Your mother was
right: bad habits, such as slouching, can cause bad backs. But you can have a
healthy and pain-free back forever. Here’s how.
Your pencil drops on
the floor and when you bend down to pick it up a bolt of pain shoots up your
back. You’re frozen in a 45-degree angle. How could picking up a pencil prompt
such agony? It may seem sudden, but the condition that triggers the pain was
most likely building up over time. That’s because most of us take our backs
for granted until something like this happens. We slouch on the couch, bend at
our waists instead of our knees, sleep on our stomachs and engage in all sorts
of other bad back behaviour.
Given our habits,
it’s not surprising that back pain is so common. According to an Environics
Research Group poll, 64 per cent of Canadians have experienced back pain in the
past 12 months. Close to 70 per cent of those surveyed described their pain as
moderate to severe and women accounted for more than half of that group. Dr.
Claire Bombardier, a professor of medicine, director of rheumatology at the
University of Toronto and senior scientist with the Institute for Work &
Health, adds that roughly 10 per cent of us suffer from back pain at any given
time and that pain may get worse as we age.
So is it inevitable
that we’ll end up with back pain? No. In fact, back pain can be prevented.
Regular exercise and good posture can go a long way toward ensuring we have
strong, healthy backs into our 50s and beyond.
Common Pain Culprits
Back pain is rarely
caused by disease, explains Bombardier. “The majority of cases are brought on
by how we move.” Other factors include strains and disc injuries as well as
pregnancy, when the curves of your spine are thrown out of line by the extra
weight in front of you. In addition, relaxin, a hormone that loosens up your
ligaments so you can give birth, forces the lower-back and pelvic muscles to
work even harder to stabilize your back. But the real brunt of the pain starts
after your baby is born, due to the weight gained during pregnancy and the
repeated motion of lifting and carrying your little one while trying to do other
tasks, such as reaching for items on a shelf, at the same time.
While pregnancy can
set the stage for back pain, it certainly doesn’t means you’ll be saddled
with problems for life. The most common pain culprit by far is daily
wear-and-tear over time.
Typically, back pain
is triggered by the culmination of incorrect movements during our day-to-day
activities, such as gardening and housework, says Tia Toner, a physiotherapist
at St. Mary’s University clinic in Halifax. Standing or sitting for prolonged
period of time (30-to 60-minute stretches) tires out our muscles and results in
slouching. Bad lifting habits and awkward body movements, such as twisting your
torso while your feet stay planted on the ground, can also cause back pain.
Patterns of Pain
Dr. Hamilton Hall,
an orthopedic back surgeon, a professor in the department of surgery at the
University of Toronto and medical director of CBI Health clinics in Toronto,
outlines four predictable patterns of back pain in his book Consultation with
a Back Doctor (McClelland & Stewart, 2003).
in the back, buttock, hip and groin area that worsens in forward-bending
movements is the most common type. It can be a constant or intermittent pain and
fortunately, is alleviated with exercise.
that is aggravated upon extension but never worsens with forward-bending
movement can also be managed with proper exercise. It is always intermittent.
leg-dominant pain is often referred to as sciatica, in which the pain is
aggravated by moving your back. Hall does not recommend prolonged bed rest, but
rather lying down in any position that reduces leg pain for 20 minutes every
hour with your knees drawn up and pillows under your head and hips. If you are
lying down on the floor, it’s best to put your feet up on the seat of a chair.
More than 80 per cent of back-pain patients get better within several weeks when
they heed this advise.
leg-dominant pain is brought on by everyday activities and typically affects the
elderly. It is not a shooting pain but rather a feeling of fatigue and tiredness
or achiness. Bending forward in a chair helps to prevent or alleviate it.
Hall says three out
of four of us may suffer one of the four types of pain discomfort he describes
over our lifetimes, and Debby To, a physiotherapist in Vancouver, says 60 per
cent of us will also experience recurring pain. That’s because we often slip
back into old habits. Another reason for recurring pain is that once we are able
to move again pain-free, we soon forget to care for our backs and use proper
But if you get into
the habit of practicing the following four preventive measures, you may not
experience back pain at all-or ever again. Here’s what to keep in mind.
Always bend your
knees when lifting heavy objects. Greg Kawchuk, an assistant professor in the
faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, recommends “keeping a
straight back like you’re sliding your back down a wall, picking up the item
and standing up like you’re sliding back up that wall.” If you’re carrying
a heavy box, hug it close to your chest (the farther away from your body it is,
the heavier it feels) and use your leg muscles to lift. “and keep
exercising,” he adds. Activating your lower abdominal muscles, regular aerobic
exercises, good posture and proper lifting techniques can lower your chances of
having back pain by 50 per cent, says Toner.
Avoid standing or
sitting in one position for too long. Take a break, move or stretch. For
example, if you sit cross-legged while watching TV or reading, switch your legs
Avoid sleeping on
your stomach. This will only exaggerate the small of your back. Sleep on your
back or on your side with a pillow between your knees to keep your hips level.
Stretch and Strengthen
You can also
increase your odds of preventing back pain by staying active and following an
exercise program to stretch and strengthen your muscles. “The stronger the
muscles are, the better you get through the day without tiring them out,” says
Kawchuk. Stretching your spine improves your posture by elongating your back
says Miranda Esmonde-White, a former ballerina and creator of the DVD’s Classical
Stretch: Back Pain Relief and Classical Stretch: Full-Body Workout.
“But you also have to strengthen your back,” she says. “If you just
stretch without strengthening, you’re like a gummy bear falling over.
Strengthening your stomach and back pulls your spine free.” The abdominal
muscles prop up your lower back because along with the lower back muscles, they
fashion a corset to embrace your back and spine. Here are four simple stretching
and strengthening exercises to try.
Single knee to
chest: Lying on your back with your
knees bent, pull one knee toward your chest until you feel a comfortable stretch
in your lower back and buttocks. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with opposite knee.
Repeat two to three times per side.
Get down on your hands and knees. Lower your buttocks into a seated position
over your heels while keeping your hands on the floor. You can shift your hands
toward the right or left to target different areas of the back. Hold for 30
seconds. Repeat two to three times on each side.
Lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor,
contract your stomach so your back lowers onto the floor (place your hand next
to the small of your back to feel). Hold each contraction for 10 seconds. Do
three sets of five repetitions.
exercise: Assume pelvic tilt position; lift one foot off the floor until the
thigh is vertical. Then lift the other foot to the same position while holding
the stomach tight and in and keeping the pelvic tilt position. Hold one leg in
this position while touching the other foot to the floor and sliding the leg out
so the knee and hip are straight; hold for 10 seconds. Then slide your leg back
to the starting position. Keep your abdomen flat, and your pelvis and back still
while moving your legs. Keep breathing. Do three sets of five repetitions.
Your plan for pain management
What should you do
if back pain does strike? “Ice the pain within the first 24 to 48 hours to
reduce the swelling.” Says Tia Toner, a Halifax physiotherapist. If you are
really suffering lie on the floor with your feet on the couch. At bedtime, lie
on your side with a pillow between your knees. If your pain does not subside or
gets worse after 24 to 48 hours, consult a health-care professional.
If pain is
manageable and you’re able to stay upright, Miranda Esmonde-White, a former
ballerina, recommends moving. “Staying still is the wrong thing to do.” She
says. Try to sway your spine to the side, or wiggle it. “By moving it gently,
you’re nourishing the affected area because the blood circulates,” she adds.
“Even a tiny stretch will get the blood going.”
But if movement has
you gritting your teeth, avoid it until your condition improves. You should feel
an improvement with 24 to 48 hours with a full recovery in four weeks.
Back-pain-proof your daily routine
Try these tips
during everyday chores: Put one leg
inside the trunk or on the fender when hauling bags out of the trunk to avoid
reaching in and forcing your back to do all of the lifting.
an upright style vacuum; don’t use the kind that you hold like a hockey stick
with one hand on the top and the other in the middle of the wand. Vacuum in
short, controlled strokes.
dishwasher: Place one hand on the
counter to support yourself, or kneel on the floor with a straight back.
vegetables: If you are at a countertop, put one foot on a stool. This is a
good practice for any task that demands periods of standing.
Making the bed: Use
one hand for support when bent over, so your arm supports your back muscles,
rather than counting on them to hold you at that angle.