There are two things I know for sure: The back is a finicky part of the anatomy, and my bedroom ceiling needs painting.
How do I know? Quite simply, I have dealt with significant back pain episodes for years and have spent much time staring at the ceiling, unable to move. As a mom who has suffered several bouts of back troubles—pregnant, post-partum and just any old time—this most recent episode has spawned my need to share with my spine-challenged sisters the knowledge I have gained about managing family life with an unreliable back.
Back troubles for moms are common. We bend, tug, grab, lift, tuck and roll. It is not always easy to prevent back troubles. Even more challenging is recovery from back pain while tending to our munchkins.
For many moms, the trouble starts in pregnancy. Hormones weaken ligaments and muscles, shifts in form take our gently curved spine and make it resemble a roller coaster, and finally, centralized weight gain at the core of the body forces the pelvis to widen and the sciatic nerve to scream “get off of me.”
Escaping back pain during pregnancy doesn’t mean you’re home free. There’s always postpartum back pain. I am convinced that this is my body’s way of saying, “Don’t even think of doing that again any time soon.”
At 33, and after three kids, I am just now acknowledging that if I want to exist without back pain, I must be smart about how I move, how I live and how, as a mom, I manage the physical demands of raising young kids.
Over the years, I have worked with some very talented people, ranging from physical therapists to chiropractors to orthopedic specialists. Their advice and the tactics I have learned on my own for day-to-day living have given me a pretty solid approach for managing my back issues. I share these methods with you in hopes that you, too, will be able to maintain a healthy back while chasing your mini ones.
Coping with the pain Everyone can expect to experience minor backaches from time to time. However, when the pain becomes acute or interferes with your ability to function, it’s time to get a handle on the problem.
Chiropractor Mark Grumet of Northbrook advises: “In the event of an injury or symptoms which last more than a few days, it is important to get a good working diagnosis from a health care provider who specializes in the spine. This working diagnosis will help guide decisions about which types of tests, such as X-rays and MRI [magnetic resonance imaging], and treatments are likely to be helpful.”
Once you know what the problem is, there are lifestyle changes that can help ease the pain.
• Proper sleep positioning. Who knew that something as simple as sleeping could be the cause of such back trouble? But it makes perfect sense. We spend long hours sleeping. (OK, if you have a baby or young kids, maybe just a few hours.) How you lie in bed can make a big difference.
“The goal is to have the spine remain in a neutral position,” says physical therapist Anna Bullman. “Most women have wider hips than they do waists and knees. In order to compensate for this while sleeping on your side, it is important to use pillows between the knees. You might even consider using a rolled up towel in between your waist and the bed for further support.”
Back sleepers should place pillows under their knees and lower legs for support. After a few nights of this “supported” shut-eye, there are fewer aches and pains in the morning.
• Body mechanics. While working with Grumet, I learned some important information about body mechanics, or how to use the body. Learning to properly sit, stand, lift, carry and bend is crucial to preventing back problems. “With lifting in general, it is important to remember that injury to the low back can occur from an action as seemingly innocuous as bending over to pick up a pencil,” Grumet says.
Obviously, it’s not the weight of the pencil that causes the injury. It’s the force generated by the unsupported upper body. The chances of injury jump exponentially when you add the weight of an infant, a car seat carrier or a small child.
Try keeping the spine straight (in its normal upright position) when lifting. In other words, when you bend down to pick something up, it should look more like you are bending to sit in a chair and less like you are bending over to touch your toes. When we bend forward from the low back, the muscles that support us are not in an optimal position for lifting.
To learn more about the back, proper body mechanics and ways to manage back pain, Grumet recommends visiting www.spine-health.com or a health care provider.
• Exercise. Exercise is essential for moms with back problems. We’ve got to get strong and stay strong so that we can be in the action with our kids. Pilates instructor Lily Horowitz recommends strengthening the core muscles—those in the abdomen and lower back as well as along the sides of the waist—for all moms, regardless of whether they have back troubles. “If our core is weak, we have a tendency to ‘recruit’ help from other areas of the body like the back, and that is how we develop injuries,” Horowitz says.
She recommends consulting a physician before starting any exercise program, and finding a reputable exercise instructor who can adapt the exercises to your personal needs. I prefer Pilates, yoga and walking, but any activity that requires core strength and conditioning is helpful. Talk with your doctor about what type of routine would be right for you.
Mia Tennenbaum is a parent coach, educator and writer with a private practice in Northbrook. She can be reached through her Web site at www.MiaSharon.com.