Get Back into Action: Tips for a Healthy Spine

Northwestern Medicine
Orthopaedics July 13, 2012
As a spine surgeon, I see patients of all ages and fitness levels who share the same complaint: back pain. In fact, eight out of every 10 Americans will experience back pain sometime this year. Even moderate pain can disturb a person’s sleep, social life and ability to work. If not managed, back pain has the potential to dramatically limit a person’s quality of life. Back discomfort results from mechanical issues, traumatic injuries, infections, or diseases. While there are many different causes of back pain, people should recognize that the pain is a symptom, not a disease. The good news is that back pain can be avoided. With a few simple lifestyle modifications you can alleviate existing pain. The following are my tips for protecting your spine to help live a back pain free life and experience better overall health:

Too perfect of a posture - 
In the case of good posture, it is sometimes possible to have too much of a good thing. Stressing the spine too straight for extended periods of time can strain back muscles and create problems. The key to having good posture keeping all body parts aligned and relaxed. When sitting in a chair, both feet should remain planted on the ground with knees at a 90 degree angle. Correct and comfortable posture can decrease lower back pain, improve breathing and even inspire confidence.

Dream of a better back - Many people believe bed rest can cure any ailment. While sleep does restore the body, over resting can sometimes cause back discomfort.  Extended time lying on extremely firm or soft mattresses can force the spine into awkward positions, worsening back aches. After an injury or when experiencing isolated back pain, rest for up to 48 hours then contact a physician. Weeks spent resting, unless recommended by a doctor, will only weaken your back.

Cut the commute – When traveling to and from buses and trains, many commuters switch their footwear during the commute to walk in something more comfortable than heels or dress shoes. This protects the back only if the footwear is supportive. If you walk many blocks to your train station or bus stop in flip flops, or other shoes without much support, does not help rid the pain. In fact, it may worsen an aching back. You should choose shoes that support your feet and most importantly are in good condition.

Avoid extra baggage – Carrying a bag that exceeds 10 percent of a person’s body weight strains the spine and causes it to curve. If carrying a change of clothes, shoes, and lap top is a necessity, chose a bag with a backpack fit that distributes weight evenly. If the bag only has one strap, choose a bag with wide straps that crosses over the body.

Food and fitness- Obesity contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and even back pain. The pressure of excess weight on the body strains the lower back creating daily throbbing pain.  Eating a diet rich in fiber, vitamins, and low in sugar and fat provides energy to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Exercising regularly can also strengthen core and back muscles which protects against injury and allows for more activity without an achy back.

Pay attention to your body - Pain is the body’s way of alerting something is wrong, which means chronic back pain should never be ignored. If you find yourself unable to participate in activities because of pain, or pain that wakes you up at night, this indicates a deeper issue than just a stiff back. Chronic pain could be the result of a spinal problem, like a bulging disc or scoliosis, or even something genetic. If you suffer from long lasting and frequent back discomfort, make an appointment to see your physician.  

Treatment options for back pain range from physical therapy to massage and acupuncture to injections and surgeries. Seeking medical attention early will help your physician figure out the best treatment option to fit your lifestyle and medical needs.  

To learn more about treatment options for spine conditions, listen to a podcast featuring Dr. Hsu.
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