I imagine everyone has experienced it to some degree, that aching discomfort and slightly sickening pain of a bad back. Unable to get comfortable in any position, popping medication just to be able to get through the basic functions of the day, to sit pain free at your desk, or even to be able to sleep well at night.
For me personally, I spent a year several years ago with a constantly nagging bad back. It was by no means as bad as it could have been, and it didn’t cause me as much discomfort as I know many people live in, but it was a constant presence, discomfort, and not something I would care to repeat.
Caused and sustained by a mix of overly ambitious weightlifting goals when a big part of my training weekly schedule included weights, frequent long journeys in a van, and a particularly stressful year for me personally – it only eased after resting from weights and a gentle increase in tai chi, sensible stretching, and helping reduce my stress levels (which of course tai chi helped with also).
In the UK alone, according to NHS statistics, lower back pain accounts for 11% of the total disability of the country’s population. On average 1 in 6 people have back pain at any one time. The British Back Pain Society’s website reports that the financial cost is £10 billion per year for the UK economy.
Pretty damning statistics and I would bet that they are almost as bad, or quite likely significantly worse in other western countries. We really are suffering not from just one pandemic at the present moment but also one of bad backs.
What Causes the Bad Back Pandemic?
We were born to move, not sit for extended periods of time on a sofa, at a desk, driving a car, etc.
For myself personally, I think that a sedentary lifestyle is most likely the number one reason for bad backs. I know when I sit, without moving around too much (like writing a blog post for example), I really need to get up and stretch/move at frequent intervals. If I don’t, I start to feel discomfort in my back.
Many of us, especially office workers, spend a great majority of the time sitting… especially when you add in a commute to/from work, and then possibly sitting in front of a TV in the evening. Add all of that up and it’s a frightening ratio of standing:sitting every single day.
In many respects, closely related to my first point above. However, we can extend it out to walking and how we go about our daily lives. Check in with yourself at times when you are walking, waiting in a queue, carrying something in your garden…. How is your alignment? Are you tensing certain parts of your body unnecessarily?
A big one here also – mobile phone use – slouching, hunching, shoulders forward – certainly not a position our bodies are meant to be in for long periods of time.
It just takes a little awareness and attention, and we can do a lot to improve our postures.
As well as having a good diet to help reduce inflammation, provide your body with the required nutrients that you need to live a healthy lifestyle, it is also necessary to keep bodyweight down to as close to an optimal level as possible. Extra weight, even a stone or two, can put unnecessary stress on our entire muscle-skeletal system, particularly putting excess pressure on the vertebrae and damaging your spine.
Being dehydrated, which many people are without even releasing most of the time, causes the discs in your spine to dry up, resulting in a lack of flexibility, discomfort and even muscle cramps.
Pay close attention to your warm ups to prepare your body in the correct way for training. I’ve always been a stickler for good technique but look around in any gym and you will see that many people, often including personal trainers, aren’t that fastidious.
It’s also easy to become over ambitious and think we can lift/run/swim/etc more, further, longer, harder, heavier than we actually can. It’s so easy to pick up these ego related injuries!
It could be that you are living with a condition such as arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, trapped nerve, slipped disc… all of which require some medical intervention but that doesn’t mean certain lifestyle decisions can’t help alleviate and ease the condition.
How tai chi can help?
Movement is key. Tai chi greatly helps to keep the body mobile and flexible – and not in a way that puts stress onto an already potentially compromised musculoskeletal system.
Tai chi teaches you how to relax your body as you move fluidly from posture to posture, with good bodily alignment and awareness. The philosophy of tai chi stems from Daoism, which speaks of softness and suppleness, this is the feeing in our bodies that we want to achieve in order to have good posture and feel relaxed.
We can only do this through practice of correct posture and alignment, so that we are not using an undue amount of tension in our bodies to hold ourselves in any position, which over time can easily result in chronic pain, particularly in the spine, the central column of our bodies through which all movement flows, as well as (in Chinese medicine) being vital for the health flow of chi, which is vital for good optimal health.
The deep breathing, slow, relaxed, and controlled movements combined with a mindful approach to your practice very much help reduce stress, which can help to ease pain and discomfort in the back. Tai chi is known as a form of moving meditation, new students very often comment on it surprisingly feeling as much of a mind based meditative practice as a physical one, for many an unexpected benefit.
Using Tai Chi to Help
I would definitely recommend tai chi be used alongside any current treatment that you are having for back (or any other) pain. It’s one of a myriad of approaches that you can take, from traditional to contemporary medicine. I would also advise that if you are suffering at the moment, seek medical advice from a GP, surgeon, physiotherapist, etc. before starting.
Once underway, listening to your body and knowing your own limitations is key. I always recommend a ‘little and often’ approach. This gives you the benefits of regular practice, whilst not overdoing it in any one session, and allows plenty of rest where you can learn more by listening to your body and finding out how it reacts to training.
One of the best things about tai chi is how adaptable it is. Any technique, move or posture, is (or should be) adaptable, even to the point of being done seated (some of our most popular video courses and lessons are the seated ones). Always speak to your instructor, whether it’s in person or online (anyone can contact me regarding our courses if you have any questions).
I also look at tai chi as a form of health insurance. It’s a great practice that you can integrate into your life to help stack the odds in your favour when it comes to getting older and remaining in good health. At 45 years old, I definitely train differently to when I was 35, and a large part of that is a great increase in tai chi practice. As a result I now pick up less injuries and feel in great health mentally physically. I’ve seen the same and similar results for many people that I train. It just takes dedication and regular practice.
The great thing these days is that you can get started straight away! Using our website www.whitecraneonline.com or our app – www.taichiapp.com – gives you instant access to tai chi classes, as well as qigong, meditation, and follow along classes…. Including ones specifically to help improve the health of your spine.
We are a friendly online community of tai chi enthusiasts, and always happy to chat about it tai chi on our Facebook page …….. or you can reach out to me personally by emailing [email protected]
Whether you’re looking for prevention, or a very effective way to help ease your back troubles, tai chi can be of immense benefit.