How to Reduce Back and Joint Pain

How I Injured My Back

When I was 22 I knew it all.  My dad, the inadvertent metabolism pro who never excessively exercised or worried about what he ate while still staying fit (due to a healthy, not damaged metabolism from dieting), always told me I would hurt myself weight lifting.  After seven years of hard lifting he was finally right.  I was on Ramstein Air Base doing squats at 8PM in November.  My normal lifting partner couldn’t make it so I did it by myself like I had done for so long.  (Un)fortunately, one’s workout when lifting with a partner is typically more strenuous.  Ours was no exception.  We’d do squats and leg press to failure  maximizing reps and minimizing eccentric movements.  Usually we would target 20 reps on squats with the last three or four requiring lots of assistance.  On that night, I still did this figuring I could just step forward and rack the squat bar when I couldn’t do any more.  Instead I fell forward not reaching the rack.  I fell to 90 degrees and forced myself to stand up sending shooting pains down my legs making me me dizzy.  I walked it off that night.

The next morning I couldn’t stand up due to a wrenching pain and forced immobility due to my back contractions.  Or whatever was going on.  Anyone that has had back spasms or sciatica knows what I’m talking about.  If you’ve never had back spasms, you probably cannot relate.  I had to crawl to my phone to call my boss to tell him I couldn’t walk and wouldn’t be making it to work.  The years following, I had pain similar to this a few times from slight tweaks that seemed to occur more and more easily after the initial injury.  Before I got my diet “right,” I had to minimize sitting at all costs.  Sitting would cause it to tense up making it difficult to stand up which created a negative feedback cycle when I stood up too quickly.  All this immobility as a 23 year old former athlete was very tough for me to accept.  It made me realize that my health is truly more important than anything else.  Nothing else seemed worth worrying about – money, economy, job.

I’m not sure what single item in getting my diet “right” has fixed my back, but my pain is greatly reduced.  I can, not proudly, sit on my butt all day long and not have any back pain.  I can stand as much as I want – which isn’t much considering how much more comfortable sitting is.  Every now and then I’ll still tweak my back, but if I double down on the below and somehow force myself to perform #5 – exercise / stretching, the recovery is much quicker.

Here’s my top 5 list of things that I think matter most on how to reduce back and joint pain.

  1. Sugar – As we age our bodies start to produce more cortisol.  When you don’t eat sugar in your diet, this stuff called cortisol starts to tear down your tissue – with connective tissue (in your spine, in your knees, supporting your skin) being one of the first sacrificial lambs.  You see, if you don’t eat sugar (fruit, honey, syrup, cane, etc) – the body’s most basic fuel source, your body tears down connective tissue to convert it to sugar.  This process is not limited to connective tissue.  Your muscles, organs and glands are also sacrificed.  Seeing as connective tissue is very high in simple amino acids, such as glycine, which are readily converted to sugar, I suspect this is why it is a preferred source of energy, and it’s probably better to sacrifice “luxury” items such as skin and hair than your thymus gland or liver.  Unfortunately for most of us, we’re vain.  We don’t want our hair to thin, or our skin to sag.  And we certainly don’t want a bad back or creaky knees.  This won’t necessarily rebuild your connective tissue, but it will slow the catabolism/gluconeogenesis associated with your connective tissue and cortisol.
  2. Gelatin – I list this as #2 because it is probably the easiest to add to your lifestyle.  Not necessarily because it is number #2 as I suspect real, old fashioned bone broth is actually better for you than powdered gelatin.  Gelatin is rich in structural amino acids such as proline and glycine.  The “green can” of Hydrolyzed Collagen from Great Lakes is easy to add to milk, orange juice or coffee.  It dissolves readily in cold liquids, and doesn’t taste bad – at least not to me, but I have too much experience putting nasty tasty things in my mouth.  You can buy Great Lakes green can gelatin here.
  3. Bone Broth – Bone broth / stock is made from boiling down bones / joints with lots of connective tissue.  It makes sense that consuming connective tissue would support your connective tissue.  Specifically, bone broth has calcium, hyaluronic acid, gelatin, collagen, chondroitin, sulfur and other minerals.  Hyaluronic acid is very hydrophyllic meaning it loves water – it is associated with keeping connective tissue moist and lubricated.  Lots of people buy this in supplement form here.  As always, I recommend getting it from your diet first, but if you need it you need it. Unfortunately, it is time consuming to have a steady supply of bone broth.  I make a lot at a time then store it in the fridge consuming about a cup of it a day re-warmed and salted.  I like to use gelatinous bones like osso bucco, oxtail or cow knuckle cooked down in low-fluoride, low-chlorine water such as distilled or spring water and apple cider vinegar.  The plus side is you also get some bone marrow in the broth which is very good for your immune system.  Here is a good book with plenty of recipes.
  4. Magnesium – Magnesium is partially responsible for helping to relax the nervous system and muscles.  It’s pretty hard to get from the diet so most people are typically deficient.  It is found in small amounts in bone broth, and the foods listed in my post on nutrients.  Your sciatic nerve runs through a few bands of muscles on your lower back and then down through your legs.  When you have muscle back spasms from a non-relaxed nervous system, your muscles squeeze this nerve causing pains that will shoot all the way down your leg.  Additionally, magnesium helps support insulin sensitivity so diabetics will have double benefit.  Here is an easy way to get elemental magnesium through a body spray that you should apply daily all over your torso after showers.
  5. Exercise – I know I have conveyed mixed feelings regarding excessive exercise, but a simple ab workout likely won’t reach “excessive” unless you really go hard.  Excess exercise can drop your blood sugar levels dangerously low stressing you out  causing increases in adrenaline / cortisol.  It can also draw blood away from crucial organs like your gut and liver.  If you increase cortisol during exercise, you are defeating the purpose of it as that process tears down muscle tissue.  I view exercise as a slight stressor to get my nervous system to sense damage and strengthen the muscles associated with a given area.  I don’t view it as a means to get ripped or appear tougher than those who exercise less hard than me.  The ab routine called “Ab Ripper X” from the “P90X” is pretty well-rounded and could be used for supporting the structure near the back.  It will help develop and re-organize the muscles in that area such as hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, abs and lower back muscles.  Or just do some bridges, sit-ups and leg lifts.  Sitting up “bicycles” seems particularly helpful in re-balancing my back.  Doing this at least once a week should make a difference.

Those are my top 5 ideas for supporting your back and repairing joints.  I hope this helps you – please feel free to comment on anything else that has help you with your back or joint pain.