Whenever one of my friends is dealing with back pain, they always call me to ask for tips on dealing with back pain in college. Since I live with a condition called Chiari Malformation that causes chronic back, neck, shoulder, and head pain, I know a lot about ways to deal with back pain that don’t involve taking painkillers or spending the entire day in bed. Here is how I manage back pain in college as someone who lives with chronic pain, and my favorite tips for dealing with back pain in college.
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Having a chair support in class
I have a lumbar pillow on my desk chair at college and at home and have found that it makes a significant difference in how my back feels after sitting in one position for an extended period. If I am dealing with a particularly painful spasm, I will bring the lumbar pillow with me to class and clip it to my desk chair, which is also helpful for when I have classes that last for three hours at a time.
Taking stretch breaks
Speaking of three-hour classes, I have an accommodation listed in my Disability Services file that allows me to take breaks as needed during my longer classes so that I can stretch or take a quick walk up and down the hallway. My professors are awesome about making sure that students get short breaks during class, though I also mention at the beginning of the semester that I benefit from having a short 5-minute break during longer lectures. I also had this accommodation for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.
- How To Create A Disability Services File
- Why You Should Get A Disability Services File
- SAT Accommodations for Low Vision
- ACT Accommodations For Low Vision
Lidocaine patches are over-the-counter pain relief patches that can be discreetly attached to problem areas such as the back, shoulder, or neck. I keep a few patches in my backpack in case I need them, though the ones I have were prescribed to me by my neurologist- they came in a larger package of 30.
Using a manual massage ball
A lot of my friends like to borrow the manual massage ball on my desk to work out knots in their back or other painful points, as it fits perfectly in their hand and can provide deep pressure very easily. I love the manual massage ball as it feels great for my chronic neck pain or other painful points. The manual massage ball can be purchased for about $8 on Amazon and is available in several different colors.
Using a massage trigger point cane/massage hook
The other most-borrowed massage and pain relief tool that my friends and I love is a massage trigger point cane/massage hook. Even with limited hand strength, I can target hard-to-reach places on my back and shoulder, and release tension from my muscles. I purchased mine from the QFLEX brand on Amazon for about $25, though there are several brands available- I recommend choosing one with an ergonomic grip.
Using my TENS unit nightly
I have a small handheld TENS unit that was purchased a few years ago from Target for about $30, and I typically use it at night after I’ve done everything else for the day. It took me a few tries to figure out the best place to put it on my back and what vibration setting works best, but I love the deep massaging feeling and how it helps relax the muscles. For this tool, I recommend talking to a doctor or physical therapist before beginning use.
Even though a lot of items in this post can also help with neck pain, I strongly recommend not using a portable/handheld TENS unit on the neck, as this can trigger adverse side effects.
Have a comfortable bed
When I was preparing for college move-in, one of the main things I focused on was how I would set up my college bed for chronic pain management. I have an entire post linked below about the items that I used, including mattress toppers, pillows, blankets, and other items.
- My College Bed For Chronic Pain
- Bedding Hacks For Chiari Malformation
- Everything In My College Dorm: Post Round Up
Don’t stay in bed all the time
I don’t participate in adaptive sports, but I take time to engage in simple exercise that doesn’t aggravate my back pain, using tools such as audio workouts or simple workouts with friends at the campus gym. I also try to walk places whenever possible so that I can keep my stamina up, though this may not always be possible when dealing with more severe injuries.
- Audio Workouts and Low Vision
- Creating Custom Workouts With Amazon Alexa
- Dealing With Broken Bones In College
Research massage services on/near campus
One of the most effective ways for me to treat my back pain is through massage, and many colleges have on-campus massage services that are available at certain times of the year. During my fourth year of college, I would use a rideshare service to go to a massage place near campus and found that it helped tremendously with pain management, plus they also had a student discount at the time!
Other tips for dealing with back pain in college
- Small back braces can help for activities that involve a lot of standing- I used one for pep band for a while
- Consider using a rolling backpack to avoid strain on the shoulders/back- I write more about this in Choosing A Backpack With Chronic Pain
- Clean out your backpack regularly so you aren’t carrying unnecessary items
- Go to student health if the pain suddenly comes on or gets worse over time- it could be a sign of another health issue such as appendicitis. I wrote about my experience with this in What If I Get Appendicitis in College?
- Check with doctors before starting a new exercise routine