How to Alleviate Back Pain

According to the NIH, back pain is one of the leading causes of disability in Americans under 45 years of age. About 80% of adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. It is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care from primary care physicians.


Your back is the main support structure of your entire body. It allows you to move, sit, stand, bend, and bear weight. Your back is a finely balanced structure that can be easily injured if not cared for properly. 


Risk Factors for Back Pain


  • Inactivity, sedentary lifestyle, or staying in one position too long

  • Being overweight. Excess weight, especially around the waist, places an extra burden on the spine.

  • Overexertion in work or play

  • Poor sitting or standing posture

  • Improper lifting, bending or reaching

  • Poor sleeping posture and/or pillow positioning

  • Sleeping on a mattress that is sagging, too firm or too soft

  • Carrying a heavy handbag, briefcase or backpack, especially on one shoulder

  • Chronic stress and tension. This reduces blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to muscles, which they need to remain strong.

  • Smoking. Smoking interferes with blood flow to the spine, which can cause disc degeneration. Heavy smoking also increases coughing, which can cause back pain.


Preventive Back Care


  • Exercise regularly, including cardio/aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching to help build endurance, strength, and range of motion, and to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. 

  • Strengthen your core. Your core is your center of gravity is where all movement in the body originates. The core muscles include the abs, back, and hip. Core stabilization exercises improve posture, balance, strength, power, and coordination, and strengthens the back. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi help build a stronger core.

  • Move your whole body, especially your feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, and arms. Move intuitively, however feels good, without forcing a painful stretch.

  • Use correct posture and proper body mechanics in daily activities.

  • Practice stress management regularly. 

  • Eat a nutritious diet. Include adequate calcium and vitamin D for strong bones.

  • Quit smoking. 

  • Get a 60-90 minute massage every 2 weeks. A professional massage therapist may be able to work out the knots. Opt for medium to firm pressure to get deeper into the muscles. Getting elbows into your back may not feel pleasant during, but the stress-relieving effects are highly apparent later.

  • Seek out a physical therapist. These professionals can help you safely work past pain and teach you exercises to improve your mobility and flexibility.


Immediate Relief


  • Child's pose stretches the upper back.

  • Lay with your neck hanging slightly past the edge of your bed.

  • Use a foam roller, which works through myofascial release. Foam rollers help warm up the muscles before a workout, improve performance, decrease muscle soreness, and shorten recovery. Foam rolling provides short-term pain relief and enhanced flexibility up to 10 minutes. It may also improve posture. When rolling your upper back, stop at the bottom of your rib cage. Avoid rolling your lower back since it is relatively nonmobile and the surrounding muscles could spasm. To release your lower back, try rolling the muscles that connect to it instead, including your glutes, hip flexors, and quads.

  • Hang upside down. Try different stretching poses, aerial yoga, or an inversion table to stretch the back muscles. Hanging upside down can lengthen the ligaments and ease painful symptoms, says Dr. Allan Stewart of Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC.



Sitting and Driving

  • Maintain your spine in a neutral, relaxed position. Avoid slouching or hunching your body forward. If your chair, seat, or car doesn't provide adequate lower back support, use a lumbar cushion or rolled towel.

  • Distribute your body weight evenly on both hips with buttocks touching the back of the chair.

  • Position your feet flat on the floor.

  • Keep your knees level with or slightly lower than your hips.

  • Keep your shoulders back and relaxed and position your head so that ears are aligned over shoulder; avoid thrusting your head forward at the neck.

  • Avoid sitting in bed doing work.

  • Long commutes can exacerbate back pain. To minimize strain, sit at a comfortable distance from the steering wheel. Sitting too far away increases pressure on your lower spine and can stress your neck, shoulders and wrists. Sitting too close can increase your risk of injury from the airbag. Allow 10 inches between the center of the airbag cover and your breastbone.

  • Take breaks; get out, stretch and move around during long trips.

  • Even when maintaining good posture, sitting for long periods at a time can tire the back muscles. Take breaks every hour; stand up, stretch and go for a short walk.


Standing


The most ergonomic work stations involve a combination of sitting, standing, and walking. Adjustable desks and treadmill desks are best-case scenario amenities which few companies offer.


  • Maintain a straight, neutral spine; avoid slouching sideways or forward. Don't exaggerate the arch in your lower back.

  • Keep your chin level and head centered over the shoulders.

  • Stand with your feet slightly less than shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent.

  • Lightly contract your abdominal muscles.

  • Avoid prolonged standing; if not possible, shift your weight from side to side or place one foot on a step or other low footrest. Keep moving if you can.


Back-Friendly Sleeping 


The best sleeping position is one that helps maintain the natural, soft S-shaped curve of your spine. 


  • On your back: place a pillow underneath your knees and/or a rolled towel or a small pillow under your low back.

  • On your side: bend your knees slightly and position a pillow so that it’s nested in the curve of your neck to keep your head and neck in line with the rest of your spine. A pillow placed between your knees also helps to reduce back stress.

  • On your stomach: this is not a recommended sleeping position. If you must, keep one leg bent about 90 degrees at the hip and knee and the same side arm bent about 90 degrees at the shoulder and elbow. Hugging a body pillow can make this position easier to maintain.

Regardless of your sleeping position, use a pillow that supports your cervical spine. Choose one that contours to your head and neck while still providing support.


There are many choices for back-friendly beds (mattresses). The ideal surface for most people is one that is gently supportive and medium-firm to firm and with no sagging. It should mold to your body while supporting it at the same time.


Lifting


With overexertion, it takes seconds to obtain a back injury, but the effects can last for years. When I was 12, I picked up a friend of similar weight to me using my back instead of my legs, resulting in immediate, shooting pain. My range of mobility dramatically decreased, and I was unable to arch my back without severe pain for at least another two years. My back is doing much better now, as a result of yoga, stretching, cardio, and strength training. I strongly believe that all people, including children, should be educated on proper lifting form.


When lifting, follow these important steps:

  • Lift only what you can handle and get help if you need it.

  • Ensure safe and firm footing.

  • Stand close to the object to be lifted with feet apart for balance.

  • Squat down to pick up the object by bending at the knees and keeping back straight.

  • Secure a firm hold on the object.

  • Tighten your abs and slowly lift using your legs, not your back.

  • Avoid twisting while lifting.

  • Always lift and carry the object close to your body, at about waist level.

  • Perform the same technique when lowering an object.


Comfortable Fashion


Wear flat or low-heeled shoes that offer good support and comfort. High heels put strain on the lower back, put pressure on the knees, and misalign the hips and spine.



Avoid wearing a heavy bag or backpack over one shoulder. If you must, make sure the strap is wide and padded, adjust the strap length so it can go over the head and rest on the opposite shoulder, or switch shoulders often. Evenly distribute the weight, explore rolling bags, or get straps that go across chest/waist.


These tips can help with generalized back pain. For specific conditions that cause back pain, such as scoliosis, arthritis, or a herniated disc, seek the advice of a medical professional.


Key Takeaways

  • Avoid inactivity by moving around every hour.

  • Make sure you're sleeping on a comfortable mattress and pillow.

  • Avoid overexertion. Lift with your legs, not with your back.

  • Strengthen your core, hip flexors, and glutes.

  • Use a foam roller and be sure to stretch after a workout.

  • With fashion, opt for looks and comfort.

  • Manage stress and tension.

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