Baby got back — pain, that is. Or at least you’re about to, because there are plenty of everyday things we do that can damage our spines without us even knowing it. And no, we’re not talking about extreme yoga poses or a bad chiropractor here.
To crack open the spine on the book of mystery back pain and what causes it, we chatted with the executive director of the Canadian Spine Society, Dr. Hamilton Hall.
“The biggest mistake people make is they think all back pain is related to back damage, and it isn’t,” he explains. “It’s related to a whole number of things, mostly just normal aging.”
Still, there are certain things you can do to ease the pain — mainly by not being guilty of the following back offences.
1. Too much sitting
Sitting in one spot for too long puts pressure on specific parts of your spine, which can result in compressed discs. But before those of us who work at a computer all day (everyone, amirite?) give up hope completely, know that there are a few simple things that can be done. We all know to get up and walk around or stretch every half an hour or so, but if your back is starting to hurt, you might want to also consider a back support for your chair.
“Things like an ObusForme help keep the natural form in your back,” Dr. Hall says. “There are lots of seating tools designed to provide lumbar support and support the natural curvature of your spine. That takes the strain off.”
2. Too much standing
This one also seems slightly obvious, but it gives us something to chew on the next time we’re at a party, function, or when we decide to tackle a job that requires us to be on our feet for a good chunk of the day. Like sitting, standing puts pressure on the discs, which in turns causes discomfort and other potential problems down the road. How to avoid this? Try to shift your weight back and forth every once in a while with the help of a stool or rail.
“If you stand with one foot up on a stool or step it changes the curvature and puts your back on a better more naturally curving position,” the doctor explains. “If you went to a stand-up bar, you’d find they have a brass rail around the bar. When you’re standing you put your foot up on it and that gives your back comfort. Then you can hang around the bar longer and have another drink!”
3. Actually, spending too much time in any position
“The way your spine is designed is to cleverly keep your body from focusing on one spot too much,” Dr. Hall confirms. “If you take your finger and bend it back as far as you can and hold it there for a while it’s going to hurt. Keep moving.”
4. Wearing bad shoes
We’re never giving up our pretty pumps, but maybe we don’t have to wear them everywhere. Not if we want healthy spines, anyway. While wearing stilettos could actually do more damage to the arch of your foot than your back, they do sometimes put unnecessary pressure on the spine, which could lead to long-term damage. It’s about finding a pair that works with your back, and not going overboard. At least not all of the time.
“I wear cowboy boots and I have for years, and I wear them partly because the higher heel makes my back feel better,” Dr. Hall confesses. “I do not like Birkenstocks. My wife loves them. The moment I drop my heel down it changes my posture. Each of us has a different pattern of pain. There is no one-size-fits-all.”
5. Doing crunches the wrong way
Now before you stop working on those obliques, know that crunches themselves don’t actually damage your back — improper form is actually the culprit here. “If you do an improper sit-up, it will cause your back to hurt and defeats the purpose anyway,” Dr. Hall says.
If you’re looking to work out your midsection, it’s important to do two things: make sure you have the proper form (whether it’s a plank, crunch or sit-up), and also to do counter-exercises that strengthen the back and balance it all out. After all, they call it a core for a reason.
6. Stressing out
We know, we know. As soon as someone tells us not to stress out, that’s all we can think about doing. But as it turns out, all of that worrying is bad for more than just our blood pressure — it’s bad for our backs and necks, too.
“Stress increases muscle tone and tight muscles accentuate back pain,” Dr. Hall says. “It’s kind of a spreading effect. If I’m already tight from anxiety and I have a little bit of additional mechanical stress, my muscles are primed to hurt and it’s going to make the pain worse.”
So what can you do aside from taking up daily meditation or taking a kick-boxing class? Deep-breathing exercises are one suggestion. Breathe in slowly from your diaphragm up through your nose, pause for three seconds and then exhale just as slowly through your mouth. Repeat three or four times.
This harkens to the problem of sitting for long periods in the same position, but also to the aforementioned stress. According to Dr. Hall, sitting forward while you’re in a hurry and stressed with lots of traffic around you is a surefire way to ignite back and neck pain. So put on some calming music, take some deep breaths and check your posture to ensure your commute is a less painful one. Physically, anyway.
“Neck pain is highly postural,”Hall adds. “One of the simple ways to decrease it is to draw your chin back and get your head in-line with your shoulders so that you are not sitting forward.”
8. Doing the nasty
“Sex makes your back hurt too, but it’s worth it!” Dr. Hall jokes. We can’t help but agree. Still, if you want to decrease your chance of hurting yourself, maybe save the Kama Sutra positions for special occasions. In the meantime, this handy reference can show you which positions are best for which types of back pain. Hint: spooning isn’t always your best option.
9. Sleeping on a bad mattress
Speaking of the time you spend on your back (zing!), the mattress you sleep on could be causing you back pain and potential long-term damage too. That’s because your mattress tends to dictate your sleep position. While traditionally studies have shown that sleeping on your back is best, it really depends on your body, says Dr. Hall.
“No one mattress works for everybody. Backs are very fussy about how firm or soft the mattress is, and again we go right back to this business of what position is your back most comfortable in and what posture works best for you,” Hall adds. “As a general rule based on stats, saggy mattresses hurt more than firm mattresses.”
10. Eating a poor diet
Okay, so having a poor diet doesn’t directly affect your spine, but a good diet does work to fight inflammation and keep body fat down. And since weight also has something to do with the amount of pressure on your spine, it’s a good idea to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
“You’ve only got so much energy in your life to look after yourself, so when I deal with back pain I tend to focus on the things that have the most immediate impact, like posture,” Dr. Hall explains. “But if you are out of shape and overweight, (it doesn’t help). However, just as many skinny people as fat people have back pain.”
11. Not getting help
When it comes to back pain, Dr. Hall assures us there are very few instances — less than half of one per cent — in which immediate medical attention is required. If your back pain comes with leg pain in your foot, calf or thigh that is worse than the back pain itself, see your doctor. The same goes for back pain that doesn’t go away at all but increases in intensity over time.
Otherwise, Dr. Hall suggests thinking of back problems and pain like asthma. There is no complete cure, but there are exercises and stretches that a professional can recommend that help to make it better.
“Back pain comes back, comes back, comes back,” Dr. Hall wraps. “You can treat yourself, but to know which exercises and postures to use, that’s worth getting professional help.”