Tips for a Healthy Back

The three weakest links in the body are the neck, knees and back. If any of these three parts are out of commission, you know it. Your whole day is affected. With winter on its way and snow shoveling just around the corner, you must be extra careful with your back.

Just about everything you do affects your back. Most people will have back pain at some point in their life. Back pain can be caused by being overweight, performing repetitive movements, sitting, standing, stress and improper lifting procedures. The back is very complicated and taking care of it now can go a long way toward preventing many forms of back problems in the future.

Here are some tips for keeping your back healthy and strong:

1.    Practice good posture. Slouching puts undue stress on your back.

2.    Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts stress on the back.

3.    Eat well. We need calcium and vitamin D among other nutrients to keep bones in good shape.

4.    Quit smoking. Studies suggest that smokers are more likely to experience disc problems.

5.    Strengthen your abdominal and back muscles. By keeping your abdominal muscles strong and maintaining good posture, you will be creating a natural “girdle” around your body to give your back good support.

6.    Keep the spine flexible with yoga and gentle exercises. It’s been said that a flexible spine is the secret to a youthful body.

7.    Exercise regularly to keep your body fit and strong. Many back injuries happen when people who are not active play a vigorous game of football or softball on the weekend. Condition your body with regular exercises so you can play sports without pain.

8.    Reduce stress. Tense people often have tense backs. Get enough sleep, exercise, be positive and practice deep breathing regularly.

9.    Be comfortable. Avoid restrictive clothing and high heeled shoes which can put stress on your back.

10.    If you stand for long periods of time, raise one foot on a box to lessen the strain on your back. Check your posture and try to maintain the natural curve in your spine.  Take frequent breaks if possible.

11.    If you must sit for long periods of time, get up every 30 minutes, walk around and do a few stretches.

12.    If you work at a computer, adjust your chair so your elbows to wrists are parallel to the floor and the screen is at eye level.

13.    Use your legs when lifting. Bend at the knees and straighten your legs as you lift the object. This puts less strain on your back.

14. Lift right. It’s very easy to twist the wrong way and damage your spine if you don’t use proper form when lifting an object. Here’s how to lift correctly: Stand as close to the object as you can. Use your legs rather than your back or upper body to pull up the item. It will help if you bend your knees so your arms are at the same height as the item. Keep your back straight. If the item is heavy, don’t try to lift it yourself — get help.

15. Sleep tight. Sleeping well is important to your overall health, says Anne Coffey, DC, a chiropractor with AllCare Health Associates in Totowa, N.J. Your body needs a good night’s sleep to repair itself, she says. Sleep on your side, not your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach puts too much pressure on your spine. “Invest in a supportive mattress as well as a pillow that promotes proper alignment of your neck,” Dr. Coffey says. Be sure to turn your mattress regularly so that it wears evenly.

16. Stretch out. “I never go a day without reminding people that they need to stretch to help their back and neck,” Coffey says. “Keeping flexible helps maintain normal joint function and a good range of motion. It also reduces the risk of injury.” Many back pain problems are caused by tight hamstrings muscles in the backs of your legs. If your hamstring muscles are tight, they will pull on the bottom of your pelvis and encourage it to rotate backward. “This can then create postural changes and put added stress on the entire spine and its articulations (where two or more bones connect),” Coffey says. If you start your day with a few good stretches, it will not only be invigorating, but also will promote your spinal health.

17. Stay active. “Whether you make regular visits to the gym, walk, bike, swim, or play with your kids, staying active and keeping your body moving helps maintain the health of your spine,” Coffey says. The best exercise routine for your back and neck is one that combines stretching, strengthening, and aerobic activity. Exercise also helps you to lose weight or maintain a proper weight. Being overweight, especially if you have belly fat, can put added stress on the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in your lower back.

18. Stay hydrated. “Staying hydrated is important to maintaining soft tissue elasticity and fluidity in joints,” Coffey says. “Our intervertebral (spinal) discs are vulnerable to loss of hydration and can begin to lose height.” As the discs begin to shrink, you are more vulnerable to painful disc conditions such as bulging or ruptures. In addition, as the spine begins to lose its protective padding, it further contributes to the loss of structural health, she says.

19. Work smart. Proper ergonomics can help reduce a lot of stress on both the lower and upper back, thus reducing the frequency of conditions ranging from stiff back and headaches to carpal tunnel and sciatica, Coffey says. Make sure your workspace — whether a laptop, phone, computer desk, or even your car  is set up for your height and functionality. Choose a chair that provides back support. Your knees should be at 90 degrees and your feet should rest comfortably on the floor. Never cradle your phone between your ear and shoulder. Hold your phone to your ear or use a headset to avoid neck pain. Also, plan regular breaks. “Staying in one position for too long will cause back muscles to tighten up and become immobile,” Coffey says. Plus, she notes, a short break is good for your mental health and productivity.

20. Pay attention to any warning signs. “Don’t ignore spinal problems or pain,” Coffey says. Although it is common to have back pain once in a while, it can indicate a more serious problem. Left untreated, problems with your spine can worsen and become quite serious. “Listen to what your body is telling you,” she says. “Don’t overdo it at the gym or at work, or self-medicate for a problem. Seek professional care to learn about your spine and the correct treatment for your symptoms.”