Five Ways to Slow the Aging Process of the Spine

Unless you are one of the lucky individuals that have found the magical fountain of youth, aging is an inevitable part of life. We often correlate increasing age with increasing pain or decreasing mobility. Although some degenerative changes occur as we age, there are numerous lifestyle choices that often accelerate this process. This is especially evident when it comes to low back pain.

Back pain is the leading cause of disability in the United States with nearly 80% of Americans experiencing some form of low back pain in their lifetime. While back pain displays itself in many forms, there tends to be a common theme with how and why it develops (1). 85% of low back pain cases are of unknown cause and I often hear “I don’t know what I did, the pain just came on all of a sudden.”

Although it may seem like pain comes on out of nowhere, we are often our own worst enemies. Our lifestyle choices, daily habits, and movement patterns all play a role in how our spine “ages.” Fortunately, it is never too late to make lifestyle changes to improve the integrity of our spines. Before we can make the necessary changes, we must first address and identify what we are doing to wear down our spines.

SITTING

Our body has uniquely evolved to stand upright on two feet. To accommodate this upright posture, our spine has three natural curves, your cervical lordosis, thoracic kyphosis, and lumbar lordosis.(2). However, with advancing technology we live in a society where sitting is our dominant position, altering the natural curves in our spine. Sitting at times is unavoidable, but limiting the amount of time we sit is important in preserving the health of our backs. Our bodies are meant to move! Being in any static posture for any length of time (>20-30 minutes) can place disadvantageous load to the spine and its surrounding tissues.

What can we do to be proactive sitters? First, we can start by sitting with our backs up against the back of the chair. At times using a lumbar roll, pillow, or rolled up towel behind our backs can also be advantageous to support the natural curve in our spine and help us be mindful of our posture. If you are one of the many individuals that sit for work, consider a work station with a transitional sit to stand desk. While at home laying on your stomach or going for a walk after dinner are also positive alternatives. Most importantly, change positions often and try taking frequent breaks from sitting interrupting sitting every 20-30 minutes.

BENDING FORWARD AND LIFTING

How we bend and lift is extremely important. Our spine is well designed to handle bending and lifting, however repetitive bending increases the pressure on our discs by up to 200 percent (3). We can reduce the amount of pressure on the disc by sharing the load with our hips and legs. Learning how to squat or hip hinge will activate our strong gluteal muscles, keep our spine in a neutral position, and decrease the load through the low back. You can learn more about proper hip hinge techniques here.

LACK OF EXERCISE

Staying physically fit and keeping our bodies moving through physical activity allows us to maintain strength, flexibility, and endurance. When we don’t move our bodies, we are not using our muscles to their fullest potential which can lead to muscle weakness, instability, and tightness (3). Instability and muscle weakness are often evident in our hips and core musculature. As a result, our low back tends to compensate for the lack of strength and mobility which causes the lower back to work harder than it should. There are many positive benefits to exercise and movement. Starting with a simple walk around the block (or mall during the winter months) and finding an activity you enjoy doing is the best way to start. It can be said that “motion is lotion” and keeping our bodies moving is a crucial factor in the health of our spine and prevention of wear and tear.

IMPROPER CORE EXERCISE

Abdominal crunches and sit-ups are a way of the past! You may think that crunches or sit-ups will strengthen your abdominal muscles to prevent injury, however as we “crunch” forward we are flexing our spine and applying tensile forces, increasing pressure through our discs (4). When performing a crunch or sit up, poor mechanics are being reinforced and the risk of injury increases. Core and hip strength are essential to an injury free spine and alternative exercises such as bridges, planks, and squats can be done in place of crunches. More info on sit-ups and alternative exercises can be found in this article.

AVOIDING/SKIPPING STRETCHING

Performing proper stretches and maintaining flexibility of the muscles and joints surrounding our spine is just as critical as having adequate strength. When the muscles around the spine (often through the mid back and hips) are tight, it causes the low back to move more than it is designed to. Performing appropriate and adequate stretching through the mid back and hips is essential to prevent low back compensation. If you want to learn how to stretch through your hips, we’ve got you covered in this article!

We all want to live healthy and pain free lifestyles. Making small changes in our daily routines allows us to take a preventative and proactive approach. Getting older is inevitable, but you have control over how you age through lifestyle choices.

Click the link below to schedule your free discovery visit with a physical therapist at Buffalo Rehab Group do discuss the health of your spine.

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References
1.. Hoy, D., et al. The epidemiology of low back pain. 2010; 24 (6); 769-781.
2. Callaghan, J.P., McGill, S.M. Low back joint loading and kinematics during standing and unsupported sitting. Ergonomics, 44 (4): 373-381. 2001.
3.. Battie, M.C., et al. The role of spinal flexibility in back pain complaints within industry: A prospective study. Spine, 15:768-773.1990.
4. Luoto, S., et al. Static back endurance and the risk of low back pain. Clinical Biomechanics, 10: 323-324. 1995.

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