More than 26 million Americans experience frequent back pain, and “approximately 80 percent of the population will have back pain at one time or another,” says orthopedic surgeon Warner Louis Pinchback, Jr, MD, who has a private practice in Montgomery, Ala.
With those numbers, you may wonder if back pain is inevitable. Here’s the good news: It isn’t.
You can do a lot to prevent back pain. Paying attention to ergonomics — understanding how our bodies fit and move with and around furnishings such as desks and chairs — at home and work is important, but so is taking care of your body every day.
Using Exercise to Prevent Back Pain
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is keep your body fit and healthy. Staying active helps reduce your risk of back pain by:
- Controlling weight. Keeping your weight within a healthy range limits the strain additional pounds can put on your back.
- Strengthening the back. Strengthen your core muscles to support your back. Include exercises that build abdominal and back muscles.
- Maintaining overall fitness. Keep your musculoskeletal system strong and in its best shape.
- Stretch. Learn specific exercises that will help ease tension in your back.
Use caution when exercising or engaging in other physical activities, such as raking leaves, shoveling snow, and moving boxes. However fit you may feel — or rushed to complete a task — pushing your body to do just one more thing when you are starting to feel fatigued can also result in back pain. Take a break!
Lift Objects the Right Way
“The most common cause of back pain is a strain [in which] someone is bending and twisting and trying to lift something, then they tear or pull a muscle,” explains Pinchback. As a general rule, objects that weigh more than 20 pounds require special lifting techniques to prevent back pain.
Here are some tips for lifting, holding, and moving objects:
- Use your legs. Bend at the knees into a semi-crouch with your back straight, then grasp the object you want to lift and use your leg muscles to lift straight up. Keep your torso and head facing forward. Many people bend over at the waist and try to use their arms or backs to lift an item, leading to back pain. Likewise, use your legs if you need to put the item back down again.
- Hold objects properly. Hold the item you have just picked up squarely in front of and close to you, with your knees slightly bent for balance.
- No twisting! Just as you can hurt yourself if you twist while lifting an object, you can cause back pain if you twist your body to move the item you just picked up. If you need to move an item from one side of you to another, do not twist to do so. Instead, move your feet and then slowly turn your entire body to face that direction — then put the object down.
- Get help. If an object seems like it would be just too heavy or bulky for you to safely lift alone or you’re getting tired, ask for help before you try.
Change the Way You Sit in a Chair
Many people spend all day sitting at a desk and in their cars, and they can develop back pain because they aren’t sitting correctly. These tips can help you get more out of your chair:
- Sit upright. For optimal back health, sit upright but relaxed, with a slight — not slouched — arch to your back.
- Support the lower back. You will need some support for your lower back. Desk chairs designed with ergonomics in mind often have lower back support built in — otherwise you can use a rolled up towel, jacket, or pillow.
- Straighten head and shoulders. Keep your head and shoulders upright and facing straight ahead. Limit the amount of twisting and turning around that you do from your chair.
- Support your feet. If you are going to sit for a while, use a footrest.
- Lower or raise your desk. Keep your desk or keyboard at the correct height and distance from your body, so that you are not forced to lean forward.
- Take breaks. Give your back a break: Get up every hour or so to stretch and move around. Place your hands on your lower back and arch slightly for a nice back stretch.
Adjust Your Driving Posture
Sitting improperly in the car can hurt your back. You can prevent back pain while driving driver and riding as a passenger by:
- Sitting correctly. Adjust your car seat so that you have proper lower back support (or place a rolled towel or pillow behind your back) and your legs are slightly raised. Face forward.
- Use your seatbelt. Seatbelts prevent back injury, even in a minor wreck. Make sure you wear your seatbelt properly, with the lap and chest belts fitting snugly across your body. Pregnant women should make sure the lap belt fits under their bellies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 40,000 nonfatal injuries (including back injuries) could be prevented each year if nearly all adults wore their seat belts when driving.
Also, prompt pain treatment is essential. There are steps you can take at home, such as putting ice on the tender spot, as soon as you feel pain — but if your DIY pain treatment doesn’t improve your symptoms within a few days, visit your doctor. Pinchback emphasizes that while many cases of back pain can get better at home, sometimes there are underlying causes that need medical attention.