After years of trying to ignore my lower back pain, it finally culminated in a spinal disc hernia last year. Luckily for me, that hernia was the final straw that got me actively working to improve my back again.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way a
medical doctor, seek advice from
qualified medical professionals.
This is a brief history of my back
problems, and how I'm handling them.

I've been having lower back pains for almost ten years now, but they gradually got worse when I started my professional life as a developer. It started out with a chronic, nagging discomfort rather than an actual pain. It appeared without warning every couple of weeks or months and disappeared just as suddenly.

I had x-rays which confirmed that my spinal discs were a bit too close together, but nothing that could directly explain the discomfort. I got nothing more than a "Just a bad back, try some exercises, watch your posture", but nothing really concrete to work with. Since the problem was intermittent without apparent cause, there was no treatment as well. The only thing I could do was try to maintain a better posture. Which I usually did as soon as the pain appeared - too late.

Two years ago I became a father. Being a father rocks, but isn't really that nice to your back. Lifting up my son all the time made the pain come back more often, and since no father wants to leave his son down, I decided to reevaluate my problem and started with some physiotherapy. The physiotherapy actually made things worse after some bad manipulations, and a couple of weeks later I checked into the hospital with sciatic pains and a hernia. After getting an injection - infiltration, they call it - the sciatic pains went away, but the nagging discomfort came back soon enough.

Attending a back school

Shortly after the hernia, I was recommended to join a back school. Doing this was the best thing I ever did for my back. I was taught how to strengthen it with simple exercises I could do at home, but also showed how to maintain my posture, relax my back and make it more flexible. They also immediately noticed I had hyper-mobility, which means looser joints and tendons, which leads to less support for my back.

The standard exercises didn't seem to cut it for me, since the nagging pain kept coming back and was atypical for regular hernia pains. Despite the hyper-mobility, they traced the pain back to a shorter hamstring. I'm pretty sure if I hadn't joined the back school, I'd have been unaware of both the hyper-mobility and the hamstring problem.

Starting Strength

I read about Starting Strength a year ago, which is workout routine developed specifically to help you start lifting weights. It focuses almost exclusively on lifting free-weights and doing exercises with a long range of motion. The idea is that lifting weights like that should develop more useful muscles and a stronger body when compared to doing isolated exercises on machines.

After attending the back school for a couple of months, I felt my back was strong enough and started Starting Strength. I tried going to the gym a couple of times in the past years, but always quit after a couple of sessions. Even though Starting Strength is a rather simple routine, it is quite challenging and it got me coming back 2 to 3 times a week for the last couple of months now.

More importantly, I have the feeling it's actually working for my back ache. My body feels definitely stronger, my hamstrings get stretched regularly because of the squats and deadlifts, and the pains haven't appeared since I started the routine.

If nothing else, having a stronger body in general means I no longer worry about lifting my son out of bed every time or being unable to do my job and hobby at the age of 30 because of crippling back pains.

The takeaway

If you're having back pains, try joining a back school. It's more likely you'll find your specific problem and treatment when you're exercising in a room with multiple experts for months ( 6 months repaid in Belgium ) than going to a single therapist for massages for a couple of weeks - it still took 2 months to figure out my problem in the back school.

If you want to make your body stronger, take a look at Starting Strength, but consult your medical doctor first. I started only after consulting both my general physician and the people from my back school. It's not a panacea either, it seems to work for me but I might switch in the future if I find something that will benefit my back more. There are lots of other workouts and routines that might work better for you. Most of these fitness sites seem to have a very active forum and a lots of people willing to give you advice.

Don't settle for the default general answer you get when first diagnosed with back pains. Chances are you can really do something about it.

How to adjust your chair - first thing I do on a new chair

Everything You Know About Fitness Is a Lie - interesting article on fitness in general, mentions Starting Strength

Starting Strength Wiki

Starting Strength book

I’m working from a walking desk - with lots of references to why sitting is bad for you

Starting Strength book

If you have any questions or remarks, feel free to leave them in the comments or contact me @koenmetsu.