Back problems can have a big impact on your life. Pain and discomfort can make it difficult to walk, stand, or even lie down. Back pain is common—almost everyone will experience it at some time. Back pain can have a variety of causes, from moving the wrong way, to lifting incorrectly, to changes caused by aging. That's why it is important to take good care of your back.
Caring for Your Back
Some causes of back pain, like age-related changes, cannot be prevented. But there are lots of ways you can take care of your back.
Regular exercise is a great way to keep your whole body strong and healthy. Exercises that strengthen the core muscles in your back and abdomen can protect the bones and ligaments in your back. Walking and swimming are great exercises to improve your overall fitness.
Some exercises can strengthen your back and help prevent injury. Gently stretching your back muscles can help. Follow these steps:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. Slowly pull your left knee to your chest.
- Press your lower back into the floor and hold for 5 seconds.
- Relax, then repeat the exercise with your right knee.
- Do 10 exercises for each leg, alternating legs.
Lifting improperly is a common cause of back problems. You should always lift heavy items with your legs instead of your back. When lifting heavy objects, don't bend over. Instead, bend at your knees and keep your back straight. Use these guidelines for safe lifting:
- Plan ahead so you're not in a hurry when lifting heavy objects.
- Stand close to the object you are lifting.
- Your feet should be shoulder-width apart. This will give you a solid base of support.
- Bend at your knees and tighten your stomach muscles.
- Lift with your leg muscles as you stand.
- If the object is too heavy, get help.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Maintaining a healthy weight can positively impact every area of your life, and it can also help you keep your back healthy. Carrying extra weight on your body puts additional strain on your back which can lead to pain and other problems over time. Eat a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Do Not Smoke
By now, you know all the negative ways smoking impacts your health. But did you smoking can also affect the health of your back? Smoke and nicotine can cause your spine to age at a faster rate, which means you will begin to experience the negative effects of aging sooner. If you need help quitting smoking, talk to your doctor. There are many options available to help you quit.
Sit Up Straight
Good posture can contribute to a healthy back. Good posture helps to maintain the natural curves of your spine. Make the extra effort to stand tall, sit up straight, and use proper lifting techniques. When standing:
- Hold your chest high, with your shoulders back and relaxed.
- Keep your feet parallel and balance your weight on both feet
- Pull your abdomen and buttocks in and hold your head straight.
- Choose a chair that allows you to keep your knees level with your hips and both feet flat on the floor.
- Relax your shoulders and keep your upper back and neck straight.
- Hold your head high, with your chin slightly tucked.
- Your back should be pressed firmly against the back of your chair. If you are sitting for long periods of time, you may want to place a small pillow or rolled towel behind your back.
- When driving, move the seat forward so you can reach the controls without leaning forward.
When Injury Occurs
Even in with careful lifting, good posture, and a healthy lifestyle, back injury may occur. If your back begins to hurt, try lying on your back on the floor with pillows under your knees. Or, you can try bending your hips and knees and putting your feet on a chair. These positions can help take the pressure of your back. Resting for a day or so may help. Do not rest too long however, since this can slow down your recovery. Even if it hurts, your should spend a few minutes each hour up walking around.
For a minor back injury, heating pads may relieve pain. Use heat for 20-30 minutes at a time. Never go to sleep with a heating pad on.
If using ice, make sure to wrap it in a towel first before applying it for 15-20 minutes at a time. Never put ice directly on your skin.
If you have ongoing back pain, talk to your doctor. You may be advised to take an over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Call your doctor if back pain:
- Goes down your leg below your knee
- Causes your leg, foot, or groin to feel numb
- Comes with fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness, or sweating
- Was caused by an injury
- Is so intense you cannot move around
- Is not getting better after 2-3 weeks
You should also call your doctor if you lose control of going to the bathroom.
Having a healthy back is important. Take the time to incorporate these simple steps into your daily life to keep your back healthy and strong.
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Low back pain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00311. Updated December 2013. Accessed January 27, 2016.
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Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 3/25/2014