Back to the Basics
By Amy Rauworth
More than 80% of all individuals in the United States will experience back pain at least once in their lifetime. Unfortunately, that back pain usually reoccurs, and some individuals develop chronic back pain (defined as back pain that lasts for more than 3 months).
We all know that physical activity is great for maintaining a healthy heart and lungs, but research also demonstrates that recreational physical activity has a positive effect on low back pain by reducing pain related to back injury, and improves overall psychological health. If you have a history of back pain or you want to be proactive and prevent it, physical activity in the form of low-stress aerobic exercise such as walking, rolling, or swimming can be an excellent tool.
What can you do to maintain a healthy back? Follow these tips and get back to the basics!
- Maintain a healthy weight by eating properly and participating in regular exercise or recreational activities.
- Practice good posture at all times. Your spine should have a natural curve similar to an elongated S-shape. Imagine you are a puppet with strings attached to your head, feel your neck and spine elongate in an upward motion, let your shoulders melt downward into a relaxed position. When passing by a window or mirror, check out your posture or have a friend remind you to sit or stand tall … awareness is half the battle!
- If you use a wheelchair for mobility, be sure that it is appropriately adjusted to your body and provides adequate ergonomic support. Depending on the cushion type, make the appropriate adjustments to make sure that it is providing adequate pressure relief. Any supportive devices or garments such as an abdominal brace should be fitted appropriately to provide good posture support and enhance your mobility.
- Incorporate flexibility exercise into your daily routine. A common cause of back pain is muscle imbalance or tightness. For example, if the hamstring muscles (muscles located in the back of the leg) are tight and as a result are limited in their range of motion, this will place a stress on the back muscles. Yoga, Pilates, and t’ai chi may help improve flexibility and maintain a healthy back. Another simple way to work on flexibility throughout the day is to try to move your joints through their entire range of motion at least once a day. This means reaching overhead as high as you can with your arms and extending your fingers as far as you can upward.
- Practice good stress management techniques. The next time you are in a stressful situation, pay attention to your shoulders and don’t let them elevate upward towards your ears! Don’t hold your breath, … breathe! Take long, deep breaths that begin from your abdomen - not your chest - and exhale longer than you inhale by trying to release every last bit of oxygen from your lungs to provide a relaxation response. You may also want to practice progressive muscular relaxation, which involves actively contracting and relaxing muscles to evoke a relaxation response. Tighten a muscle and hold the contraction for 4 to 6 seconds, then relax it and move on to the next body part. Try to move in an upward or downward pattern such as feet, legs, thighs, buttocks, stomach, back, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, jaw, face, and eyes. Also remember that time management, advanced planning, and preparation can help to avoid many stressful situations! See the "NCHPAD Primer on Stress Management" at http://www.ncpad.org/362/2052/A~Primer~on~Stress~Management for additional ideas.
- Strengthen your body: the stronger your body is, the better it will be able to handle the activities of daily living. It is important to have strong core (trunk) muscles to help support your back. Practice pulling in your belly button toward your spine when sitting or standing. Feel the bracing effect that this motion has on your back.
- Practice good sleep habits. If at all possible, obtain 8 hours of sleep per night. Though individuals require more or less sleep each night, you should wake up feeling rested. Also, make sure that you have a comfortable mattress that is right for your needs. You may wish to utilize pillows under your knees if you lie on your back, or bend your knees and place a pillow between them if you lie on your side to help alleviate pressure on your back.
- Practice good body mechanics when lifting. Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart to provide a stable base of support and position your body close to the object that you will lift. Squat down while maintaining proper spinal alignment (don’t allow your back to sway forward or backward), tighten your abdominals, and lift with power from your legs. If you are unable to bend your knees or squat, try the golfer’s reach with light objects. Place one hand on a stable object to support your upper body, arch the back slightly, bend at the hips, and extend one leg behind you. Pick up the item, push off with the free hand and lower the raised leg. (This sounds complicated, but just picture a golfer picking up his/her golf ball off of the green). If ever in doubt of how heavy an object is, err on the side of caution and ask for assistance.
- Wear a good pair of supportive shoes. Your feet take the initial shock of whatever surface you are walking on. A good pair of shoes will help minimize the shock that is transferred to your joints and back. Ladies, if you plan on doing a good amount of walking or movement throughout the day, leave the high heels at home!
- Move often! Avoid staying in the same position for prolonged periods of time. Incorporate active task-oriented activities between sedentary tasks: walk to the water cooler or over to a co-worker’s desk instead of using the telephone or e-mail.