By Sandra Gordon, Pure Matters
If you have a back that "acts up" occasionally, you probably think about it only when it hurts. Back pain experts say that it's better to treat your back well day to day. That approach will help prevent episodes of pain in the first place.
“Keeping your back healthy involves making lifestyle choices every day that will make it less prone to injury,” says Mark McLaughlin, M.D., a spine specialist in Princeton, N.J.
Here’s what Dr. McLaughlin suggests to maintain a healthy spine and protect it from painful flare-ups.
Strengthen your core
Back pain can have many causes. Some causes include deterioration or rupture of a disk, muscle spasms, and tense muscles. To reduce your risk for these problems, strengthen your abdominal and back muscles. Do about 15 minutes of exercises a day that focus on this area. You can try back-friendly yoga poses, Pilates, and sit-ups. Any of these help support and stabilize the spine.
“Normally, the muscles that support the spine are in balance, like a circus tent that has a pole in the middle and taut ropes around it,” Dr. McLaughlin says. “But if one side becomes weaker than the other from disuse or repetitively leaning to one side, some muscles will contract and others will be stretched, which can progress to curvature of the spine or wear and tear on the disks.”
Dr. McLaughlin also recommends daily stretching. For example, reach up with your arms overhead and lean to one side then the other. Stretching will keep your back strong and flexible. It will be less prone to injury because spinal disks will have more range of motion.
Watch your weight
Carrying around extra weight -- especially around your middle -- puts added stress on your back.
“Every extra pound that’s carried on your belly puts 5 to 10 pounds of pressure on your spine,” Dr. McLaughlin says. “So if you need to lose weight, do what you can to shed a few pounds.”
Maintain good posture
Regularly slouching at your desk or leaning to one side when you’re watching TV can lead to chronic back pain or pinched back nerves.
To protect your spine, remind yourself to sit up straight at your desk with your feet on the floor.
“You’re in the correct alignment when you can draw an imaginary straight line from your head to your tailbone,” Dr. McLaughlin says.
Keep your computer at eye level directly in front of you, not off to one side. If you talk on the phone frequently, use a hands-free headset to avoid having to tilt your head.
Likewise, don’t twist when you’re watching TV. Your torso shouldn’t be going in one direction and your feet and legs in another. Sit in a firm, comfortable chair with adequate lumbar support. Position the TV so you don’t have to lean forward to see it.
Protect your back
Steer clear of situations in which you have to pick up heavy objects.
When traveling, pack two lighter bags instead of one heavy one. Carry one bag in each hand. You can also get a suitcase with wheels so you can pull the weight instead of lugging it.
If you have young children, have them climb up on a stool or chair so you don’t have to bend down to lift them.
In the winter, condition yourself to shoveling snow. “Do light shoveling initially, and get someone else to finish,” says Dr. McLaughlin. “You can shovel more with each snowfall, if they’re frequent.”
A general rule, if you have a bad back, don’t exert yourself to the point at which you know you’ll be sore the next day.
Use pain drugs wisely
If you have a back flare-up, take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, right away and continue to take it.