By Ryan Jones, DPT, CSCS and Erin Higins, DPT
If you've never suffered from low back pain knock on wood! Research suggests that 80% of people will experience some type of back pain during their lifetime and about 40% of individuals will have pain severe enough to force them to miss work and seek medical management. While discussing all there is to know about back pain is well beyond the scope of this article, the aim of this article is to provide you with enough information to improve your overall awareness and limit your risk for back pain.
The causes of back pain are endless. A bulging disc, strained muscle, pinched nerve, stress fracture, even systemic disease could be the culprit. Everyone's situation is different so resist the temptation to take advice from a fellow sufferer. If a few days of rest/ice/anti-inflammatories don't put a stop to your pain it is wise to seek the counsel of a medical professional.
One of the most important ways to prevent back pain is to use proper posture. For instance, when standing keep a light abdominal contraction at all times so that you can maintain neutral pelvic alignment. That means keep your back straight and avoid an excessive curve in your low back. This will protect your spine and decrease the pressure on the surrounding structures. Additionally, proper sitting posture is essential, especially if you have a desk job. All the strength training in the world will not help if you spend 40+ hours a week sitting with bad posture and increased stress on your spine. To protect your back, keep your hips and knees level and your feet flat on the floor. Having your hips or knees bent too much will cause you to slouch and may contribute to back pain. A chair with good back support will help keep you upright, decrease muscle fatigue, and help your spine maintain ideal neutral alignment.
When lifting heavy objects, the adage of "lift with your legs, not your back" is essential. Make an effort to keep your abs/core tight so that you keep your back as straight as you can. Too much bending at your trunk will put excess stress on your spine and back muscles, putting you at risk for injuries such as a bulging or herniated disc, lumbar facet dysfunction, or muscle strain. Additionally, hold the weight close to your body and avoid twisting motions while carrying heavy loads in order to protect your spine/back from injury. Follow these same postural cues when exercising, especially when performing circuit-type workouts or heavy lifting. By maintaining a light core contraction and assuming correct standing and lifting posture while completing your exercises you can greatly reduce the likelihood of injury or at least prevent exacerbating an existing back injury