Back Pain, Inflammation and Weather
Barometric pressure is the measure of the pressure of the air exerted onto the earth. The weight of this air or its pressure on us is measured by a barometer. Generally speaking, low pressure weather systems begin with changes to the barometric pressure. They usually bring winds accompanied by a rapid air pressure drop as the front arrives. The center of the front continues with a rapid air pressure reduction and increased humidity, followed by an equally rapid rise in air pressure and decreased humidity after the front passes. So low pressure weather systems, especially rapid moving ones, bring extreme changes in temperature, pressure, humidity, along with gusty winds. Add several storms back to back and you have what I call inflammatory weather and all the triggers needed to bring out some of your body’s physical weak links.
In terms of the human body, barometric pressure changes can exacerbate or trigger bulging discs, joints, old chronic injuries like sprained knees and ankles, back pain, radiating nerve conditions, prior surgeries, even migraines and cluster headaches. A low barometric pressure system affects the body by having less gravitational forces exerted on it; it feels as if the air is definitely heavier. When the barometric pressure is low and the humidity is high, this extra weight impedes our mobility and irritates our joints. Rapid and repeated changes in the air pressure prevent our bodies from proper repairing and recovering from our workouts. Patients with bulging discs, our spine’s water filled shock absorbers, are especially vulnerable to these rapid changes in barometric pressure. Even the fluid capsules surrounding the joints of our hands and knees, as well as those in our spine, become inflamed with low barometric pressure, many times causing almost intolerable levels of pain. These rapidly changing weather patterns, or what I refer to as the ‘yo yo effect’, many times are similar to repetitive stress injuries that are significantly reticent to improve until the erratic weather pattern changes.
My experiences in the hyperbaric chamber have allowed me to feel the immediate benefit, especially for my low back disc pain, from a forced high pressure system. Almost everyone has friends, parents or grandparents who do not need the weather man to tell them a storm is approaching; they feel it coming!! How about all those grandparents who love the high atmospheric pressure and increased warmth living in Arizona? After a couple months of these low pressure systems coming through Los Angeles recently, many of my patients, not previously in pain, needed more care. My own February flu stint, in conjunction with heavy marathon training, reminded me of my own low back bulging disc. I enjoy keeping my patients better and I am always there to help, but I prefer them well and just needing periodic maintenance care and semi-annual or annual orthotic updates. So now, lets discuss how to prevent and treat these pain episodes, focusing especially on low back pain due to a bulging disc.
Knowing, understanding and listening to your body’s triggers is an important lesson. During weather fluctuation conditions pay attention to your body’s weak links. Mornings are especially problematic for bulging discs in the low back. The discs, 70% water, swell like sponges during the night, and many times in the morning are pressing up against the spinal cord in the low back. This is why bending forward to wash your face or put on your shoes can be difficult and send you to the chiropractor or sometimes to the neurosurgeon for a cortisone injection (epidural). I like to do some easy morning push ups and press ups (“Cobra” yoga position) to decompress the low back discs. Even standing and gradually arching and looking upwards will do. Another favorite yoga move I do primarily for low back decompression is the “Salutation.” This is basically a standing forward lunge with your hands over your head and is also a great hip flexor stretch.
More important than last century’s outdated passive low back stretches (pulling knees to chest), low back disc pain is best prevented and treated in the 21st century by strengthening the muscles in the low back, legs and hip flexors; refer to my superman, glut/hamstring and hip flexor strengthening in “Ask Dr Paul.” I also recommend, as similarly for pain conditions in other body regions, natural anti-inflammatories: white willow bark, bioflavinoids and essential fatty acids. As always, 20 minute zip locked crushed ice pack applications covered with one paper towel help reduce the pain. The bulging disc causing low back pain can be reduced by limited sitting, avoiding bending forward at the waist, including standing toe touches, pulling the knees to the chest, traditional sit ups and the Yoga position, “Downward Dog.” If experiencing a bulging disc episode, extra caution when coughing and sneezing are this doctor’s orders. A good rule of thumb is to look upwards when coughing/sneezing and do not hold the sneeze in, as this increases the disc pressure; just remember to cover your mouth and nose. I treat bulging low back discs in my office primarily with ultrasound physical therapy, passive extension maneuvers (McKenzie Protocol) and chiropractic adjustments. I usually assess the lower extremities for any anatomical leg length difference and abnormal pronation of the feet, which usually are connected to the cause of the low back pain and best corrected with custom orthotics as seen in “The Orthotic Difference” under Custom Orthotics.
Weather conditions are a part of life we can not change, other than where we choose to live. Many times inflammatory conditions in the physical body can be prevented by strength work, sound body biomechanics, moderation, ample sleep and nutritional supplements. Just like our cars, regular maintenance care can prevent breakdowns. For many people avoiding some foods like gluten can reduce inflammation in the body. Try to avoid or reduce your gluten intake for a week to decide if this helps your pain condition. This includes most beers and soy sauce.
Always consult a physician when you are not able to find relief on your own.
Otherwise, keep running!
Dr. Paul Copeskey, D.C., C.C.F.C.