How To Avoid Back Pain At Christmas

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In recent years, we’ve saved talking about Christmas time until closer to the 25th of December. This year however, we thought we’d start early to be as preventative as possible. Every year we see that people have relapses during the Christmas spell, often taking them by surprise, but it should not. The demands of the Christmas spell are manifold and we will cover some of them in today’s podcast. Despite this, realisation of this fact should not be worrying, but motivational. On the one hand it gives you plenty of time to prepare physically. On the other hand, you can address the mental component, and avoid the surprise. If, for example, you decided that tomorrow you’d run a marathon, you wouldn’t be surprised if your legs were in significant pain the next day. This is one of the more overlooked problems with back pain, a lack of appreciation for how daily living can strain the deconditioning individual. We’ll explore this in detail today as well as what you must be doing ahead of time to make sure your festive season goes smoothly, the way it should. 

Take stock of your daily life

Before we go any further it is worthwhile taking a look at what you do on a daily basis, how you use your body. Most of us spend many hours a day in one form of chair or another, are not in the best physical condition, we travel occasionally, and attend social gatherings too. Amongst these commitments, and enjoyments, hobbies also give us our “activities of daily living”. This could change from time to time, for example, seasonal changes meaning certain activities, i.e. outdoor or winter sports, time in the garden, etc will all change the way we use our bodies too and is worth considering. 

How your daily life affects your lower back pain

For many with long-standing lower back pain or sciatica, trouble lasting longer than 3 months, daily life is a factor for aggravation. It is something often ignored, yet daily life is just that, it is daily. Placing strain on your lower back from the way you move, or don’t move, for about 16 hours of each day. These strains are often lesser, but persistent. They are also so frequently left unaddressed. In spite of investing much in the way of time and money in improving the state of the lower back, in most people this area is left all but ignored. We discussed this topic at length in the dedicated episode on chronic lower back pain so check that out if you’re someone who’s really had little success with fixing your back pain to date.

Christmas time challenges our health & our backs

The Christmas period fundamentally changes the way we experience our daily lives. For some this begins December 1st as the workplace begins to shift gears, a combination of deadlines and festivities gradually builds to a crescendo in the run up to christmas. Throughout this period changes to our daily routine are evident, and none of these are conducive with us being healthier individuals, below are just some of the changes we’ll voluntarily experience:

  • Increase calorie intake
  • Increased sugar intake
  • Decrease in nutrient rich foods
  • Increase alcohol intake
  • Decrease in water intake
  • Increase in body mass
  • Increase in fat mass
  • Decrease in muscle mass

These are just some baseline changes that will take place. Under the best of circumstances, when you’re healthy come November 30th, does this sound like it is going to put you in a better or worse position to handle any stressors or strains that may come during the ensuing month?

From the increased work parties and the numerous Christmas dinners you’ll have had before you even get to December 25th, to the last minute Christmas shopping, running around town carrying shopping bags in a mad rush to get everything sorted out in time. It all adds up. Then there is the preparation for the Christmas and New Year week itself. Sitting on the floor, wrapping presents, time spent preparing for the Christmas day dinner if you’re hosting, or travel and sleeping in beds which are not your own, for a few nights if you’re being hosted. 

We must be honest with ourselves that this period is different. It’s peculiar, it’s stressful on our bodies, but it’s worth it, and time with the ones you love is so very important it cannot be overderstated. 

Whether you have back pain or not, this year, do your best to make some small tweaks to the way you do things, to try and offset some of these challenges your body will face, so you find you move into the new year in a much better way! If you are unlucky enough to be overwhelmed and aggravate an existing back issue, know that it’s completely normal, go back to the plan and remember this is just a bump in the road. Consider this your warning, and hopefully you’ll be able to incorporate some of the tips and recommendations we’ll get into in the second half of today’s piece.

Avoiding back pain this Christmas

We wanted to give you some practical steps as well as explicit guidance, so here are some specific activities and modifications that might be made to reduce the risk of aggravation of your lower back, as well as what to do should trouble arise.

Christmas parties in the run up

The biggest issue with these is that it often results in excess food intake, late nights as well as the excess consumption of alcohol, all of which are not exactly ideal if you’re looking to heal and regenerate. Simple strategies like picking from the menu ahead of time, having a protein shake or protein rich snack before you head out can all help reduce the likelihood of over indulgence. At the same time, in the days following your event, do not push yourself too hard in your workouts, focusing more on a 75-80% intensity workout. This will offer numerous benefits without running the risk of pushing your body too hard while it’s under supported, and perhaps a little sleep deprived.

Christmas shopping: particularly the last minute kind

Rushing around the highstreet trying to pick up those last minute gifts and get back to continue the preparation at this busy time of year, combined with long checkout lines and more, can all take its toll. Like anything preparation is much better than dealing with the fall out from carrying 3-4 bags on each arm for minutes or hours on end. They don’t even need to be that heavy, the cumbersome nature of walking through a busy highstreet can be an issue if you’re someone struggling with lower back pain. 

If you have got caught out and simply had to do that last minute rush, take stock of the reality that it will likely be an aggravating factor, or at least combine with other factors mentioned in this list. Therefore, using some of the strategies we talk about in the “Regular Relief Strategy” section later on will be essential, as soon as you get home!

Travelling to visit friends and family during the festive period

The main challenges that this poses are as follows. Long car journeys could potentially be aggravating if you have a lower back issue, using a small rolled up towel to support the natural arch in your lower back can help here, taking regular breaks and stretching your legs with a walk around the service station can also help. Know that you’ll likely be packing both presents and suitcases, so the same challenges will apply, plus picking up those heavy bags to load and unload the car. Have you been conditioning yourself to do this safely in previous months or not, if not, this is a potential area for aggravation of a lower back issue. 

In addition to this, you’ll often be sleeping with a different mattress and pillows. For some with back pain, or without, that can be an issue, if possible at least taking your own pillows can make quite a significant difference!

Hosting the big day and preparing the dinner

For those of you taking on the challenge of hosting the big day, hours in the kitchen awaits, loading the turkey into the oven is often no light task. It’s easy to overlook, but this offers an opportunity to lift things that we know some of you might ordinarily view with real caution if the “thing” being lifted was a dumbbell or kettlebell, but when its a large turkey with all the trimmings on an oven tray held out in front of you, you just get on with it. Food for thought to say the least… Other tasks such as making the beds for guests, clearing away and much more make the joy of hosting no easy feat. It will put stress on your back, and being mindful of this now, gives you a chance to prepare ahead of time. 

Wrapping and unwrapping presents

This frequently is done all at once, so as to be efficient, but perhaps instead of spending an hour running through all the presents on the lounge floor or kitchen table, you do them in shorter stints in the weeks running up to the day. Of course, the kitchen table is a much more back friendly wrapping location than the lounge floor, so do your best to think about this. But on Christmas day, with young family members, children and grandchildren, the temptation to play on the floor with them for extended periods is all too tempting, and why should you abstain?

Just acknowledge what you’re doing, and do your best to get down to the floor and back up again in a way that’s not too challenging for the lower back, and consider the duration you’re down there, don’t come back up too fast!

Christmas Day

The average adult will consume 6000 kcal on Christmas day, the weight of the food itself could be considered enough, to raise an eyebrow, much of this will be chocolates, and alcohol as well as a fantastic meal. Combined with prolonged sitting around with family, perhaps on chairs that aren’t ideal can make for a little bit of a challenge. Doing your best here to do the little things, like go for a short walk after the christmas dinner, will make a big difference in addition to some of the other explicit strategies we’ll cover in the section later.

Regular Relief Strategy: Staving off lower back pain

At the end of the day, some of the things mentioned above are not ideal, and difficult to avoid, so we need to have some sort of strategy to combat any prospective aggravations, rather than just leaving things to get worse without control. 

Simple relief routine: 

The simple routine that we would recommend would include keeping your lower body, hips specifically, nice and supple. This will help decrease stress and strain on the lower back when sitting and help you get onto the floor and back up again in a more back friendly manner. Simple glute stretches and hamstring stretches sitting on a chair can work like a charm, as well as a gentle lunge stretch next to the bed can all be done daily or even twice daily to keep those hips nice and mobile. Simple 30 second holds, with 2 repetitions per leg will be sufficient. 

Lying over a rolled up towel to support the natural curve in the lower back for 30 seconds to 5 minutes at a time, 2 or 3 times daily, or after any particularly back “unfriendly” tasks would be essential. Such tasks would include last minute shopping, wrapping presents and a long drive.

Something as simple during the festive period, especially if you’re away from home, would be a daily walk, perhaps even a short walk for 20 minutes twice daily, followed by the previously mentioned activities. 

Finally, if you’re working out, either at a gym, or at home, do your best to keep up with the routine, scale it down a touch to around 75% to 80% of your usual intensity if you feel this is necessary. This will certainly help combat the seasonal weight gain that catches so many by surprise, but also help keep the conditioning of those muscles that are keeping your back in good order. 

If you’re travelling, taking a set of bands with you to complete some simple workouts, this could be a great option to tick the “something is better than nothing” box!

Crisis strategies if you injure your lower back

The strategies mentioned above will be helpful even if you’ve injured your lower back. That lower body stretching as well as the towel for your lower back helps ease further stress and is worth doing for certain. Some additional strategies to add in include the following.

Contrast bathing to take down inflammation

In most cases of a lower back relapse during this period, it is excess inflammation from a minor strain. All too often there is a fear of significant objective worsening of the health in the region which commonly is not the case. Considering this, contrast bathing can work wonders to quickly calm down the excess congestion in the region. It is not magic, but it will help over successive days in combination with the previously mentioned tips.

Two to three minutes of heat, immediately followed by the same period of ice, directly over the lower lumbar spine, even if you have sciatica symptoms going down the leg. Repeat this back to back two to three times in a row, and then two to three times per day. It sounds like a lot but you’re just getting into the lower back to help reduce the excessive buildup of inflammation that’s being driven by the injured region. In combination for a short walk of 5-10 minutes, or whatever you can manage, it will help the area calm more swiftly.

Massage guns for your lower back pain

More or less all cases of lower back pain come with stiffness or tightness in the hip and leg musculature. Stretching done correctly can be helpful but we find that these massage guns can be a great aid, not only in times of difficulty if you have back pain, but also during the activities of the festive period. For example, if you’ve been on a long car journey or on your feet all day preparing Christmas dinner, working on the hips and legs combined with some movement can really help get things moving again and decrease the strain on your lower back. 

Nowadays, these devices are extremely affordable with even top brands such as therabody’s theragun and hyperice’s hypervolt guns offering affordable models that keep the same quality as their higher end devices. A worthwhile investment in your long term health and wellbeing, and a great tool in keeping your back in shape.

Considerations for your back health going into the festive period

If you’re someone with lower back pain, you should really take stock of your health and current levels of strength. For example, if you struggle to complete sets of 10 reps of a simple dead bug exercise or squats, or you’re at the point where you’re still challenged by using a 2-5kg weight for simple exercises like the squat or hip hinge, know that you are vulnerable. 

This is not being said to scare or concern you, however, too often we see tremendous caution around organised exercise where you’re ideally 100% focused. Yet that caution goes to the wind when we think about the following activities:

  • Carrying a 4-6kg turkey on an oven tray.
  • Buying said Turkey from the shops
  • Getting the christmas tree out of storage
  • Buying the christmas tree from the shops
  • Carrying gifts
  • Picking up children
  • The list goes on…

Over the years there have been more times than can be recalled where people get caught out with these sorts of mismatches in the resistances they’re using in their strengthening work, and the activities of daily living. The Christmas period is an example of this scenario, on steroids.

So take stock of where you are, and some of these challenges that you will be exposed to during this period. If you’re reading or watching this now, at the start of December, awesome! Spend the next 20 days or so really working to scale up your competence, build some strength to be ready to enjoy christmas. If you’re not quite there yet, and still a little vulnerable, that’s ok! Being forewarned will mean you’ll instantly fare so much better, even if you do get a little aggravated in the lower back during this spell. If you’re reading this on December 28th feeling sorry for yourself and in pain, just take it on the chin, and move forwards. Hopefully by this point in the article, you’ve had the lightbulb moment. You overdid it and were underprepared. Accidents happen and what’s important is how you choose to react going forwards. With a can-do attitude you can get back to the plan. If you’re not already a member with us, then check out how we can help you move into the new year!

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