Whether from recent trauma, a fall you took long ago or simply from sitting day in, day out, staring at your computer screen, you may have experienced back pain at one time or another. Here are tips for preventing and healing your back, whether the pain is acute or so chronic it interrupts your life daily.
Why we get back pain
There are three parts to your spine: the neck, called the cervical spine; the mid-back, called the thoracic spine; and the low back, called the lumbar spine. Our body is set up to be a shock absorber, says Randy Weinzoff, D.C., a chiropractic physician in Santa Monica, Calif., and ergonomic chair designer. A pair of nerves extends from both sides of each vertebra to specific body parts. When those nerve pathways are tweaked, you may experience back pain, or another less direct symptom, of the blocked channel.
We often associate back pain with trauma, but general stress and a sedentary lifestyle also take their toll.
“When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, which makes the body break down,” says Weinzoff. Static body positions maintained over time, such as sitting at your desk staring at a computer screen, also lead to back problems. “Cumulative injury, from hours and hours sitting in that same locked-in unnatural position, leads to all these chronic back disorders,” he adds.
Ways to prevent back pain
Developing and maintaining healthy movement patterns is an effective way to prevent back pain. To do this, the spine has to move properly, according to its biomechanical design, and it has to be stabilized by core musculature. The result is balanced, uniform development, alignment and symmetry of movement.
“Knowing your body and having an awareness of what it feels like to have a healthy spine are great ways to prevent pain and injury,” says Renee Beshures, co-owner and director of Boulder Bodyworks, and also a certified Pilates instructor, massage therapist and yoga instructor. “Create a mindful exercise program that corrects imbalanced patterns and supports the structural integrity of your spine.”
Beshures and her team work with clients to develop fitness programs that emphasize strengthening, stretching and muscle balance and tone.
Your body will give you pain signals if it is misaligned, says Weinzoff, so tune in to the initial subtle cues to avoid more serious problems. Many of Weinzoff’s patients maintain spinal wellness with monthly appointments. Drinking enough water is another key technique.
“Most people are water deficient and heavy on the diuretics such as coffee,” says Weinzoff. “The body is 72 percent water; if we are well-hydrated, 50 percent of our aches and pains go away because the water is cushioning the muscles, tendons, ligaments and discs in our back.”
Weinzoff recommends the daily 8-ounce glasses of water, but suggests adding an extra 8-ounce glass of water for each diuretic beverage you drink. So, for each cup of coffee or black tea you drink, add in an extra glass of water over the eight daily servings. Weinzoff also recommends a whole-foods diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Pay attention to posture
The next step is to look at your posture and positioning while at your desk, especially if you are there for long stretches of time.
“Imagine yourself sitting with a string coming out of the center of the top of your head, pulling you straight up toward the ceiling,” says Weinzoff. “This naturally puts a curve in your low back, and takes away the slumping from your mid-back so your shoulders are not rolling forward.”
You also want a slight curve in the back of your neck, so your head is not pushed forward.
“People who have a forward head carriage have chronic tight muscles; it’s like having a 5 or 10-pound dumbbell on the end of your neck,” he says. Fit balls or chairs help you create this correct posture when sitting.
Take care while you travel, work and sleep
When traveling on a plane or in a car, stick a pillow behind your low back to create a slight curve.
“You want your belly button to be pushed forward,” says Weinzoff.
Sometimes the headrest will push your head forward; be sure that instead it hits you at the base of your neck, creating only a slight curve. Do not recline in your car seat because that takes away the proper curve in your neck and low back. The ideal car seat position will place your body at a 90-degree angle with your seat. Sit upright while you drive, with your arms on your steering wheel with about a 30-degree bend in your elbows, says Weinzoff.
Be sure to get up and move around during your workday or while traveling. This prevents your body from becoming locked into a bad position.
Sleeping in an aligned position is the way to support your back during dreamtime.
“Most people end up in a fetal position, arm under a pillow, legs crossed,” says Weinzoff. “The ergonomic sleeping ideal is on your back, with a small round pillow underneath your neck, but not propping your neck or head forward.”
If you have lower back troubles, lie on your back with bent knees.
How to treat back pain
Your first course of action, once you are experiencing back pain, is to seek a diagnosis from the proper health care provider.
“Go to someone you trust who is qualified to diagnose,” advises Weinzoff.
You’ll need to rule out more serious possibilities, such as a spinal tumor, and determine if you have a sprain or strain, he says.
At Boulder Bodyworks, for example, the team assesses your postural and movement patterns. During this analysis of how the spine and pelvis function, they’ll look at the mechanics of how you are moving and then utilize different tools to address the issue. They combine movement therapies such as Pilates, yoga and the Franklin Method, along with manual therapy techniques such as massage, cranial sacral work and Muscle Activation Technique.
“We have found that the combination of manual therapy techniques along with a mindful movement practice gives us the best results for addressing back pain and improving body awareness and function,” says Beshures.
Weinzoff also develops a comprehensive treatment protocol after diagnosing the source of the pain. Often, there is inflammation around the hurt area; at this stage a chiropractor would only gently mobilize or manipulate your body. Next he’d address the overall problem, examining whether or not you have a chronic misaligned vertebra, and if so, what course of action you need to take to heal it, as well as looking at lifestyle factors that are causing it.