Over the course of their lifetime, 8 of 10 people will have an episode of back pain, according to the National Institutes of Health. Nevertheless, most back pain is preventable with a bit of work and discipline. To reduce your risk, follow these strategies offered by Charles E. McLaughlin, M.D., a family and sports medicine doctor with Alta Bates Medical Group:
Sorry, couch potatoes. Sitting around wreaks havoc on the back. Not only does it make you more likely to gain weight (more on that later), but it weakens the system of muscles, discs, ligaments and bones that keep your back strong and stable.
Regular exercise, on the other hand, builds stronger bones and muscle and keeps moving parts limber. It improves balance, which prevents falls. It also promotes blood circulation, pumping nutrients to soft tissues throughout the body, including the spinal discs.
Choose the type of exercise that suits you and your physical condition. If running is too high impact, try walking and increase your pace as you're able. You can even walk or swim in a pool to take stress off painful joints while adding the helpful resistance of water. A group activity can provide exercise plus healthy social interaction: try dancing, pickle ball or volleyball.
"General aerobic fitness of any kind benefits the back, as long as you're using your muscles on a regular basis and getting your heart pumping to reap the cardiovascular benefits," Dr. McLaughlin says.
Stretching your body, and especially your back, improves flexibility and relieves tension that could lead to back pain.
"When muscles are tight, we lose range of motion in our bodies and become more prone to injury," Dr. McLaughlin says.
Yoga and Pilates are two popular forms of exercise that stretch and strengthen the back. However, any stretches that target the back, abdominal and buttock muscles will benefit your back. Check out top picks for Back Stretches and Exercises here.
Lose the Belly
Any extra weight adds stress to the back as well as other joints. But belly weight in particular predisposes you to back pain.
“For every extra pound on front of body, your back has to work harder to keep you in good posture. That really takes a toll over time,” Dr. McLaughlin says.
There's no magic to shedding weight around the middle. It comes down to fewer calories and more activity. Start by eliminating the foods with the least nutritional value, things like sugary drinks, alcoholic beverages, fast or processed food and desserts (although that small piece of dark chocolate can stay). Reduce your portion sizes a bit and then grab a friend (human or canine) and get moving. Your back – and your spirit – will feel better.
Tune Up the Body Mechanics
Body mechanics involve the way we use our bodies during the day whenever muscles are involved, whether standing, sitting, lifting or moving.
"I see poor body mechanics impacting all the core issues in my medical practice. It's something everyone could stand to improve," Dr. McLaughlin says.
Start by checking your posture when standing. Your head should be straight, balanced evenly between your shoulders with chin parallel to the floor. If you look at your body from the side, your ear, shoulder, hip, knee and ankle should form a straight line.
Sitting in your office chair, you should have your head straight and erect, your knees bent at 90-degree angles and your lower back pressed against the chair. If this won't work with the chair you currently have, invest in a more supportive model suited to your body, or ask your employer for a more ergonomic option.
Electronic devices have added to our back pain woes as we spend hours balancing our computers on our laps or sitting hunched over to read our tablets or phones. Try instead to place screens no more than 15 degrees below eye level and, whenever possible, use detached keyboards that allow your elbows to remain at a 90 degree angle with ample wrist support. When using hand-held devices, take frequent breaks to relieve strain on neck and back muscles.
Lift with Care
Lifting heavy objects with improper mechanics will earn you a one-way ticket to back pain. To lift properly, use the large muscles in the legs while keeping the spine in a neutral position. That might mean squatting to pick up a heavy bag of groceries or bending one knee with the other leg straight back for balance when you retrieve smaller items, such as a dropped pencil. In both cases, this allows you to keep the back straight and rely on leg and abdominal muscles to do the lifting.
Dr. McLaughlin advises keeping things you carry tucked close to your body, which uses the larger muscle groups. That may mean asking for help when moving furniture, lifting luggage or shoveling dirt or snow. If necessary, use lifting aids such as wheels on a suitcase or a dolly to do the job with the least amount of back strain.
You already knew smoking corrodes your lungs, but did you realize it may also contribute to back pain? That's because smoking impedes the body's circulation, which keeps blood vessels from properly feeding vital parts of the spine.
"Smoking can also trigger coughing, which creates high pressure within the spinal column and puts stress on the spine and nerves," Dr. McLaughlin says.
Thankfully, smoking cessation programs have more tools in their arsenal than ever, including support groups, nicotine aids and even apps that connect you with others in your "Quit Team."