Cheap ways to relieve your aching back
How's your posture right now? Are you slumped over in your chair, craning your neck to see the computer screen?
Over time, those habits could cost you both in terms of health and doctor appointment copays.
Last month I wrote about my ongoing search for a cure for shoulder and neck pain, and how numerous appointments with doctors and therapists cost thousands of dollars over the years and failed to fix the problem. Then, a last-minute appointment with a new massage therapist changed that. To quickly recap, she told me to start wearing my night guard consistently, not just when I felt I was grinding my teeth, and she suggested I replace my 11-year-old mattress. The first tip starting working within a couple of days, and at the writing of that article, I was waiting for my mattress to arrive.
Several readers asked for an update after I had a chance to try the new mattress. Well, I love it. I no longer need to sleep with a body pillow, and my arms haven't gone numb in the middle of the night, which they used to do regularly. I can't tell you with any certainty if buying an organic mattress is worthwhile, but buying a new mattress did seem to help my shoulder and neck pain.
Your Pain in the Neck
Last week I sat down with the massage therapist who cured what ailed me to talk about some inexpensive ways to change habits that cause body pain, as well as ways to relieve aches. Many preventative measures and solutions are cheap (or free), and while your doctor's advice is best, sometimes you need to get through a day or two until you can get in to see someone.
For advice on how to do that, I interviewed Rachael Bercey, a massage therapist at Castle Hill Fitness in Austin, Texas. Rachael specializes in neuromuscular therapy, deep tissue sports massage, myofascial and trigger point therapy, and kinesio taping. She received massage training at the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutic, earned her neuromuscular therapy certification, and counts among her past clients professional, Olympic, University of Texas, amateur, and weekend warrior athletes. She's also a certified personal trainer.
The following are her top suggestions for frugal ways (most are free!) to prevent or relieve body aches:
- Look at how you're sitting right now. Are you pointing your feet because they don't rest on the floor? Is your chair on rollers, and if so, are you using your feet to stabilize it? Are you sitting on one foot (like I often do)? “Your feet should rest on something or be propped on something like yoga blocks or a sturdy box to avoid your feet hanging from or hooking under the chair,” says Rachael. “Even better is to prop the feet at a natural angle rather than flat — a rocking footrest is a possible solution, but a bit pricey.” (J.D. made his own footrest a few years ago.) Also, your monitor should be at eye level, right in front of you, and the keyboard height should be adjusted to where your elbows can hang comfortably at the side of your body, shoulders are relaxed, and your wrists not bent up or down or to either side. “Good chairs are expensive,” says Rachael, “but you can go to the dollar store and find something that will raise your monitor,” she says. Or use something you have around the house. To adjust your keyboard, consider a keyboard tray that attaches under your desk. Cost: $20 for a keyboard tray
- Get up every 45 minutes. Rachael says lack of movement is often the cause of body pain, so set a timer to sound off every 45 minutes to remind yourself to get up and walk around. She says it's easy to get used to the timer and to start ignoring it, so try recording a message to yourself instead. You may be more likely to pay attention to the sound of your own voice. Cost: Probably free, since it's likely there are already alarms and apps on your phone and computer
- Engage your abs. When you exercise or stand in line at the grocery store, how is your posture? Do you engage your core muscles? Obviously, you don't need to squeeze your abs as hard as you can while standing in the express lane, but stand evenly on both feet and don't slouch. “If you stand with your legs closer together, it'll help you stand more erect and use the core,” says Rachael. Also, relax your jaw. “Many people clench their jaw when they workout to stabilize their body,” she says. “Relax the jaw and engage the core.” Cost: Free
- Drink more water. I know, I know. You've heard it a million times. “Dehydration lowers viscosity in your body,” she says, “which can lead to aches and pains.” The general rule is to take your weight in pounds and divide it in half to get the number of ounces you should drink. If you work up a sweat, drink more. Cost: Almost free to free, depending on where you get your water
- Rethink your bags and purses. If you carry a laptop in a backpack, use both straps. “I know it's nerdy, but a waist belt on a backpack is really helpful, too,” she says. If you carry a side satchel, switch up which shoulder you sling it over. As for purses, if you're guilty of toting around the kitchen sink, Rachael says to rethink your necessities. “Think about what you really need, and lighten your load,” she says. “I know ladies who have scissors and tape in their purses — you can find that wherever you're going if you really need it!” Cost: Free
- Walk a mile in your shoes. Rachael likened our bodies to a house.”Good shoes are like your foundation,” she says. “If there's a problem there, like a crack in the foundation it'll refer upward, causing other problems.” It's hard to offer advice about footwear, however, because people are so different in terms of structure, lifestyle, and habits. But if your running shoes are worn out, that can cause problems in your feet, ankles, and knees on up. “You also want to switch out your shoes,” says Rachael. “Don't wear the same pair to the gym and then to work in the yard. Rotating is better for your feet.” If you aren't sure if you're in the right shoes, go to a specialty running store or a shoe store that offers gait analysis (you might even go to a few before you decide to buy). Cost: Approximately $100 for a new pair of shoes, though there are both cheaper and more expensive shoes out there
- When you're injured, start with ice. If you injure yourself on Saturday and can't see a doctor until Monday, you can alleviate some pain by icing the injury. “Sometimes an injury isn't visibly inflamed, but it's internally inflamed,” says Rachael, “and heat can exacerbate the problem.” Until you know the nature of the injury, start with ice, especially for the first 48 hours, she says. “Cold reduces blood flow to the area and can inhibit pain receptors,” she says. “When you remove the cold pack, the blood rushes back to the area, but sometimes the pain is still reduced or gone completely.” (One exception to the rule on icing: if compartment syndrome is suspected.) Rachael says if you don't like cold sensations like ice packs, try putting a heating pad or warm water bottle on your stomach. “That can distract you from the cold sensation,” she says. Cost: $11 for the ice pack Rachael likes best (or free if you already have one of your own)
- Try the tingly stuff. Another pain relief solution Rachael recommends is ointment or gel like Traumeel or BioFreeze. “Traumeel is homeopathic and topical, and comes in ointment and gel form, though I prefer the ointment,” she says. “You can get it at a health food store, and one tube can last a couple of years.” Cost: $20 for 3.5 ounces of Traumeel or $8 for 4 ounces of BioFreeze
- Use tennis balls off the court. This is a travel-friendly tip especially great for cramped coach seating on flights, airport layovers, long car rides and other physical discomforts. Place a tennis ball between you and a wall to work out knots and stiff muscles in between your shoulder blades, in your glutes and hamstrings, and other tight areas. “It's super cheap and easy to pack,” says Rachael. “I like using a wall because it gives you more control than if you place it on the floor and lay on it.” Cost: $5 or less for a pack of three
- Go high-tech. Got low back pain? Yes, there's an app for that. Rachael says there are a lot of apps that are good for the body. Rachael likes free mediation apps, Nike Training Club to get moving, and Daily Dozen Posture for exercises to improve your posture. Cost: Free for Nike Training Club, $2 for Pocket Therapy and Daily Dozen Posture
I'm not very good about taking breaks or sitting in a good position. For example, right now I'm sitting on the couch with my laptop on my lap and my feet propped up on an ottoman. Ergonomic fail. But Rachael says I can plug in a keyboard and prop my laptop up on a book or two to fix that. Easy enough and pretty inexpensive.
I'm not ready to show her my purse, though. Baby steps, people.