My Severe Back Pain Turned Out to Be Due to a Hip Misalignment

Updated: Mar. 11, 2022

A woman's year-long struggle with severe back pain led to an unexpected diagnosis—a hip misalignment.

Jennifer TobinCourtesy Jennifer Tobin

Did you know that not all back pain is connected to problems with the spine and not all alignment issues are related to poor posture?

Indeed, misalignment in the hips (which is sometimes referred to as a lateral pelvic tilt or uneven hips) can lead to widespread problems in the body, back pain among them.

When Jennifer Tobin started experiencing tense, knotted pain in her lower back, she had no idea that the cause was not related to her spine. Here, she shares her journey to finding relief after an unexpected diagnosis.

The beginning of my lower back pain

A few years ago, I was out for a hike when I noticed an aching pain in my lower back, about two or three inches to the right of my spine. At first, it was just uncomfortable, but then it quickly got worse, shooting up to around an 8 out of 10 on the pain scale. It felt like a charley horse all the time, just this awful ball of really intense pain in between my hip and my spine.

Once the pain started, my entire life changed really quickly. I was very active and spent a lot of time outdoors, but I couldn’t do anything except sit in bed and work on my laptop. My whole life was me, in bed, in pain.

Actively trying to find a treatment

The first doctor I went to gave me all kinds of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). I was taking high doses of aspirin as well as ibuprofen, but they really tore up my stomach so I had to stop taking them. [Here’s the difference between aspirin and ibuprofen.]

I went to doctor after doctor, trying all different kinds of medication. I was given steroid injections right next to my spine, which didn’t touch the pain at all—the doctors were very surprised and taken aback by that. One doctor prescribed gabapentin, a drug that’s used to treat nerve pain, but that gave me really bizarre nightmares and I had to stop taking it.

They ran tests and did MRIs and CAT scans. It looked like I had a herniated disc (a common condition in which one of the discs of the spine is pushed out of alignment), as well as a slight narrowing of the spinal canal, which houses the spinal cord. However, they didn’t understand why I wasn’t having pain down my legs, which would normally accompany that problem.

Growing pain and feelings of frustration

For months I returned to the doctor regularly, searching for relief. There were a couple of times I ended up in the hospital for week-long stays because the pain was just so awful that I couldn’t function with it. But the more doctors I saw, the more discouraged I became.

My pain didn’t present like normal back pain—I could bend and touch my toes without making it worse, which I think led them to be dismissive. I also started to get the feeling that they didn’t believe my pain was as bad as it was and that I was just looking for drugs, even though I wasn’t asking for them specifically.

I would say my pain was at an 8 and they would say “Really? Are you sure?” Or, I would be visibly sobbing because it hurt so much and they would say “you seem a little hysterical, maybe you should just calm down.” There were even a few times when doctors tried to give me sedatives instead of painkillers or pain management treatment.

Later, after doing research, I learned that my experience was pretty common for women, who need to wait longer in the emergency room to get pain medication. Women are also less likely to get it because doctors think they are overstating their pain. I also learned that women with chronic pain are often misdiagnosed or dismissed as having anxiety, a mental health issue, or being hysterical, which explained the attempts to give me sedatives.

A hip misalignment

When I wasn’t in the doctor’s office I spent hours online googling back pain, muscle pain, bone pain, disc herniation, and anything else I could think of. I tried countless at-home methods, but nothing seemed to make a difference.

Just over a year after the pain began, I was at physical therapy (which wasn’t helping) and talking to my therapist. She mentioned that her daughter was a chiropractor who worked in the same building and perhaps I should give her a try. By that time, I had seen two other chiropractors. They both did these spinal adjustments where they twisted and cracked my back and it was just awful and so painful. Even so, I was desperate.

When I got there, I was really hesitant about letting her touch me and said we couldn’t do any twists, which she agreed to. She took an X-ray, then had me lay on my stomach on the table and she looked at my legs and the bottoms of my feet. When she pointed out what she saw, I immediately saw it too: My right leg, which was the side with the pain, was almost a full inch shorter than my left leg.

She explained to me that she thought the problem originated in my hips, not my spine—none of the doctors I had seen ever considered that it could be coming from anywhere besides the spine. She said that it seemed like my pelvis was tilted slightly, forcing one leg to be down further than the other, and that the tilt was either compressing a nerve or creating inflammation of the muscles that was causing the pain. This type of misalignment is actually pretty common, especially in people who stand at work, like cashiers—people tend to put more emphasis on their dominant side.

The dissipating of my pain

After she said she wasn’t going to touch my spine, I agreed to let her do an adjustment. She pushed down on my right hip and suddenly, after over a year, my pain was gone! My legs were the same length again and I felt a difference right away. [Try these stretches for hip pain.]

After taking my pain all the way down to a 1 or 2, my chiropractor also encouraged me to start hiking again, which was a really scary prospect. I like to do days-long backpacking trips, so knowing I was going to be out in the woods for that amount of time was a little anxiety-inducing. But I started again and it has really helped keep my muscles loose.

I work a desk job, so hiking a few times a week helps keep me from tightening back up. I do have to do things differently, like pack different meals and carry some extra gear, but I’ve been able to find a community of people just like me through my group Misfit Hikers. This group promotes inclusion and access for people who are underserved in the outdoor adventure world.

Keeping the pain at bay

I’ve made other changes to keep my pain at a manageable level. I take turmeric with curcumin, which helps with inflammation, and I try to stay away from inflammatory foods, especially white sugar and white flour.

I’ve invested in a more supportive office chair for when I do need to be sitting and working. And I see the chiropractor regularly to make sure my hips are staying in alignment. After feeling dismissed for months, my life has returned to normal. I’m so thrilled I kept at it and finally found the solution!

—As told to Alyssa Sybertz