As we age, our bodies go through a “wear and tear” process. For some, the effects are concentrated at the spine, for other’s it the knees. Some patients experience what is considered ‘normal’ wear and tear, while others experience an accelerated wearing process. Daily habits, occupational habits, and our movements are controllable factors that can slow the process. Changing and protecting yourself isn’t easy, especially if your subconscious daily movements are the root of the problem.
Degeneration of the vertebral discs not only affects the spine, but our extremities as well. For most, degenerative changes are accelerated as a result of poor movement patterns. For example, your spine may contribute more motion than normal to compensate for lower extremity tightness; a ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ scenario. More motion can be associated with more wear and tear. Fortunately, modifications made in both restricted areas (pelvis, hips, knees, ankles) and daily life (sitting posture, positional changes, lifting technique, flexibility, etc.) can significantly reduce our risk for premature disc degeneration.
Change #1: Sitting Posture
Think about it. You likely sit for all three meals, during your daily commute, in the office or classroom, and to unwind before bed. Your spine is completely biased to a flexed, sitting posture. You might be surprised to know that sitting, even more so with slouched sitting, places an increased load through the discs in your low back. You actually have more pressure on your disc sitting vs. standing. Sitting builds pressure on your discs that can accelerate wear and tear and even predispose you to a disc herniation. Protecting your back can be as simple as changing your daily habits.
Change #2: Lifting
While some patients develop low back pain over time, others suffer from traumatic events. It’s shouldn’t surprise you that improper lifting techniques play a significant role in low back pain. For most bending is automatic. It’s a mix of whatever’s quickest and easiest.
Bending from the waist to lift increases pressure in your lumbar discs. It also activates weaker muscles to perform the retrieval. Proper lifting technique can not only help relieve pressure on your spine, but also protect your knees and shoulders too. When lifting an object, the main focus should be on proper positioning for the low back. Avoid bending forward and rounding your back. Instead, squat down with your chest forward and butt back. Doing so will help maintain the natural curve of your spine. Proper technique will feel like a chore initially, but will become a habit with enough practice. Proper set up transfers the load from your back to your powerful leg muscles. A proper lifting technique has been shown to significantly reduce the occurrence of low back injuries. Although you may be sitting there thinking, “Well, proper lifting takes effort and for me to remember. It even takes longer.” True, but most low back patients can tell you that an injury to your spine is a far bigger inconvenience than a lifting technique that may take an extra second.
Change #3: Bending
Thought sitting was bad? You’re going to hate bending. When you forward bend to retrieve an object, don a shoe, or simply scratch your leg, the pressure in the lumbar spine sky rockets (note: this occurs before you even lift the object). Now, just think of the number of times you bend over in one day.
The average person will bend forward anywhere between 20004000x per day. Imagine pushing on the front of a jelly donut over and over again. Sooner or later, the jelly filling will start to leak out the back. This same analogy can be used for our lumbar discs. Since we repeatedly bend forward throughout the day, the gel filling of our lumbar discs start to migrate backwards, which may lead to a disc herniation. This is typical for individuals who develop back pain over a period of time with no known mechanism of injury.
Change #4: Flexibility
You hear it all the time, “I have never been very flexible.” In some cases this may be true, but for many of us our sedentary lifestyle is the culprit. Sitting most of the day will lead to tightness in the hamstrings, hip flexors, abdominals, and neck muscles. A lack of flexibility is never a good thing, but in patients with back pain, tightness in those areas will only compound your issues. Daily stretching can help improve flexibility, while frequent position changes will slow the progressive tightness that develops. Before you start a self stretching program, it’s important to discuss your injury with a physical therapist who can lead you in an individualized program for home.
Change #5: Core Strength
Most people are aware that having a strong core is good thing. We’re not talking about having washboard abs, either. A good core can help you stabilize your spine and prevent injury. Strengthening the core is tricky, though. Workout videos and gyms have painted a poor picture of core strength. Situps are usually a patient favorite; however, situps further reinforce spine flexion, adding to the 24000 forward bending movements performed every day. Sit-ups lack function too. Sure, they train your abdominals, but in a manner that we rarely use them. How often do you find yourself doing a situp throughout the day? Likely twice. Once to get out of bed and once to lay back down. The only difference between bending over and a situp is your position relative to gravity. Static holds found in planks and bridges target your core muscles far more effectively and functionally. They are also are generally safer for your spine.
Of the population who will experience back pain in their lifetime, half will experience more than one episode. However, as common as back pain may become, making simple changes in our daily routine can help reduce the risk. In follow up articles, I will cover in detail the 5 life changes that can reduce your risk of suffering from back pain.
To discuss the health of your back with a physical therapist, click the link below to schedule your free discovery visit at Buffalo Rehab Group.