Back pain is a massive problem. Almost half of all chronic pain for women and over a third of chronic pain for men is back pain. That’s millions of lives affected every single day around the world. Although some back pain is the result of illness or injury, much of it is because people ignore the simple solutions.
There are some results of getting older, such as a few wrinkles, that you have to accept in the end; back pain isn’t one of them.
The first thing to remember is that prevention is better than cure. If you don’t have a bad back now, you can significantly reduce your chances of being in pain later. If you’re already in pain, you can take steps to prevent it getting worse. The first thing you need to do is pay attention to your core muscles. These are the muscles in the area between your hips and your chest: their job is to keep your body safe while you’re moving and lifting and pulling. Picture a skeleton: there’s the ribs, and below them there’s the pelvis, but in between there’s a single length of spine. If you twisted or bent that skeleton, you know exactly where it would snap. To prevent you from breaking in half you have your core muscles.
Strengthening your core is not about having a six pack or even a flat tummy. Those might be great fitness goals, but they’re not necessary to prevent back pain. You really don’t need to do 500 sit-ups or plank for 5 minutes; strengthening your core means doing some simple exercises regularly. Anything based on Pilates is good. Search for a tutorial that doesn’t involve weights or gym equipment (and avoid anything that talks about working until you’re exhausted).
Your core muscles do a great job of protecting your back from injury. But a strong core can’t help you if your back is rigid and inflexible.
Remember: use it or lose it.
If you don’t use your spine in a range of different movements then you’ll lose flexibility. So stretch regularly – first thing in the morning is essential (there’s a reason that you naturally want to stretch when you wake up) but try and fit in a couple of stretching sessions throughout the day. This is even more important if you sit still for hours at work.
In the past doctors regularly recommended rest for back pain. If you’ve injured yourself, then of course your body needs time to heal. But chronic pain is helped by exercise, which is why most doctors now prescribe physiotherapy rather than bed rest. You don’t need to run a marathon or take up gymnastics; going for a walk, swimming or dancing around the house are great news for your back. The point is to move your spine regularly and often.
When you’re not moving, the simple solution to back pain is to think about how you’re staying still. This means being aware of your posture and correcting it if necessary. If you’re sitting down, your ear, your shoulder and your hip should be in a straight line. If you’re standing, your ankle should be in the same line. One of the simplest ways to correct your posture is to picture a thread attached to the crown of your head. Now imagine yourself being pulled up by that thread as if you were a puppet. This naturally lengthens the back of your neck, drops your shoulders and enables your core to take the strain. Good posture is not just for work – it’s no good carefully adjusting the monitor on your desk and then spending the evening slumped in front of the TV.
Finally, if you do have back pain, don’t suffer in silence. There are plenty of remedies available, from hot or cold packs to massage (though do consult your doctor or physiotherapist before trying something new if you’ve been in pain for a long time). There are some results of getting older, such as a few wrinkles, that you have to accept in the end; back pain isn’t one of them. It’s not inevitable and you shouldn’t feel you simply have to put up with it.
You can take simple steps to prevent or reduce back pain. Strengthen your core because prevention is better than cure, and keep your spine moving because if you don’t use that flexibility then you’ll lose it. Think about your posture throughout the day, and if you do get back problems, don’t just accept them – solve them.