Back in the day it was standard practice to teach people with bad backs to brace them before moving i.e. tense your abdominal and back muscles to protect your back as you move.
While this sounds sensible on the surface – surely you want to ensure your back is good and sturdy before going to move it? In reality, we now know this is not too helpful. If you have back pain you already have a lot of tension as the muscles in the area are automatically recruited to protect you. In the short term this may be quite helpful – especially if you have a new injury that needs time to heal. However, if over time these tense muscles don’t ease off, they can start to prolong pain and sometimes cause it to get worse.
Often, by bracing and tensing muscles more we add insult to injury – compressing the tissues and perpetuating this ‘protective mechanism’. This also gives feedback to the brain that there is a bigger problem here than we first thought. If your brain receives a ‘danger message’ (in the form of tense muscles) it will respond by turning up the pain to further alert you. This may cause you to become fearful and more tense and so the vicious cycle continues.
So, what should I do instead?
I believe the best thing you can do before you are about to move is relax. This may sound strange and it often doesn’t come easily but can be very effective. In reality you want your muscles to be as relaxed and free as possible so they can help you move.
Three quick ways to help you do this:
Get in a comfortable position and focus in on your back muscles (or any other place of tension). People are often surprised at how much tension there is in their body and they haven’t realised. Sometimes tension becomes so normal that you forget what relaxed muscles feel like!
Just stay here for a while and observe what is happening in your back. Try if you can to just watch with interest and not get annoyed, frustrated or irritated with the pain.
Take a couple of minutes to take some slightly deeper breaths and on each exhale imagine your back muscles releasing as much as possible.
Now go to move and see what happens.
This may take some practise but over time you should notice that your muscles learn to relax. An important result of this is that your brain will get feedback of safety rather than danger (because your muscles are relaxed) and the brain, in turn, will turn the volume down on your pain.
So, save your bracing for pre-flight safety demonstrations and focus instead on observing, breathing and relaxing. It may sound like very little, but I promise you, it will make a difference to your pain experience over time.