By: Darria Long Gillespie, MD, MBA
If you're struggling with back pain, it's not surprising -- the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that 80% of us will have back pain issues at some point in our lives. But before you turn to narcotics, muscle relaxants, or other therapies, check out today's list. You may be surprised at what could be contributing to your back pain -- and what you can do to ease it.
1. Lighten that load. I see so many people in the ER with sudden, severe back pain after lifting something heavy -- especially if they follow that lift with a twist. This strenuous motion can damage the vertebral discs -- those little cushions between the bones in your spine. So when lifting, don't lift and twist -- lift and TURN (including turning your feet and legs). You'll thank me the next day.
2. Get a move on! We used to think that mild back injuries and strains should be followed by rest, but research has shown that continuing activity, even gentle things like walking and moving around, will facilitate healing. At first, stick to walking and avoid strenuous back exercises or stretching. Then, once you start to improve, not only will back strengthening exercises help you heal faster, they'll also increase your strength to reduce your chances of a future injury.
3. Give it a good night's rest. If you sleep on your stomach or with a couple of pillows propped underneath your neck, your sleep position could be contributing to your pain. The best sleep positions for the back are either (a) lying on your back with a pillow behind your knees, with head and shoulders slightly elevated or (b) on your side, with your upper knee bent and a pillow between your knees.
4. Stand at ease. If your job ever requires you to be in one place for long periods, try this technique: place a block of wood or a yoga block (about 4-6 inches in height) at your feet -- and place one foot on the block. Periodically alternate feet to reduce the static strain on your spine. Use this same technique anytime you're standing for long periods if, for example, there's a step you can put one foot on.
5. Change your seat. Sitting in the office all day? Staying glued to your seat for hours at a time decreases blood flow to your vertebral discs and puts a great deal of pressure on your spine. Two tricks: first, get up and walk around for a few minutes every one to two hours (your brain will also thank you for the break!). Second, try to readjust your chair when you sit back down -- even if it's just a little. Avoid sitting in the exact same position all day to minimize muscle stiffness.
6. Keep the stroller! I know -- it's just another thing to bring along. But if you're perpetually carrying your toddler, you may not be aware of how much extra stress you're putting on your back -- especially if your child squirms and fights to get down. There's no one "optimal" position for carrying the extra weight of a child, so if you find yourself in this position, keep the stroller handy (just don't lift and twist when getting it out of the trunk!). Extra benefit -- use the stroller basket under the child's seat to place your purse and other hefty bags, further relieving tension on your spine.
7. Kick the habit. Ok, you know that smoking was bad for your lungs and heart -- but your back too? Yep. Smoking can cause those little vertebral discs to breakdown even faster, leaving you with unremitting back pain.
Most back pain will resolve on its own in three to six weeks (and sooner, for most people). If you're still in pain, or your back pain is so severe that it is keeping you from your regular activities, then I'm afraid that it is time to seek the help of your doctor.
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