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Four easy-to-remember tips help prevent back pain.

“…let’s see if we can’t prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.” Maya Angelou

Do you remember buying your first car? Once you had the means to afford your own car, whether new or used, it was exciting to think about the make and model you wanted, shop the ads or the car lots, and do some research on gas mileage and performance. Given what a big investment that car would be, not to mention the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs, you may have put special attention on the warranty and repair record. Since all cars are subject to “material fatigue (the normal weakening of metal, plastic, etc. from repeated use), you wanted to prevent core damage in order to protect your investment. Thus, you probably did not endanger your car’s structural integrity by asking it to do things it wasn’t designed to do, such as off-roading in the canyonlands with your new Prius, or loading your 11-year old used Mustang with several hundred pounds of cement mix.

It’s even more important to pay attention to your body’s structural integrity in order to preserve mobility and quality of life. No matter what age you are, it’s wise to anticipate that as you grow older, a certain amount of “material fatigue” is likely to occur. Unfortunately, human beings don’t come with a warranty or an owner’s manual, so it’s up to each of us to educate ourselves on preventive maintenance and avoiding taking risks that can cause damage.

Back pain, particularly lower back pain or lumbar pain, is estimated to affect 80% of individuals at some point in their lives. Much back pain is the temporary result of muscle strain from too much repetitive motion or improper form during strenuous activity. However, intense pain that lasts more than three months is a warning sign of further breakdown. In fact, when back pain begins, it’s not unusual for it to rapidly develop complications that increase and spread the pain to the point where it becomes difficult to diagnose the source(s). For example, deterioration of the shock-absorbing gel-like disks between vertebrae (backbones) can reduce the space between vertebrae, causing damage to the small pairs of vertebral joints called facet joints, and nerve compression. Just one of these would result in some pain, but when all three are involved, diagnosis and treatment can be time-consuming and costly. Many kinds of back pain are preventable. Here are four tips for taking as good care of your spine as you did with your first car:

1. Practice good standing and sitting posture. Your spine is a stack or column of separate bones called vertebrae. It is not a straight line, but has 3 curves: an inward curve at the neck, an outward curve at the upper back, and an inward curve at the lower back. Good posture keeps the bones and joints in correct alignment and balance, minimizing wear and tear on the joints that can cause painful arthritis, and keeps back muscles efficient. Not only that, you’ll look better and feel more upbeat – try it!
2. Exercise regularly. Exercising 30 minutes per day for 3 days per week keeps your core and back muscles strong. Stretching after exercise is important, and simple floor stretches like lying on your back and bringing one knee at a time to your chest (without straining or overstretching) and holding for several seconds relieves muscle tension in the lower back and gently opens up the contacts between facet joints where gravity otherwise creates compression. Similarly, the “child pose” used in yoga can also be a gentle way to open up the spinal spaces – emphasis on gentleness. NEVER stretch to the point of pain. The rule of thumb for stretching should be, “No pain, gain!”
3. Use proper form when lifting heavy objects. You’ve heard it before, and it’s true. NEVER bend from the waist to lift something heavy – far too many back injuries have their origin in thoughtless lifting! Instead, use the strength of your big leg muscles by bending your knees as if moving into a squat. If you can’t get low enough to reach an object on the floor, bend from the hips (not the waist and lower back). Begin straightening your legs and gradually straighten up from the hips as you come up.
4. Lose weight. If you are overweight, you are putting stress on your spine both in terms of inefficient, improper movement as well as extra pressure on the bones and joints of the spine. Let’s say you are 75 pounds overweight. Imagine wearing a 75-pound backpack all day long, including when you go up and down stairs, get up from a chair, or get out of bed in the morning. The American Obesity Association estimates that one third of Americans are obese, and that back pain is prevalent among them. Although losing weight is easier said than done, it might be the single most important step toward preventing loss of mobility, further spinal damage, and impaired lifestyle due to chronic pain. Hint: treatments to relieve back pain are more difficult and less effective when the patient is obese.

It can be highly rewarding to treasure your body – specifically, your spine – as if it were your very first car. Remember that it’s possible to minimize wear and tear on the bones and joints that make up your flexible spinal column.

If back pain strikes, and becomes chronic, identifying the source of pain accurately is essential in order to develop the best treatment plan. For superior diagnostic services, contact the Sperling Diagnostic Group or the Sperling Medical Group.

Facet Pain