It’s hard enough to lose weight when you don’t have any additional significant health issues. When you also have back pain it can seem like an impossible challenge. Unfortunately, many people (and healthcare professionals) don’t look at and treat these problems as interconnected.
It’s all very well advising someone to eat less and exercise more to lose weight but if they are hardly sleeping because of pain and seriously worried about injuring themselves by exercising, then weight loss is going to be a real challenge. The flip side is that as long as someone is overweight they are putting additional stress on their spine and other joints, and the quality of their sleep is likely to be affected, and their aches and pains increased. Add to the equation the mental health effects of being overweight, living with chronic pain, and poor sleep patterns and it’s no wonder that people can get trapped in this back-pain-weight-gain cycle for years , with both their mental and physical health affected.
So, what’s the answer?
The first thing to realise is that there can be many reasons why someone is overweight and has back pain so there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution as the promoters of some wonder diets and wonder back pain products would have you believe. What has worked for your friend’s back pain or weight loss might not work for you.
Secondly it’s important to remember that weight gain and chronic back pain don’t happen overnight and nor do they resolve overnight. So don’t set yourself up for failure by hoping for an overnight solution and being disappointed when that doesn’t work.
With that in mind, we recommend some key steps to start to tackle this vicious circl
1. Get a proper diagnosis for your back pain
‘Back pain’ is not a diagnosis – it’s a symptom. You may have very similar symptoms to your friend BUT quite different underlying causes. So rather than jumping around aimlessly from one treatment to another the first thing you need is an accurate and detailed understanding of the underlying causes of your SPECIFIC back pain.
Until you know exactly why you have, keep getting, and can’t shift your back pain, you can’t treat it successfully.
There are very few doctors and healthcare professionals who specialise in chronic back pain. Find yourself someone who specialises in this treating long term back pain and ask them about their track record (ask for patient reviews or testimonials, case studies or other results) before consulting them.
2. A combination of treatments and self-care are usually required.
If you’ve had back pain for a while or it keeps coming back, it’s likely that you’ve tried various approaches to dealing with it. You may have tried various types of manual therapy like physio, exercise like pilates, or other therapies like acupuncture but if your pain hasn’t gone you may feel they ‘didn’t work’.
However, all the latest research points to the fact that an integrated approach to treatment of back pain is the most successful. Standalone treatments can temporarily relieve symptoms but it usually takes a combination of treatments and lifestyle changes to get to the root of the problem. It’s not that these treatments ‘don’t work’ it’s just that you need to have the right combination of treatments for your particular type of back pain.
Now that you have a proper diagnosis for your specific back pain it might be that treatments you have already ‘tried’ have a role to play in helping you to recover or perhaps something new that you haven’t tried. Again, ask your specialist lots of questions about why they recommend a particular combination of treatment for you and what results they’ve had with that approach.
3. Keep (or re-start) moving:
Contrary to popular mythology it’s rarely necessary or beneficial to rest or refrain from exercise if you have back pain. In fact, it’s important to keep as mobile as possible. However, it’s true that you can do further damage to an injured back (especially if there is discal injury) through poor exercise technique or just bad movement habits (like bending to lift using your spine for power rather than using the proper manual handling techniques).
Seek out an exercise professional who specialises in working with people with your type of back pain and get some coaching in safe and effective exercise techniques for you.
The endorphins released through exercise as well as motion itself can both have a positive effect on pain and mood, as well as boosting your metabolism to help with weight-loss.
4. Nutrition and hormones:
In the weight-loss equation nutrition is generally considered even more important than exercise. This is not about dieting, low calorie foods, or deprivation. It’s about eating a well-balanced diet with as little as possible processed food and sugar, with plenty of vegetables and fruit, protein and carbohydrates. It’s also really important both for weight and back health to keep well hydrated – aim to drink at least 2 litres of filtered water a day.
There’s an increasing body of evidence that both weight gain and chronic pain are made worse by foods that have an ‘inflammatory’ effect on the body (processed foods, alcohol and caffeine are examples). So by cutting down on these foods not only are you likely to lose weight but you may well see an improvement in pain and other health issues (like IBS, skin health etc.)
It’s also possible that an underlying deficiency or hormone imbalance (for example low testosterone, thyroid issues or vitamin B) could be contributing both to your weight gain and aches and pains. If you haven’t already been tested by your GP it is well worth asking for the relevant blood tests.
If you have been prescribed medication for back pain, or other health issues (perhaps for diabetes) it’s also worth speaking with your GP about how medications for one condition could possibly be increasing other side effects. Sometimes a change of prescription, or treatments or lifestyle changes that enable you to gradually reduce or remove your medications, can make a huge difference. Always consult your doctor before changing your medications.