Back pain - what did I do?

First, I plan on going to a doctor tomorrow.

I just was trying to figure out what I did to myself. Two weeks ago I was at the store and was just bending down to look at a coat on a rack and I had a painful pop in my lower back, about waist level. It was pretty intense pain and I had a hard time composing myself to walk (more shuffle, really) about. I treated it with alternating heat pad and cold packs and rest and it had mostly gone away. However, yesterday I was doing laundry and it popped again when I was just throwing clothes in the dryer. This time it seems worse and is tighter feeling, more painful, and more limiting of my mobility.

I’m getting in to my dock as soon as I can, but just trying to get a handle on what I did so I can better deal with it before I get a real diagnosis.

This is going to be less than helpful, but how old are you? My experience was that once I turned 40 shit just started happening for no reason. Suddenly I found myself in need of shoulder surgery. I seemed to get injuries in my sleep. I dunno. Aisha Tyler has a bit in her standup routine about this - “I just picked up a bag of groceries, and now when I pee there’s blood!”

If you’re still pretty young, there’s a far better chance some discrete event led to this.

That is pretty much what happened to me when I herniated a disc in my back. Hopefully it’s not the same thing for you.

Welcome to old age, dog. Hurting yourself while doing nothing is one of the hallmarks of the status. I’ve done this to myself on a couple of occasions. Most notably, the one that finally convinced me that I was actually old (at a time when I still had a 2 in front of my age), where I turned around to get my insulin needle off the table beside the chair and made a pop exactly like you’re describing. Ever since it’s been a sort of in-and-out type of thing. I’m guessing that it might have its origins somewhere in the long shifts that I’d do at McDonalds without taking a break and sitting down that has led whatever you call the joint between my crotch bones and my back bones to get inflamed if I stand in place for any considerable period of time.

I believe that technically what you’ve got is going to be called a herniated disc, but you might not need surgery. All the medical professionals that I’ve ever seen have told me to do about it is put hot and cold on it and take the prescription Aleve that are basically double the regular dose of Aleve, so now I have a bottle of Aleve that I intend to take a double dose of the next time I blow something out in my spinal column and just keep the damn doctors out of it entirely.

I’m 33 and fairly fat, like 250 lbs on a 5’9" frame. I know I need to address that because it makes things like this worse. So far even going above normal dosage of over the counter pain medication has been pretty ineffective.

Squats, people. Low-weight squats three times a week will fix so many problems with your back you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve had this same thing happen to me, I had constant pain in my back when bending over for any length of time, etc. etc. 30 squats every other day for two weeks and suddenly I was 20 again. I contend that old age isn’t the real problem, it’s all the damned sitting around we do compared to kids.


I had back seizures a few times from innocuous things - once I sneezed, once I was getting milk out the fridge etc, never anything physically demanding. I have been doing Rippetoe style squatting and now though I’ve had similar things happen, it’s been direct response to squatting too hard. So, er, that’s improvement :)

This is the internet, sir. Your advice is useless without moving pictures!

I threw my back out last year while working on my tractor. Just a casual bending over to pick something up and that was that. Extreme pain, could barely walk. Muscle relaxers and rest fixed it up over time.

This weekend while prepping my tractor for Snowtober it was kind enough to send a painful ping! early in the day. From that point on I was very careful to always bend at the knees for the rest of the day.

I’m 40. I don’t know how I’m going to do this shit when I’m 60.

Don’t do squats or other exercises before you get a diagnosis … I believe Houngan and others would support and clarify that what they mean is strengthen your back area once you do know what the issue is and you are in a recovery mode.

I agree it sounds like a herniated disc - what I would recommend is getting the diagnosis asap, including an MRI. The biggest mistake I made with my herniated disc (neck) was just letting my GP send me to physical therapy without getting an MRI after I had neck pain. Then, in PT, they manipulated my spine and neck and the major herniated disc occurred.

It is likely you can get through this without surgery, because most people do. You might end up needing physical therapy, and/or outpatient surgery where they inject the affected disc area with steroids to try to give you relief. Also, your body will, over time (and to a certain extent) heal disc issues on its own, though it doesn’t happen for everybody and surgery does at times become one of the last remaining options.

I would also recommend that you use this as a wake up call about your weight issues. I had my disc surgery a year ago and have made a good recovery. I wasn’t badly overweight when this happened, and was in shape before it happened, but I definitely wanted to make changes to help my body help itself as part of my recovery. I’ve lost 15+ pounds in the last six months and have a goal of another 5 pounds, and I am sure my bones and joints and discs appreciate it!

Good luck Nathan -

PS I had a lot of back pain during my recovery even though my herniated disc was in my neck. The one thing that helped when I could not sleep was an exercise recommended by my physical therapist which is pretty easy to do, once you get to the point that you are doing exercises to strengthen your back. Lying on your side, pull your knees in to your chest as tight as you can and hold them there with your arms around them. Hold it a couple minutes. Rinse and repeat on the other side.

First, see a doctor, which it sounds like you’ve got covered.

Second, you may not be as screwed as some of the folks above (in terms of herniated disks and whatnot). What you describe sounds almost exactly like what happened to me a few years ago. I had a “pop” moment in my lower back, felt pain and discomfort there, but it went away with some hot/cold treatment. A couple of days later I woke up one morning with back pain so intense I couldn’t walk. I had to crawl to the phone to call into work, and someone had to drive me to the doctor’s office as I could not even stand up straight.

Turns out it was a muscle in my lower back that had been hyperextended. Since then I’ve had some mild recurrence, including once at a convention (GenCon) which made getting around all day with my loaded backpack tons of fun. I’ve never had it come back as bad as that first time though, which I credit to exercise, stretching and being careful how I lift, being especially careful not to twist while lifting as the doc says that is the cause of most lower back muscle problems.

What I’m saying is that if your doc says it’s not a disk, but a muscle problem, then simple exercise, stretching and being aware of your limitations is all you may need. I haven’t had more than a warning twinge back there in the past couple of years since I’ve been taking better care of myself. I’m 41 though, so I assume other bits will begin falling off me at any moment now.

Unfortunately, the description sounds exactly like a herniated disc. That pretty well matches my first disc injury, the one that began the voyage that ended with me disabled.

Several things to know about back injuries: first, do not bend or lift heavy objects until you’ve been checked out. Second, if the pain continues, see a specialist as quickly as you can. Generalists are frequently prone to writing off back pain as muscles or tendons, and back injuries are a degenerative condition. You’re on the clock, so to speak. If this is a herniated disc, and the pain continues or worsens, you’ll need to push for an MRI, as it’s the only effective diagnostic tool for that injury. This is nothing you want to fool around with. I’m not going to give you horror stories about how bad it can get, but take this seriously - very seriously - and get yourself inspected by the appropriate specialists as quickly as you can.

When caught early, a damaged disc can be dealt with so that it does not become a larger problem. In my case, I was given the runaround by a GP who kept doing x-rays and proclaiming that my problem was just pulled muscles or strained tendons, and after a year of that, I ended up with multiple bulging and herniated discs. You don’t come back from that. The important things, again, are to rest, continue using ice and heat, and get checked out by knowledgeable practitioners as quickly as you possibly can.

Out of curiosity, did you ever have an MRI done of your lower back, to screen for disc damage? What you describe sounds a great deal like the misdiagnosis I first got from my doctor, the one that lead to me being eventually crippled. Did he do anything other than x-rays? Did he even DO x-rays? Frankly, Slainte, a hyperextended muscle should not be causing you such overwhelming pain that you cannot walk. That’s a classic presentation for a bulging disc.

Another suggestion - once Nathan gets clearance from a doctor - is to work out with kettlebells. KBs will work your entire back like nothing else. Two handed swings, one handed swings, turkish get-ups, overhead presses…you name it, one little weight can do a bunch. IMO, KBs are superior to squats for high-rep back work.

Actually, if he does have an injured and weakened disc in his lower back, what would do him the most good is strengthening his core, not generic back exercises. The core muscles form a girdle that wraps around your abdomen and lower back, and support you in the same manner. Strengthening those muscles does a great deal to support your spine, and reduce the chances of reinjuring it.

I did not get an MRI of my lower back at that point, but I have had at least two MRI’s of my lower back and abdominal area since in regards to other issues. I assume (and I may be totally wrong?) that those would have shown any spinal damage in addition to the other non-related stuff they were looking for.

It isn’t that hard to screw up a freeweight squat or kettlebell exercise. I’m sure it’ll lead to sectarian hatreds but machine squats - standing, or especially reclined - are pretty idiot proof and still work a big complex of muscles, especially if combined with sitting cable-rows, pulldowns, and if you’re keen, something for the traps. (Dunno if there are idiot-proof trapezius exercises, they all make me antsy.)

Yeah, Smith machines are great from a safety standpoint, I highly recommend that method. And yes, don’t do them while you’re still in pain, wait until you are recovered, and pay attention to the “low-weight” attribute. “No-weight” would even be a good place to start for a week.


You cannot exercise your back, only the muscles around it and that support it. If you are heavy, lose weight. Strengthen your core. Strengthen your legs.

If you do nothing about it it will only get worse with age.

What, pray tell, did you think we were talking about? Getting a six-pack on our spinal cords?


Were I you I would review the MRIs again (with a professional’s help of course). One of the astounding things I found out after my disc surgery was the following. I had a major herniated disc in my neck, and had an MRI, plus many pre and post surgery x-rays (afterwards they want to make sure the hardware they put in you is in place, and the fusion area is fusing). One day, I was monkeying around in my email in-box with my health care provider looking over test results from one of those post-op visits. I notice there are a shit ton of test results in there (there were something like 15 or more separate tests posted there that I didn’t know about previously).

What was happening is I was talking live to all my health care providers throughout the last year (GP, neurosurgeon, neurosurgeon’s nurse, etc.) and used that as the decision making process for my care, but I wasn’t paying attention to what they were posting as test results throughout these many months. Which makes some sense, after all, in the old days, you wouldn’t have detail reviewed the tests because they would have been in a hard copy file, and also, I am not a medical expert so I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.

I notice that in addition to much discussion of my major hernia in my neck, there are many references to other minor (and what were called tiny) hernias that I have in my back (lower back primarily). Nobody ever said a word to me about it because it wasn’t the major issue they were dealing with and wasn’t relevant for that. I would also say that it is my understanding that at a certain point in time, due to ageing and gravity, every adult on the planet is prone to having minor and even major hernias which don’t affect them in the least and which they are not even aware of. I believe if we all had MRIs we would find out a large percentage of us that have been on the planet a quarter century or more have hernias, but luckily unless they are pressing on a nerve or moving around, we are blissfully unaware of them.

So, maybe it would be a good idea to review those MRIs Slainte - you had them for other reasons, and possibly they did not review them to see if you had disc issues. Not that you would do a whole lot about it, but you could continue to strengthen the area (your core) which I think is always helpful in prevention.