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Physical activity is vital for overall health, including for a healthy spine. Most people can avoid chronic back or neck pain by maintaining an active lifestyle and making a few simple posture changes.
But what if you’re already experiencing neck or back pain? Is it too late to make a change?
I often see patients who come in with sudden, severe neck and back pain. It often flares up unexpectedly, such as when performing household chores. These patients often worry that they’ve damaged their spines. But in the vast majority of cases, physical therapy and sometimes non-narcotic medication will provide neck and back pain relief.
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Let’s take a look at how a healthy spine works and why physical therapy is so effective to help you recuperate from and prevent future back pain.
Supporting your spine
Maintaining a healthy spine depends upon strengthening the muscles that bear its weight. The muscles around your back (often called “core” muscles) take some of the load off the spine’s lumbar vertebrae. These five large bones provide a supporting frame for the spine, but they aren’t made to hold its weight.
People experience back pain when their core muscles are too weak to support the lumbar vertebrae. If these vertebrae and the joints surrounding them bear too much weight over time, it can accelerate arthritis of the lower back, resulting in the sudden, intense pain I described earlier.
It’s important to exercise the core muscles around your abdomen and lower back to stay strong. Many back problems are caused by inactivity and smoking.
Inactivity and spine health
Americans spend an average of nearly eight hours per day sitting. Given that most adults have desk jobs, that number isn’t too surprising. But prolonged periods of sedentary behavior can have surprisingly severe effects on your health, so much so that this group of conditions has been given a name: “sitting disease.” Sitting disease increases your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, cancer and more. And it also affects your spine.
When you’re sitting, your core muscles aren’t being worked. They sit dormant, becoming weaker the less they’re used. Making this problem worse is the fact that many people have poor sitting posture. Slouching can make it more difficult for the core muscles to bear weight and causes issues with spinal problems over time.
Sedentary lifestyles are a common theme among my neck and back pain patients. When you’re younger, you can live an inactive life for years without back pain. But those years are silently taking a toll on your spine.
If you must sit for most of the day, you can take proactive steps to guard against future back troubles. And if you already have back pain, these techniques are especially important to prevent it from getting worse.
Developing healthy spine habits
You can keep your spine healthy and avoid serious back pain by making a habit of exercising and stretching. I tell my patients they need to make core muscle exercises a part of their daily routine, just like brushing your teeth. Strengthening the core muscles helps keep your spine healthy. It’s that simple. Some exercises that I recommend include modified planks, the “superman” stretch or yoga. You may need to exercise a specific subset of core muscles depending on your condition, so ask your physical therapist or doctor which exercises you can perform to improve your spine health.
If you sit at work, consider getting a standing desk. My patients rave about how much better their backs feel after they start using one. According to a growing body of research, reducing your sedentary time with a standing desk can also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity, help you focus and avoid feeling tired while improving your mood at work.
When you do sit, make sure to use proper posture. Keep your back straight and shoulders back. This posture helps maintain the natural curvature of the spine. You also should change your sitting position regularly, and get up to move around at least once per hour.
You should be on your way to a healthier spine if you stick to these habits. But if you’re still experiencing pain, or your pain begins to radiate into your arms or legs, you could have a back condition that requires more intensive treatment.
If you have back pain, or sit for long periods of time, don’t wait for the problem to get worse. Be proactive about your spine health – you’ll feel the benefits of being flexible and active, and enjoy years free of back pain.