Tips to Maintaining a Healthy Back

According to the Journal of Pain published by the American Pain Society, up to 85% of Americans have experienced low back pain. That’s a lot.  So what can you do on a day to day basis in order to not to let yourself fall into this category?

1.  Be aware of posture while sitting and standing. 

As most people spend a very generous amount of time either sitting at a computer desk, sitting on the couch, or commuting to and from work,  it is very important that good posture is maintained throughout the hours you are stuck in this position.  For example, when you’re sitting at your desk, you typically will spend a good amount of time with your hand on your mouse.  If you’re right handed, for many people this translates to your spine bending toward the right and your right ribcage dropping to that side.  Ultimately the soft tissue structures on the right side of the spine will get used to this chronic side bending and the spine will begin to develop this permanent bend to the right (or left if you are left handed).  But wait, it only gets worse…upon weightbearing (standing), now that you’ve spent so many hours, days, maybe even years, in this seated position with your spine bending to the right, now your hips must adjust to the change in center of gravity.  For example, a lateral bend to the right side would move the weight of your torso to the right.  The hips would then have to shift to the left in order to help the body balance.  This hip shift to the left is your body compensating for the spine side bending to the right.  It’s likely that eventually this compensation will lead to pain in the right side of the spine, lower back, and/or left hip.

In addition to a lateral bend in the spine, an excessive forward bend can do just as much damage.  Commonly seen while watching TV, sitting at the computer, or driving, problems here typically stem from a rounded upper back & shoulders.  In addition, ones neck tends to protrude forward (see my post on upper cross syndrome for more info).  When the thoracic spine rounds forward, the ribcage drops at the front of the torso.  This in turn, can restrict blood supply to your internal organs as well as affects breathing since more pressure is put on your diaphragm. Doesn’t sound too appealing.

2.  Build a strong core.  

Believe it or not, your core is used in almost every single activity/movement you do.  It’s used to stabilize, balance and protect the body as well as to transfer energy from one body segment to another. This would be why building a strong core is so important to maintaining a healthy back.  And no, doing a thousand crunches a day is not going to get you a strong core.  Strong rectus abdominis, yes, but more focus needs to be placed on strengthening your transverse abdominis (that core muscle that wraps completely around your body like a belt), erector spinae, internal/external obliques etc. ….  This can be done through stabilization exercises such as bird dogs (for beginners), elbow planks, side planks, deadbugs + all the various progressions to these exercises (I’ll post soon regarding various progressions/regresssions for all these).

Why avoid all the crunches? Well, when you do crunches, you are putting extra stress & tension on your spine and vertebral discs due to the constant state of spinal flexion.  Do you want a bulging or herniated disc? Didn’t think so. Lay off all the crunches.

3.  Stretch regularly & treat yourself to a massage. 

Tight or shortened hip flexors can affect the position of your pelvis which in turn can affect the position & movement  of the lower back.  The iliopsoas (composed of 2 muscles: the iliacus and the psoas) would be the muscle that contributes probably the most to this pain.  Lying very deep, the psoas is attached to the sides of the lumbar vertebrae and inserts on the inner upper femur (thighbone).  Therefore, if this muscle is tight, there’s a good chance that it’s pulling on your lower back, creating tension & pain in the low back.  Stretching regularly can help to reduce this pain, as well as getting a massage by a liscensed massaged therapist.  Although I said “treat yourself to a massage,” you should actually look at getting massages as regular maintenance.  There are some issues that regular stretching may not be able to fix, but that a massage therapist may be able to help you out with.

By paying attention to your posture throughout the day, strengthening your core, stretching & getting massages every now & then, you will be doing yourself a huge favor in the long run by maintaining a healthy back.  Even though the gym membership & massages do add up, I’m sure they’ll be much less expensive than the MRI and physical therapy you’ll have to undergo to manage the pain that a bulged disc has created.  Take care of what you can now so you won’t have to deal with much larger problems later.

Thanks for reading! : )

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