Gabrielle Revere/Fitness MagazineBy Jeannette Moninger
Are you in a world of pain? You're not alone. Four in five people suffer from an achy, breaky back. Here are the surprising culprits and how to feel better fast.
Related: Minor Ache or Major Problem? 6 Warning Signs to Pay Attention To
Back breaker: You're a screen queen.
Nine hours -- that's how long the average person spends hunched over or slouched in front of a screen each day. A Temple University study suggested that increased texting on our latest tech obsessions -- smartphones and tablets -- is creating more aches and pains in our shoulders, necks, and backs. "It's important to take breaks, do neck exercises, and occasionally hold your phone or tablet out in front of you," says Deborah Venesy, MD, a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health. For a simple neck reliever, hold your head for 10 seconds in each of the following positions: forward, back, left, and right. Repeat this five times a day.
Sitting all day is hazardous, too. "It puts more pressure on disks and vertebrae than standing or walking," says Jeffrey Katz, MD, a professor of medicine and orthopedic surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the author of Heal Your Aching Back. Alleviate the tension with an office makeover. Start with a lumbar-support cushion, such as the Original McKenzie SlimLine ($19, isokineticsinc.com). Then adjust your seat so your computer monitor is at eye level, your arms and knees are bent at a 90-degree angle, and your feet rest on the floor. Finally, go to workrave.org to download a free program that flashes screen reminders to take computer breaks as often as you schedule them.
Back breaker: You ignore your core.
When you hear the word core, you picture six-pack abs. But your core is composed of much more: Back, side, pelvic, and buttock muscles all work together, along with your abs, to allow you to bend, twist, rotate, and stand upright. "Your core is like a crane that supports all of your movements,"says Mark Moyad, MD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Unlike crunches, which focus solely on abdominal muscles, core exercises -- lunges, squats, planks, and others -- strengthen several spine-supporting muscle groups at once.
Related: 5-Minute Core Workout for a Stronger Abs and Back
Back breaker: You sleep on your stomach.
The bedtime belly flop places pressure on joints and muscles, but sleeping on your side or back keeps your spine elongated and neutral. If you must snooze on your tummy, slide a thin pillow under your hips to alleviate pressure on disks, ligaments and muscles. Regardless of your slumber sweet spot, go with a medium mattress (check the manufacturer's scale of firmness and opt for one in the middle range) and a pillow that keeps your head in line with your spine. Research in the Lancet found that people with chronic low-back pain who snoozed on medium mattresses had fewer aches after three months than those who slept on firm beds. So take a tip from Goldilocks: Your bed should be not too hard (this wreaks havoc on hips and shoulders) and not too soft (this puts your back and joints out of whack).
Back breaker: You like to light up.
Cigarettes aren't just hell on your heart and lungs. "Smokers have a higher incidence of recurring back problems," Dr. Katz says. The cause and effects of this are many. Nicotine restricts blood flow to vertebrae and disks, so they may age and break down more quickly. It may also interfere with the body's ability to absorb and use calcium, leading to osteoporosis-related bone and back problems. You know what you have to do: Quit. Go to smokefree.gov to customize your own smoking cessation plan.
Back breaker: You're an emotional mess.
It's no secret that struggling with pain can take a toll on your mental health, and studies have shown that people with back pain are more likely to be depressed. But now doctors are discovering that the reverse may be true as well: In research from the University of Alberta in Canada, people with major depression were four times as likely to develop disabling low-back and neck pain. Some scientists believe that poor coping skills related to depression, such as withdrawing or avoiding problems, may trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, causing back and shoulder muscles to tense up and spasm. "The result can be a devastating cycle of chronic pain and depression," Dr. Moyad says. Antidepressants as well as mood enhancers like exercise, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing can help ease stress and make you feel better.
Back breaker: You're a slave to fashion.
Sure, sky-high stilettos are a no-no, but it turns out that flats can cause trouble, too. "Sandals and flip-flops often provide little, if any, arch support. Continuous wear can lead to back, knee, and foot problems down the line," says Megan Tabor, a chiropractor at the Osher Clinical Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital. But don't worry: You needn't settle for all function and no flair. Alternate styles throughout the week -- from high to low, sneakers to sandals -- and avoid wearing a particular pair every day. "Shoes should fit properly and offer good arch and heel support," Tabor says. If you walk to work or the bus stop, wear shock-absorbing sneakers, then slip on cuter kicks once you get to the office. Your purse could also be to blame, especially if it's huge and you're lugging it on one shoulder. Try a tote with a wide, padded strap; carry it messenger style; and lighten the load. According to the American Chiropractic Association, your bag should weigh less than 10 percent of your body weight.
Related: Meds Not to Mix: Your Guide to Taking OTC Drugs Safely
Back breaker: You baby your back.
Lying down minimizes stress on the lumbar spine; however, staying sedentary for more than a day or two can actually prolong and worsen pain. In a new study from Sweden, back pain sufferers who remained active recovered more quickly and felt less depressed than those who took it easy. "Low-impact activities like walking and swimming boost blood flow to back muscles while relieving pain and stiffness," Dr. Venesy says. Yoga, with its emphasis on stretching and strengthening, may be one of the most effective spine soothers. After three months of weekly sessions, 60 percent of back-pain sufferers who participated in an Archives of Internal Medicine study reported less discomfort, and 40 percent were able to cut back on pain meds.
Treatments for Acute and Chronic Back Pain
When pain strikes, follow these rules for fast relief.
1. Get out of bed. If you must lie down, do so for a few hours and for no more than a couple of days. Light activity is best.
2. Pop an OTC pill. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen and naproxen, reduce inflammation better than acetaminophen. Don't wait for pain to flare up; take as directed on the label.
3. Alternate hot and cold. Apply a cold compress right after an injury to numb pain sensors and reduce swelling. Switch to heat after 48 hours to stimulate blood flow to the area and soothe aches.
4. Stay balanced. Bend at the knees to pick up (lightweight!) items; carry them close to your body to minimize pressure on your back. Don't sit down or stand up too quickly.
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Gabrielle Revere/Fitness MagazineBy Jeannette Moninger