A Pilot’s Guide to Self-Managing Back Pain – Sitting, Standing, Swimming

“It’s not the job of sports medicine professionals to look after your tissues and joints, whether you hydrate or whether you actively work toward improving and maintaining healthy positions and range of movement throughout the day. It’s up to you. Spend 10 minutes minimum per day. No days off. No excuses.”

– Dr. Kelly Starrett, READY TO RUN

In my attempts to nurse my back to full strength, I have spent a great deal of time researching how to manage my pain, while also looking at the best home remedies/exercises to help fix my injury and prevent similar ones from happening again in the future.

As a result I have decided to compile my research into this comprehensive guide regarding all the things I’ve found useful for managing my back pain day to day, including some important what-not-to-dos!

This post will explore my best tips with regards to sitting, standing and swimming. Follow on posts will explore other exercises, lifestyle tips, how to sleep and the use of drugs/other treatments.

It goes without saying I’m not a medical professional in any way, shape or form, so please, please, don’t take what I’m saying as gospel. I’m simply relaying what has helped me in managing my pain. 

Back pain is a complex issue that I believe requires a complex approach from a number of different angles. Trial and error is necessary in figuring out what works best for you and your condition. 

Hopefully this guide will help you as well in some way, shape or form. As always seek advice from a professional (added advice – seek more than one opinion) and do your own research.

I’ve left links to a number of articles throughout that I found useful/helped support my own findings. I should add I am in no way affiliated with any of the organisations mentioned or products that I recommend. 

SITTING IS BAD

I like to think of sitting like drinking – something to be done in strict moderation! Of course I realise that’s not possible for all who have normal 9 to 5s (or non normal random pilot like jobs as the case may be), but you get my drift. A little bit of sitting ain’t a bad thing, but too much most certainly is. I’m guessing for the vast majority of us, we could all do with finding ways to sit (drink?) less.

While at home I like to CREATE A LYING DESK by laying a yoga mat on the living room floor (or hotel room if on a layover), instead of slouching on the couch should I decide to Netflix binge or work on my laptop. This way I can keep myself mobile, taking a break to perform stretches or core exercises while watching TV!

IF YOU HAVE TO SIT for long periods of time at work, or during a long haul flight for example, STAND UP AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE (at least 10 mins for every hour). It always surprises me that more people don’t get up to have a walk and stretch in flight. Even a couple of minutes can make a big difference. A little and often is best.

Should you find yourself wedged in a middle row seat or unable to move for some other reason during your commute, CONSIDER DOING SOME IN-THE-SEAT STRETCHING (granted not all will be suitable in an aeroplane seat 💺). See examples below.

HOW TO SIT PROPERLY

Correct posture while sitting is very important – not just for managing back pain, but preventing further problems in the long run. My basic rule of thumb is three fold.

1. SIT UP STRAIGHT – head and torso stacked – with your head facing forward (imagine your ears in line with your shoulders in line with your hips)

2. FEET FLAT ON THE FLOOR or foot rest with knees at the same height or slightly lower than the hips (avoid crossing legs or ankles).

3. BACK FULLY SUPPORTED against the chair including your lower back.

Most chairs are, sadly, poorly designed in this respect, which is why I always TRAVEL WITH A LUMBAR SUPPORT PILLOW. I use a Travel Pal Auto-Inflating Mini Lumbar Pillow. You can, of course, improvise with any pillow you find or by rolling up a towel or piece of clothing to place at the curve of your back.

See the picture below for a good idea of what correct sitting posture looks like. 

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321863.php

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-sit-correctly/


WALKING IS GOOD

Walk yes, run no. You want to avoid impact from below for obvious reasons (especially if you have a dodgy back like mine).

Going up and down steps or hills has, on occasion, caused my pain to flair up, however, LONG GENTLE WALKS ON FLAT TERRAIN HAS PROVEN TO BE VERY HELPFUL.

A few notes.

DON’T WEAR HEELS. You’d think this might just apply to the ladies, but you’d be wrong. Heels are the devil with regards to back health. Even a small incline (ie the kind of elevation most shoes provide) ain’t great in the long run.

Your best solution is to WALK BARE FOOT WHENEVER POSSIBLE, otherwise finding shoes that have little to no difference in sole thickness from heel to toe (aka WEAR FLATS). I can highly recommend VIVO BAREFOOT for gym/outdoor wear.

Toss your flip flops in the bin 🗑 – they are also the devil for your back!

HOW TO STAND PROPERLY

Posture while standing or walking is also very important.

My best tips from the top down!

1. Hold your head up high and LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD.

2.. PUFF YOUR CHEST OUT by squeezing your shoulder blades together slightly.

3. LET YOUR ARMS RELAX NATURALLY either side. Your ears, shoulders, hips and ankles should be aligned (have a look at other people walking while staring down at their phones – their ears are not even close to being in line with their shoulders and hips).

4. SQUEEZE YOUR BUT AND TIGHTEN YOUR ABS SLIGHTLY. If you look at yourself side-on in the mirror, if you have a little pot belly like me, it should look like its gone or significantly reduced (all the more motivation). The same with your but – it shouldn’t stick out like a horse’s arse (so much).

5. Keep practicing and practicing UNtill it Is automatic. I found the below article on anterior pelvic tilt (a common condition caused by sitting too much) and tips to correct it enormously helpful. 

https://acatoday.org/content/posture-power-how-to-correct-your-body-alignment

https://www.swolept.com/posts/fixing-anterior-pelvic-tilt-posture-tricks-to-make-your-butt-and-gut-smaller#.XkT4lSWlaEd


SWIMMING IS AWESOME

Following my recent back injury last month SWIMMING has proved to be an awesome LOW IMPACT WAY TO MODIFY. Not only did it help enormously with my back pain, it meant I could keep exercising to a level I was happy with. It also proved to do wonders for my cardiovascular system.

After months of regular exercise my resting heartbeat had settled in the very respectable low fifties. Following a few weeks of replacing that with swimming, however, my resting heart rate dropped into the mid to high forties for the first time in a long, long while!

A few things to note.

Although I found swimming massively beneficial on the whole, when I went at it too hard it did occasionally aggravate my pain. As always LET PAIN BE YOUR GUIDE. IF IT HURTS, BACK OFF!

Depending on the nature of your condition, THE TYPE OF SWIMMING STROKE YOU USE CAN MATTER GREATLY.  FRONT AND BACK STROKE WORKED WELL for me but BUTTERFLY AND BREASTSTROKE DID NOT.

Should all types prove painful, consider doing some gentle movements instead. Simply DAMPING THE AFFECTS OF GRAVITY BY GETTING IN THE POOL CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE. I found the following article useful.

https://www.spine-health.com/blog/3-essential-tips-swimming-back-pain