Dave* is one of the healthiest guys I know. He eats well, runs regularly, and takes good care of himself in general. However, over the last three years, Dave has thrown out his back four or five times. Each time, he is crippled with pain that keeps him on the couch gulping pain killers like they were candy. It seems like every time he injures himself, Dave can’t remember doing anything strenuous. One time he was turning to reach for soap in the shower, and another, he was picking up a slip of paper from the floor—neither activity would seem to trigger the kind of back pain he was experiencing. Visits to the doctor haven’t revealed anything dramatically wrong with Dave’s back; it just seems to go out from time to time.
If you’re like Dave, or if you’ve ever injured your back, you’re not alone. At one time or another 80 percent of Americans will experience some kind of back pain, and chances are that at one time or another, you will be among them. Whether your pain is a nagging ache in your low back or stabbing pain and spasms that make even the slightest movement painful, there are some things that you can do to prevent the pain from occurring in the first place. Among them:
Lift correctly. Lifting incorrectly or lifting while twisting can be the kiss of death for your back. Lift with your legs; keep your back straight and keep the object close to your body. Don’t bend over what you are lifting and try not to twist or turn your body. Always choose to push a heavy object rather than pulling—or even better, get someone to help you with the really heavy lifting.
Get moving. Whoever first said “move it or lose it”, most likely had your back in mind. Regular exercise not only helps to strengthen your back, but it also builds flexibility. Even regular walking is good for your back as it engages your core stabilizing (back and abdominal) muscles.
Stretch regularly. Tight back muscles are primed for injury. Before exercise or after a long day, some simple back stretches can release tension and enhance your flexibility. Perhaps the easiest (and best) stretches for your back are called Williams exercises, also commonly called “cat and cow”. Begin on your hands and knees. Bring your head and butt downward while creating a hump with your mid back (like a cat stretching). Then reverse the position by looking upward and arching your back (like a sway backed cow).
Break it up. Most people who suffer from back problems find that sitting for long periods can really aggravate your pain. If you are driving long distances, stop regularly to stretch and give your back a rest. If you’re a frequent flyer, get up and move around the plane to loosen up your back.
How low can you go? Women—high heels are not your friend! Wear shoes with a heel that is one inch or lower. High heels change your posture and the alignment of your back and can greatly contribute to back pain.
Power to the people. Imbalances or lack of strength in your core muscles can contribute to back injuries. The core muscles you need to strengthen include not only your back muscles, but also your abdominals. Get some help here: a few sessions with an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or a Pilates class will get you on the right track.
Stand tall. If you stand a lot, rest one foot on a low stool, and alternate feet every 15 to 20 minutes. This relieves pressure on your lower back.
Check your posture. While we infrequently think about our posture, it can be a factor that can make or break the health of your back. Try to stand with your ears, shoulders and hips directly below one another. Keep your head up (not pulled forward) and your stomach in. If this feels unnatural to you, start by standing against a wall, line yourself up, and then step away from the wall. It takes some time to build muscle memory, so practice daily for a week or two and stick a post-it to your desk reminding you to stand up straight.
Sleep well. The best sleeping position for your back is on your side with a small pillow between your knees. If you’re a back sleeper, a pillow under you knees helps support the natural curvature of your back.
Prevention is the best way to deal with back pain. However, the reality is that you may overdo it in the garden, on the tennis court, or helping a friend move. When that happens, remember that acupuncture is a safe and effective way to deal with that pain in your back.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.