Rheumatologist, West Hills

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Nov 17

Take care of your back! –Prevent back pain

Can we prevent back pain?

The other day I watched a friend carry 2 stacked heavy cases of bottled water out of Trader Joe’s. I gasped: “Are you being unkind to your back?”

Back pain is common. In fact, 80% of us experience some kind of back pain during our lifetime. We don’t have control over some causes of back pain- like inflammation or cancer. However, how we live our lives has a lot to do with how often we get mechanical back pain and how permanent the pain will be.

Common causes of mechanical back pain

  • Muscles- muscle spasm, “unbalanced muscles”, weak muscles
  • Spine- misalignment, arthritis, scoliosis, fractures
  • Disks- degeneration, dessication, herniation, bulging
  • Nerves- impingement, spinal stenosis, “sciatica”

All of us can remember instances where we have been unkind to our back- like carrying that backpack on one shoulder, slouching on the couch while watching TV, or lifting really heavy objects like my friend from Trader Joe’s. Some of what we do causes strain or spasms in our muscles. Trauma, repetitive movements, and excessive pressure can cause arthritis (joint wear-and-tear) of the spine joints and disk herniation. Unlike muscle spasm, arthritis in the back is not reversible. Once the anatomy of the bones and disks has changed, this can put pressure on the nerves the course between them. Pressure on the nerves can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness (one example is sciatica).

Take care of your back!

There are several ways you can prevent back pain and damage to the back structures:

        1.  Proper posture

Sit and stand up straight. Avoid slouching, excessive leaning or hunching over things, or sinking into soft sofas. Did you ever see the movie “My Fair Lady“? In it, professor Higgins teaches a cockney flower girl good posture by having her walk while balancing a book on her head. Pretend you have a book on your head at all times! Besides protecting your back muscles, people with good posture appear more confident. I found good posture tips on this website .

2.  Exercise

Stretching and exercising regularly can help prevent back pain. Strengthening the muscles that support your spine take some of the load off your spine and minimize muscle injury. A Pilates instructor told me that people with strong core muscles (including abdominal muscles) do not suffer back pain. I have to admit this to be true- I have not had any back pain since I stated Pilates 3 years ago.

3.  Avoid heavy lifting

Lighten the load as much as possible. Make a few more trips when unloading your groceries from your car and carry less on each trip. Downsize your suitcase- you will never wear all those clothes on your trip!- consider taking a carry-on instead (also a fee-saving strategy!). Leave your laptop at home/work- instead of carrying it back and forth every day- memory sticks are much lighter. If you just have to lift and carry something heavy, do it properly: 1) Bend at the knee, not the waist; 2) Use your legs and knees to lift up, and keep your spine straight; 3) Keep your back straight while carrying a heavy object. Don’t arch back!

4.  Lose weight

Every extra pound on your body is putting pressure on your back. Imagine walking around with a sandbag on your back- or multiple sandbags. You may not be aware of the weight of the extra pounds because you have acquired them over time, but your spine definitely feels it. Now imagine if you carry the sandbag in the front (ie. you have a belly)- the change in the weight distribution can put further strain on your spine. Weight loss is one of the most effective treatments for chronic low back pain.

5.  Stop smoking!

Studies have shown that smoking is a risk factor for developing back pain. It is thought that the damage caused by smoking on the blood vessels supplying the discs and joints may be responsible for the back pain. In addition, smoking has been correlated with osteoporosis, which weakens the bone structure and makes one prone to vertebral fracture.

Firooz, Dr. Nazanin

Dr. Firooz is board-certified in Rheumatology and Internal Medicine. She is an active member of the American College of Rheumatology, and is affiliated with the Department of Rheumatology at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

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