Watch your back
Every part of your body plays an important role in your daily activities. But in many ways your back is the center of the action. Whether you're picking up a bag of groceries, taking a walk or simply feeling the warmth of the sun, all of your movements and sensations rely on your back in some way.
That's why a back massage can relax and rejuvenate your entire body. It's also why a back injury can affect your entire life.
Don't settle for pain
Back pain and injury can happen to anyone. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), almost everyone feels the pain of a bad back at some point in life.
If you're one of these people, you might think of back pain as a fact of life. But according to the American Physical Therapy Association, most bad backs respond well to treatment. And most injuries can be prevented.
Your lower back is the most likely site for pain. It supports most of your weight and is continually under stress from bending, twisting and lifting. Even minor damage to any part of your back can put it out of balance and put you out of commission. And the biggest cause of this damage is the simple act of bending over.
"We call it 'poor back mechanics,'" says Claudia Thomas, MD, emeritus fellow of the AAOS. "It happens when you lean over without bending your knees, and then straighten up using your lower back as a lever." It puts the full weight of your upper body on your lower back, and this can cause injury—whether you're lifting anything or not.
Back pain can also come from a sudden or unexpected movement, overuse or not using your back muscles enough to keep them strong.
An ounce of prevention
It's no surprise, then, that one strategy for protecting your back is to stay in shape.
"Being fit helps," Dr. Thomas says. "Keeping your abdominal muscles strong helps protect your back from injury."
And using correct back mechanics is essential—always bend your knees when you bend your back. "For anything," Dr. Thomas says, even brushing your teeth.
The North American Spine Society (NASS) and other experts offer this additional advice for protecting your back:
- Lift with your legs, not your back. And keep the object you're lifting close to your body.
- Sit with your knees slightly higher than your hips.
- Push rather than pull heavy objects.
- Keep within 10 pounds of your ideal weight—being overweight puts more strain on your back.
- If you have to sit for a long time, take regular breaks and walk around.
- Get help if you have to lift a heavy object.
If you do hurt your back, the first treatment is often to just lie down and give it a rest.
"Initially, it's better to get the load off the back and let it do less work," Dr. Thomas says. "Make sure you're in the proper position—on your side or on your back with a pillow under your knees. Never on your stomach."
An over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help ease the pain. And heat can relax your muscles.
If you do lie down with back pain, get up as soon as possible—after no more than two days.
"Muscles can get weak and unsupportive," Dr. Thomas says. And too much bed rest can actually make the pain worse.
Once you're up, focus on getting in the best shape possible. Begin with gentle exercises to improve flexibility. Then move on to strengthening exercises. A physical therapist can help you get started, but fitness should be a lifelong habit.
When to get help
Back pain can usually be treated at home. But the NASS recommends that you call your doctor if your pain started after a fall or if it doesn't improve with home treatment. You should also call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
- Pain that extends down a leg.
- Numbness or weakness in your legs when you walk.
- Persistent bowel or bladder problems.
- Pain that increases if you lift your knee to your chest.
- Pain that gets worse when you rest or wakes you up at night.
Women with back pain who are past menopause should talk to their doctor about osteoporosis. This condition causes bones to become brittle and often affects the spine.
Keeping in balance
The wear and tear of normal aging can make your back more susceptible to injury and pain. But even these changes can be slowed with exercise and good back mechanics. Keep your back in balance—it will return the favor.