Experts share tips on maintaining back health.
Nearly all Americans will experience some sort of back pain or their lifetime. In fast, that figure is at about 85%.
“It is one of the most common causes of doctor visits and also a leading cause of disability,” said Dr. Eric Sundberg, a specialist with Coastal Orthopedics, in an email.
Back pain stems from a variety of problems, such as prolonged sitting, poor posture, a muscle strain or sprain, or the wearing of spinal cartilage. Fortunately, there are small changes you can make in your day-to-day life to prevent and minimize it.
What are the risk factors?
Mayo Clinic, a not-for-profit academic medical organization, reports that back pain becomes more common as you age, typically starting at age 30 or age 40. It can be caused by a lack of exercise, excess weight, disease (such as arthritis), improper lifting or smoking.
An increasingly common cause of upper back pain, especially in young adults and children, is text neck, more commonly referred to as tech neck, according to chiropractor Dr. Cynthia Hornback of Hornback Chiropractic & Wellness. Tech neck is the result of tilting your head down to look at devices, such as cellphones or computers, which puts more weight on the neck. At a 15 degree head tilt, for example, the force on the neck is nearly tripled from no tilt.
What are the most common types of back pain?
Sundberg said sprains and strains account for most acute lower back pain and usually improve with time and a combination of rest, ice, anti-inflammatories, gentle exercise and stretching.
As the body ages, degenerative conditions become more common. Those include wear-and-tear on disks and joints, as well as narrowing or pinching of the nerves. Disks act as cushions between the bones (vertebrae) in the spine. The soft material inside can bulge or rupture and press on a nerve, according to Mayo Clinic.
When should I see a doctor?
Sundberg said episodic back pain is common, and he recommends seeing a doctor if the pain does not subside over days or weeks or if it is associated with severe illness or fevers. Pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night or prevents you from performing normal daily activities might require a doctor’s visit.
He also said that you should visit the doctor if you experience neurological symptoms, such as leg pain, a numbness or tingling in the leg and weakness.
How do I help prevent back pain?
Staying flexible and keeping your core muscles, including abdominal and paraspinal (back) muscles, strong can help prevent future back pain or injuries, Sundberg said.
He encourages patients to make stretching and core exercises part of their daily routine. For exercises, he recommends crunches, wall sits, back extensions, pelvic tilts and yoga. Mayo Clinic reports that low-impact, aerobic exercises are best and says that keeping your hips and upper legs flexible helps aline your pelvic bones, so your back feels better.
Because sitting, slouching and hunching can lead to back pain, Sundberg recommends avoiding long periods of sitting.
“In general, motion is good for the back,” Sundberg said. “If you have a desk job, I would recommend taking time to walk during the day and break up any prolonged sitting. Some employers may even allow you to use a standing work station.”
How do screens impact my spine?
Hornback said maintaining good posture is an important part of spine health. The cervical spine — your neck — should resemble a wide-shaped letter “C.” However, because people spend so much time looking at screens in a “posture forward” position, that shape is sometimes reversed.
Hornback recommends doing postural exercises for the neck and back to help ensure the neck is properly aligned and doing core exercises to keep the back strong. To help prevent tech neck, hold your devices at eye level when using them. If you are using a computer for a long period of time, make sure the center of the screen is at eye level, so you don't have to tilt your head down.
“Staying active is very important,” she said. “Sitting idle all day is not going to make that condition improve.”
Hornback also said keeping the spine aligned is important for slowing or preventing degenerative conditions. Correcting misalignments through chiropractic care is similar to having your teeth cleaned regularly.
“We reach our maximum mobility by age 25,” Hornback said. “We lose about 50% of that mobility by the time we’re 55. By the time we’re 70, we only have about 70% of the mobility we had at 25 years old. Our goal is to change that scale.”
What’s a ‘smart’ way to work?
Mayo Clinic says you should stand, sit and lift in a “smart” way.
For standing, that means maintaining a neutral pelvic position — don’t slouch. If you have to stand for long periods of time, place one foot on a low footstool to relieve the lower back from some of the pressure, and be sure to alternate feet. Good posture can reduce stress on the back muscles.
For sitting, that means choosing a seat with lower back support, armrests and a swivel base. Placing a pillow or a rolled towel in the small of your back can help it maintain its natural curve. It’s recommended to keep your knees and hips level and to change your position at least every 30 minutes.
If you have to lift something heavy, be sure to keep your back straight, bend only at the knees and keep the load close to your body.