In industrialized societies such as ours, back-related ailments have become an epidemic. Rather than depend exclusively on any one person or treatment, we should instead rely chiefly on ourselves for preventing these ailments and for preserving the health of our back.
Three key points are crucial: posture, exercise, and relaxation.
How you habitually sit or stand, or use your body and its parts in activities such as bending, lifting and getting up from a lying position (known as body mechanics) can contribute to either having a problem-free back or indeed to helping prevent its occurrence.Correct posture and body mechanics subject your spine and its related structures to minimal stress. Faulty postural habits do the opposite: they place on bones, joints, spinal discs and other tissues stresses that they were not designed to bear on a regular basis, without damage.
How minimize stress on the spine and its supports?
Here are examples of ways to minimize stress on the spine and its supports:
- Sit tall, on your “sitting bones” (one under each buttock) rather than on your “tailbone” (coccyx, at the end of the spine). Keep the crown of your head uppermost. Relax your shoulders and other body parts not required for what you are doing. Breathe smoothly.
- Avoid crossing your legs. It alters the tilt of your pelvis and the natural spinal curves. This unnecessarily stresses other already hard-working structures.
- Don’t grip the telephone between your ear and shoulder to free your hands. Use a headset or speakerphone instead.
- Stand tall with the crown of your head uppermost. Distribute your weight equally between your feet. If you have to stand for a long period, rest one foot on a prop if you can.
- When bending and lifting, let your knee and hip joints do most of the work. Avoid bending at the waist. Hold the object to be lifted close to you. Ask for any available help if this is necessary.
- Don’t come straight up from a supine (lying on the back) position. Turn onto your side and use your hands to help you into a sitting position, slowly and attentively.
- Squat whenever you can: to do some gardening chores, to fetch an item from a low drawer, to pick up a small object from the floor, rather than bend from the waist.
When you have back pain, you tend to guard the area that hurts by restricting movement. Unused muscles weaken and become ineffective supports for the spine and its associated structures. But regular exercise, done when you’re not in pain, is one of the most powerful adjuncts to any treatment for back pain relief.
- Exercise increases the level of the body’s natural pain relievers (endorphins).
- It also increases the production of synovial fluid in joints (such as the spinal facet joints), which helps to reduce wear and tear.
- It enhances the tensile strength of tendons and ligaments and so makes them better able to withstand strain and tissue damage.
- Exercise strengthens joints and muscles, making them less vulnerable to injury.
- It improves balance and coordination, thereby helping to prevent falls and injury.
Before engaging in an exercise program, be sure to check with your doctor or physiotherapist. Before venturing outside to do yard work (such as shoveling snow or raking leaves), be sure to warm up well as a safeguard against injury.
The abdominal muscles give reinforcement to the muscles that support the spine and pelvis. Weak abdominal muscles are a common cause of a backache.
Four sets of muscles form an “abdominal corset” to provide this support. They are the long, flat muscles running from the breastbone to the pubic bone. They flex the spine in forwarding bending and support abdominal organs. Muscles with fibers running obliquely from the lower ribs to the pelvis rotate the trunk, flex it sideways and give support to organs within the trunk. The fourth muscle group, which lies beneath the oblique muscles assists them in their functions. Your range of abdominal exercises should target all these muscles.
Leg muscles are secondary back supports. They include the powerful quadriceps muscles on the front of the thighs. They arise partly from the pelvis, the tilt of which affects the normal spinal curves and the amount of stress on spine-related structures. The hamstring muscles run along the back of the thighs, passing from the lower pelvis into the lower leg bones. Shortened hamstring muscles also influence pelvic tilt and can contribute to a backache, as explained above.
The final major point to bear in mind when considering no-nonsense back care is relaxation. This refers to a conscious and systematically reducing the tension in all the body’s muscle groups. A slowing down of breathing and also a lessening of the disturbing stimuli to which we are daily exposed. Relaxation is an essential prerequisite for healing any health disorder and for maintaining optimal health.
One relaxation technique that stands out is the yoga “savasana,” which is a form of progressive relaxation. Focusing on one part of the body at a time, you give mental suggestion to that part to let go of accumulated tension and to relax. You include the facial muscles, shoulders, arms and hands, legs and feet, front and back of the torso and also the facial muscles. You end by resting your attention on your breathing which, as you become increasingly relaxed, will slow down and become smoother and gentler.
Although technological advances have allowed us to work faster, they have not reduced the incidence of occupational illnesses which include a wide range of back ailments. Indeed, because they promote a more sedentary way of life, they contribute to poor posture, a weakening of muscles and overuse of joints and associated structures.
All is not lost, however. With a little effort, attention and care, you can to a great extent help to prevent back problems. In fact, prevention is the very best treatment for these, and you are probably the very best care provider.