Among the variety of chronic conditions that we experience in our lifetimes, back pain can be one of the most invasive. On its own, it can cause significant discomfort and can lead to other illnesses and injuries that put a serious dent into our lives. It can also affect our ability to work effectively, either as a background distraction or something more debilitating in the long term.
The costs associated with back pain can be significant. Each year, Americans spend around $50 billion on treatments for back pain. The economy is also affected, with absenteeism impacting business efficiency. Between physical pain and financial implications, it is clear that we need to take a more proactive approach to the prevention and treatment of symptoms.
When we’re considering the causes of back pain, many of us can narrow this down to the activities we undertake at work. Bad posture when sitting at our desks for long periods of time, hours spent behind the wheel of a vehicle without a break, not adhering to strict health and safety guidelines can all be contributing factors. While we may not be able to remove all possibility of back strain, there are behaviors we can adopt to limit its frequency and severity.
If you work in an office or behind a desk, pay attention to your set up. Create an ergonomic environment:
- Your chair should be at a height and distance from your desk that allows you to work without slouching or straining.
- Position your keyboard so that your forearms are positioned at a 90-degree angle to your spine.
- Raise or lower your monitor so that it is positioned in the center of your field of vision when you sit comfortably and face forward.
Studies show that you should also be taking regular breaks from sitting at your desk. Stand up and walk around for 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of seated work.
When it comes to jobs that require manual labor, like those in the moving industry, you should take care to follow guidelines on lifting and carrying. Take a moment to stretch, grasp the object firmly while bending your knees and keeping your back straight, then lift straight up using your legs for power. You should also be mindful of objects’ weight; be realistic about what loads are too large, and seek assistance where necessary.
It is part of the popular narrative that exercise, in whatever form it comes, is good for you. However, when undertaken incorrectly, or without sufficient preparation, we can find ourselves seriously injured. Exercise, too, can assist in the treatment of back pain; however, we must be mindful of how we approach this in order for this to be effective and to avoid further damage.
Practices that help to prevent sports injuries can be a useful starting point. Staying hydrated during exercise, being mindful of current injuries, and maintaining a schedule that allows at least one day off per week from exercise can contribute to an effective prevention strategy. This can go further than our personal injuries, too. When parents assert these best practices, their kids can understand and implement them in their sports and physical activities from an early age. This can help to mitigate the potential for forming bad habits that turn into long-term problems.
Aside from athletic activity, it can be useful to know that yoga and Pilates both have routines that are designed to help treat and prevent back pain.
- Downward facing dog (lower back pain);
- Sphinx pose (lower back pain);
- Cobra (middle back pain);
- Shoulder flossing (middle back pain).
- Pelvic tilt (lower back pain);
- Supine Spinal Twist (lower back pain);
- Swan (middle and upper back pain).
It’s important to remember, however, that utilizing yoga or Pilates as part of back pain therapy should be undertaken with expert guidance from a physiotherapist or coach. Both of these activities can cause additional injuries when pursued recklessly or with an insufficient understanding of your injury. Make adequate preparations — stretching, supportive breathing — and know what your limits are.
Tools and Preventative Measures
External support aids come in a variety of forms, each designed to assist different types of back pain and circumstances for use. Many of us who work in offices are familiar with the sight of lumbar support pillows in the office, used to help to discourage bad posture. However, there are other options available to us that can help support our spinal health:
- Heating pad. Largely most appropriate for lower back pain, these pads can be placed against the source of pain to relax the muscles and provide short term relief from symptoms. Many are now programmed to shut off automatically after around 15 minutes, but care should be taken to prevent overuse and superficial burns.
- TENS machine. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) systems use a small, battery-operated device to deliver electrical pulses to the back in order to relieve pain. While many have a variety of massaging cycle options that can make for a useful addition to your treatment, TENS should be avoided by those with pacemakers, who experience epilepsy or are pregnant.
- Support Brace. These come in a range of styles. Some envelop and support your lower back, while others are worn over both shoulders and tightened across the chest in order to improve posture. Most are recommended for use for a few hours at a time, rather than the entire day. These are also occasionally recommended for those experiencing osteoarthritis and herniated discs, but the length of use in these cases should be discussed with a medical professional.
Aside from these aids, a simple and regular regimen of stretching is also worth building into your daily routine. The monkey lat stretch shown in the linked resource uses gravity to treat stretch the back muscles and relieve middle back pain. Knee-to-chest stretches can lengthen your lower back muscles and relieve tension in that area. This is performed by lying with your back on the floor and gently guiding a knee up toward your chest, holding it there for 30 seconds before repeating with the other knee. You don’t need to undertake complex or energetic routines, but small, regular efforts can make a difference.
Back pain is the bane of many lives; particularly in our modern world that sees many of us spend much of our time slouched over desks. Making adjustments to our working practices, our approach to exercise, and considering using specialized tools can be useful strategies. Above all else, we need to be mindful of our pain levels and what the root causes are in order to make intelligent decisions about our actions.
Author: Indiana Lee, Portland, OR – Freelance Writer and Journalist. I’m a writer with a wealth of experience in blogging, content marketing, and journalism. Currently looking to spread my wings in the freelance world.