Back pain is the most common medical problem in the United States. In 2003, Research America released the results of a survey of 1,000 people in the country showing that:
• 57 percent of all adults had chronic or recurrent back pain in the last year;
• 75 percent of people currently in pain had to make adjustments to their lifestyle because of their pain, including 33 percent who had to make major adjustments.
Americans spend from $50 billion to $61.2 billion per year on back pain, according to the Journal of American Medical Association. The costs of back pain – financial and emotional — can add up.
Most cases of back pain are due to injury or postural imbalances rather than conditions such as arthritis, fractures, or cancer. Here are some tips on how to take care of our backs this year:
• Be aware of posture. Most back pain is mechanical in origin, meaning that bad posture stresses ligaments, muscles, and other structures in the back that should not be stressed when someone maintains correct posture. It is no surprise that people spending more time in front of computers and TVs often have bad postures.
Changing postures frequently is required to spread mechanical pressure and stress over different areas of the back. In addition, to keep that good posture, a person must have strength throughout their core muscles, which are often neglected.
• Keep your abdominal muscles strong. Most frequently back pain goes hand in hand with abdominal weakness. Keeping the upper and lower abdominal muscles toned up is critical.
If there is weakness in the abdominal muscles, a person will often also have weakness in the upper back, lower back, or legs. These muscle groups are largely responsible for maintaining good posture and for protecting the spine.
Muscle-strengthening exercises must target the core and leg muscles as well.
• Stay flexible. If there is one muscle group prone to being tight and linked to back pain, it is the hamstrings. These are the powerful big bundle of muscles in the back of the upper legs.
When these muscles are tight, they tilt the pelvis and put a strain on the back. To reduce low back pain or to prevent low back pain, it’s imperative to stretch out the hamstrings. It is also beneficial to also address tightness in the hip muscles, thighs, calves, and, of course, the back muscles.
• Use good body mechanics. The idea is to avoid placing stress on the spine by using muscle strength and flexibility while maintaining good posture. This means keeping the spine in good alignment.
The thigh muscles, not the back muscles, are the powerful muscles to use when it comes to lifting. Turning the feet rather than twisting at the trunk will decrease the stress on the small muscles and ligaments attached to the spine. It is better to push heavy objects rather than to pull. Take the extra time to think before lifting.
Carol Lane, PT is the CEO of the Results Physical Therapy and Wellness Centers in Brewer, Dexter, and Dover-Foxcroft.