How to Support a Partner with Back Pain

If your partner or spouse has chronic back pain, they need you. Here’s how to help.

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If your partner or spouse is one of those 16 million or so American adults who live with recent or regular back pain, it can often feel that life revolves around their pain. That’s because for them, it really can. But you could be your partner’s rock, and your support may bolster their treatment and make their lives a little more bearable. Here’s how. 

Woman supporting her partner who has back painHere's how to help your partner with their chronic back pain

Life in a Partnership with Back Pain

Beyond the physical toll that chronic or intense neck and back pain can have on all aspects of life, there is a lot to be said for the ways it can affect a partnership. The pain can be debilitating, not just to the body but to the emotional health of a relationship and the mental health of the people in it, says Wisconsin-based doctor of chiropractic Melissa Shera, DC. She notes most people dealing with back pain take one of two routes in communicating with their partner. 

The first is that the person dealing with the pain talks about it very frequently. The result here is that “when they talk about it often, it can be viewed as constant complaining, and their partner can become callous, resentful, or frustrated by not knowing how to help,” Dr. Shera says. 

Others, hoping to avoid coming across as complaining and needy, never talk about their pain. This means instead they tend to “suffer silently, and it wears them down over time, both physically and mentally,” says Dr. Shera. They may also turn to self-medication to deal with their chronic pain, bringing its own host of consequences. 

Regardless of where your partner falls on that spectrum, finding better ways to work as a team and support each other without bottling up the pain experience or the emotional consequences is critical. Here are some practical ways to do just that. 

Practical Ways to Provide Support

When it comes to day to day life, Khawar Siddique, MD, disc replacement and spine surgery specialist, at DOCS Spine + Orthopedics notes, “For the patient themselves, the biggest inhibition is the limitation of activities, anything from exercising to simple things like standing or walking to the bathroom.” 

For the partner, “the same spectrum exists,” says Dr. Siddique, but they are instead on the support and aid side, whether having to reduce the activities they do together (going on bike rides or to the movies, for example), or help someone with numerous parts of normal life (getting out of bed or to the bathroom).

The key action someone dealing with ongoing, life-affecting back or neck pain needs to take is express clearly to their partner the types of supports they do and don’t feel would benefit them and their pain management. For the partner, simply expressing the desire and willingness to provide assistance and being empathetic provides a huge weight lifted, and opens the door to a team-based approach to healing.

Exercises and Stretches

Exercise and stretching is often a “mainstay of treatment,” according to Dr. Siddique, and there are plenty of ways to exercise that can be done right at home. Many can benefit from the addition of a second person. Dr. Siddique recommends easy stretches of the lower back, hamstrings, buttocks, and calves, which can ease the muscle spasms that typically occur during an episode of back pain. 

Dr. Shera recommends starting with a straight leg raise or knee-to-chest stretch while lying on the back, with the supporting partner helping to add pressure and support the legs. From there, additional stretches can be found online, but she notes that the key element in stretching with a partner is communication. “You should take a stretch to the point of gentle discomfort and no further, so it requires verbalizing your needs and watching each other's faces for signs of distress,” she says.

Also recommended highly by Dr. Siddique is exercising as a pair for the added benefit of support and motivation. Non-impact core strengthening exercises are best; Dr. Siddique especially recommends yoga and pilates once acute episodes of pain have passed.

Doing yoga to support partner with back painDr. Siddique recommends yoga with your partner once their acute episode has passed.

National Institutes of Health studies have also suggested the benefits of yoga for those with chronic back conditions. With all exercise, choose activities or courses that are age- and ability-appropriate, and in classes, your partner should inform the instructor of the back pain issue so they can modify the exercises accordingly.

Massage

Another of the most beneficial things a partner can participate in is massage. While more intensive professional massages are purported to be beneficial for many with back pain, and often provide the greatest relief, they’re not affordable on a daily basis and can be hard to fit in the schedule, so having a partner do regular shorter massages to the affected areas can provide immense pain relief (for those who don’t mind the sensation and touch!). 

Man massaging partner with back painMassage is not a luxury but a necessity, says Dr. Shera.

Dr. Shera is a huge proponent of this. She explains, “unfortunately, we live in a society where massage is viewed as a luxury. But massage is actually a necessity; it's what keeps acute conditions from becoming chronic and it's extremely beneficial in reducing pain and increasing mobility.” And having your partner massage you is a great way to fill in the gaps of professional massage treatments. She recommends keeping it simple, using some of these basic techniques and tips:

  • Try broad, sweeping strokes with consistent pressure across the length of a muscle.
  • Use the side or the heel of the hand for firm strokes.
  • If you find a specific knot in a muscle, use a thumb or knuckle to apply deeper pressure to the point (either rubbing in circles or holding down in place).
  • Use lotion or massage oil to ease friction.
  • Have the massage recipient communicate what feels good or releases tension and continue working those places.

Helping with Daily Tasks 

Beyond more hands-on exercises and physical supports, partners can opt for simple lifestyle adjustments that make a world of difference. Divvying up household tasks based on which cause back pain flare-ups, and which don’t, for example, can make for less pain and a happier home life. Which tasks this will be will vary widely based on the location of the pain or the specific issue. 

For example, Dr. Shera notes, “someone with a disc injury may not be able to flex forward, while someone with facet syndrome or osteoarthritis may have more trouble extending upright.” This can indicate tasks or chores that will exacerbate particular issues, and how some couples may divide responsibilities based on these criteria. 

Supporting the Path to Treatments and Recovery 

Ultimately, no matter how much a partner supports their loved one through pain with exercises, stretches, massage, and emotional support, the best and most life-altering thing to do is to find the root of the pain issue and to seek the most effective treatment and relief options. These don’t necessarily have to be medications or surgeries, though depending on the condition, they may be needed. But things like chiropractic, physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, and core-strengthening yoga have been shown in many cases to also have extremely strong results. 

Treatment may involve a combination of several tactics, along with support from loved ones or a live-in partner (and the strategies above). The goal should never be to survive through pain, but to solve or treat the problem and ultimately feel better. As a partner, offering your emotional and physical support may be the best way to help. 

Updated on: 04/22/21
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