely different story. I pulled back from sports to focus on academics, had a part-time job, babysat several nights a week, took demanding classes, and struggled to find my way socially. Throughout the majority of freshman and sophomore year, I was in frequent and significant pain as I hauled those ridiculous textbooks (my World History textbook was straight up four and a half inches wide) through the halls and sat in uncomfortable, unsupportive chairs every day.
I started physical therapy sometime around junior year, which was very helpful, but meant hours of time each week away from studying, homework, and applying for college, which was stressful. My back pain was under control, but I was struggling with anxiety and wasn’t in a healthy mental state.
By senior year, I was really struggling to make it through the day because of my back pain. After my yearly doctor’s appointment, I was sent to a surgeon who specializes in scoliotic surgery, which would mean several metal rods down my spine. Though the thought of surgery was scary, I was completely willing to go under the knife if it meant that I wouldn’t have to live in pain. On my follow-up appointment six months later, my spine had miraculously “corrected itself” about 15 degrees, moving me out of the range for needing surgery, something even the very experienced surgeon who specialized in scoliosis could not explain. (Thank You, God, for miracles.)
In the beginning of college, I only dealt with dull pain from time to time, but mostly felt okay. I largely attribute this to how active I was, walking all over campus for class in addition to working as a tour guide several days a week. When junior year came, I was starting to feel uncomfortable more frequently, so I went to the chiropractor for the first time. (Insert hallelujah chorus here.)
I have gone to the chiropractor on a consistent basis ever since that day! Thanks to regular chiropractic care and learning some other pain management tips (which I’ll share below), I have largely been able to manage my back pain, though I still deal with semi-frequent discomfort/stiffness/pain/etc. Today I’ll share some ways I manage my chronic back pain–I hope this is helpful to you if you struggle with back pain!
// See a chiropractor
Because I’ve already mentioned this, I’ll get it out of the way on the front end. I’m not being exaggerative when I say that regular chiropractic care has changed my life. Holistically, I feel better, move better, sleep better, digest better, etc. All that said, my back pain has decreased significantly ever since I started going to the chiropractor every two weeks or so.
If you’ve never been to a chiropractor, there are many different techniques, so you may want to visit more than one until you find a technique you’re comfortable with. I don’t have a strong preference, but you may. My last chiropractor was incredibly gentle and my current one is much more physical. Either way, I feel good, so I’m not picky! Also, neck adjustments are not scary in the least. I hear people who are struggling with incredible pain but refuse to see a chiropractor because they’re scared of neck adjustments–I promise, they’re not bad at all, especially if you find one who uses a gentle technique.
// Watch my positions
As much as it would make life easier, I cannot sit cross-legged on the floor, on a backless bench, or with my feet hanging because it causes me noticeable pain. Similarly, I cannot stand in one position for two long, especially if I’m wearing anything but tennis shoes (for this reason, I try to wear tennis shoes as often as possible).
I can’t sleep on my stomach because it messes up my neck and laying on one side for too long makes my hips misalign, which is painful. Sleeping on my back is my least favorite position, but I’ve had to try to train myself to sleep that way.
I can’t ride in the car for two long, I can’t sit with my feet up on the chair, I can’t prop myself up on my elbows to work on my computer. All these things have been a part of my daily life for so long that I barely even think about them until they present themselves, like when I have to sit on the floor for something or wake up with a twisted vertebrae in my neck because I slept incorrectly.
// Exercise carefully
When I exercise, I have to be so, so mindful and careful. I mostly lift weights using weight machines because improper form could mean a week of downtime. I tend to gravitate toward yoga, walking, and swimming because they’re gentler and result in less injury.
Sports that require gentle twisting motions (like tennis, which I played in high school and still play with Riley), are great because they help to mobilize my spine. If I suspect that I’ve injured my back in any way through exercise, I stop altogether and schedule a chiropractic appointment for the next day. With scoliosis, when one part of my back gets jacked up, I’ll end up in a world of pain. For example, if I pull out my lower back, my upper back, neck, and shoulders will overcompensate and I’ll get tension headaches and sinus problems, and my hips, butt, and legs will become tight and stiff. It’s like a domino effect!
As much as I’d prefer a natural remedy, the reality is that there are days when I have to take a dose or two of ibuprofen in order to function. As much as I try to approach scoliosis with natural remedies in mind, it can be exhausting on bad days when my back literally radiates pain from morning until night. On those days, I take ibuprofen to ease the pain and inflammation. It works wonders while I’m taking it and helps me to be able to get through my to-do list.
Massage therapy has been incredibly helpful and healing to me. If I can’t get to the massage therapist (or don’t want to shell out the money–they’re expensive!), I’ll often ask my husband to massage my neck or shoulders, where most of my tension builds up. Usually, I feel much better if he uses the edges of his hands and “karate chops” my shoulders to help those muscles relax.
// Heat and ice
Depending on the situation, my chiropractor sometimes recommends that I heat or ice a group of muscles. Even more than that, some days I know that I need to take a warm bath when I’m feeling stiff or pull out an ice pack when my neck and shoulders are inflamed. Honestly, this isn’t my favorite way to manage pain because it hasn’t proved super effective or lasting, but it’s definitely in my rotation.
// Know my limits
When I was younger, I would ignore my back pain so that I didn’t stand out or look different in social situations. As I’ve matured, that mentality has shifted dramatically. I now realize that there are some things I just can’t do.
For example, I can’t sit cross-legged on the floor for almost any amount of time, no matter how much easier it’d been in certain situations. I can’t wear unsupportive shoes for more than a few hours; if I’m doing any real walking, I have to wear tennis shoes. Sitting in the car for long periods of time is incredibly uncomfortable for me and makes long road trips difficult–for this reason, we usually plan to fly, or, if we have to drive, we take frequent breaks so that I can walk around and stretch. Lifting anything large or heavy is virtually impossible for me to do without injuring myself since my spine doesn’t move properly and my muscles are tight and spasm easily.
All these things aren’t fun, but they’re my reality. I’ve had to learn my limits and find ways around them even when it’d be easier to just “push through.”
This post was a little challenging to write, mostly because living with scoliosis and managing it is such an integrated part of my life that I had to really think about how I manage it on a daily, ongoing basis.
I hope this post comes off as honest and straightforward, but not whiney or negative. (That’s my intention, at least.) I don’t want to sugarcoat something that’s not sweet, but like everyone, there are good and bad parts of my life. Scoliosis isn’t something I’d choose, but it’s a part of my life nonetheless, and it’s not something that I harp on or get upset about. Instead, I focus on managing the associated pain and living healthfully.
And there’s always a silver lining–dealing with chronic back pain has forced me to live slowly, thoughtfully, and intentionally, and it’s taught me the importance of self care.
// Do you deal with any chronic pain? How do you manage it?