SpineToday Frequently Asked Questions
9 Tips for a Healthy Back
- Exercise regularly to improve overall health and reduce the chance of back pain.
To stay healthy, your spine needs a regular regimen of stretching, strengthening and aerobic conditioning exercises, such as swimming, yoga, light weights and walking. Without exercise, your muscles can become weak and deconditioned, which can lead to back pain and injury. Work with a spine specialist to find the right exercises to help you stay healthy, strong, stress- and pain-free.
- Do not smoke!
Many spine experts report that smokers are prone to more back pain than nonsmokers. It is believed that smoking restricts blood flow to the discs that cushion your vertebrae, reduces calcium absorption and prevents new bone growth. Many spine surgeons are reluctant to perform certain surgeries, such as fusion, on patients who smoke because it can prevent or slow healing.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
Extra weight, particularly in the mid-section or belly, shifts your body’s center of gravity forward and places unneeded strain on your back muscles and the surrounding tissues. It also is possible to be too thin, as extreme thinness can be accompanied by low bone mass and place you at risk for osteoporosis. Working with your doctor, determine your ideal body weight and try and stay within 10 pounds of that weight.
- Keep your core muscles strong.
Weak or tight “core” (back and abdominal) muscles cannot support your back properly, leading to pain and injury risk. Work with a spine specialist to find exercises that stretch and strengthen your back and abdominal muscles, such as yoga or Pilates.
- Use proper body mechanics when you lift, bend
If you must lift or move something heavy, do it safely. Find a partner to share the load. Instead of pulling or lifting a heavy object, push it. To reduce stress on the lower spine and reduce injuries, squat close to the object, keep its weight close to your body and keep your back straight and head up—do not bend over to lift.
- Check and alter your posture frequently while using your laptop, smartphone or tablet.
Thanks to technology, injuring our backs has never been easier! Hunching over our tablets, smartphones and laptops all day and night can cause painful neck and back strain. Being “connected” 24 hours a day can actually add stress to our lives, which can lead to back pain. If you want to limit your back pain, limit your electronic gadget usage. If you must use your gadgets, keep a neutral posture, with the screen at eye level whenever possible. Get up, stretch and take a walk every 30 minutes or so.
- Reduce stress.
There is a strong connection between stress and back
pain. The “fight or flight” response our body has to stress can cause back muscles to tighten or spasm painfully.
It’s critical to reduce stress as much as possible, even if
it means turning off the smartphone after work, seeing a therapist, learning relaxation techniques or exercising more regularly. By managing stress well, we can help prevent back pain from occurring in the first place.
- Keep healthy, strong bones by taking calcium, vitamin D and doing weight-bearing exercises.
Because our spine has 33 of our body’s 206 bones, our back’s health is linked to our overall bone health. To reduce the chance of your bones thinning (osteoporosis), check with your health provider or spine specialist about how much bone-building calcium and Vitamin D you need. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, yoga and lifting light weights will create forces on the bone that trigger increased bone density, which is beneficial.
- Moderation! Minimize the intense “weekend warrior” sports or housework activities.
If you work hard Monday through Friday, do not declare “war” on your back by doing intense exercise or household chores on the weekend. You’re likely to end up calling in sick on Monday because of painful muscle strain. Your best bet to stay healthy and pain-free is to pace yourself throughout the week on your chores and exercise. A regular regimen of stretching, strengthening and aerobic conditioning is better for your back than a single burst of intense exercise.
Dispelling Myths about Spine Problems
Myth 1: Exercise causes back pain.
Reality Checkup: Strenuous “weekend warrior” exercise can cause back pain, but regular, moderate exercise can help you avoid pain. To stay healthy, your spine needs a regular regimen of stretching, strengthening and aerobic conditioning exercises, such as swimming, yoga, light weights and walking. Without exercise, muscles can become weak and de-conditioned, leading to back pain and injury. Work with a spine specialist to find the right mix of exercise to help you stay healthy, strong and pain-free.
Myth 2: Surgery will cure back pain completely.
Reality Checkup: Spine surgery can correct deformities or injuries, reduce pain and improve function. Most patients report pain improvement and can return to normal activity. However, some surgery patients experience only partial relief and a rare few describe their pain as “worse.” That is why an accurate diagnosis is critical to ensure a proper treatment course is selected. For example, spine surgery may not relieve your pain if you smoke or if your pain is actually caused by pain from a hip joint problem.
Myth 3: If I have spine surgery, I’ll have to keep having spine surgery the rest of my life.
Reality Checkup: Most patients do not end up having multiple surgeries. By the time a spine expert suggests that surgery may ease your pain, a clear diagnosis should have been made and conservative treatments, including time, pain medicine and physical or rehabilitative therapy, have been tried. In all but the most severe or emergency cases, spine surgery is an option—you are in control and can decide whether you want surgery.
Myth 4: Spine surgery has too many risks, including paralysis.
Reality Checkup: With any surgery, there is a risk of complications, such as blood clots and infection. Paralysis—one of the most feared complications of spine surgery—is also one of the least likely to occur, since most common spine surgeries do not involve the spinal cord. Today’s sophisticated surgical instruments, imaging devices and monitoring equipment provide surgeons with unprecedented access and views into the spine, making spine surgery safer than ever. Thoroughly discuss the risks and benefits of surgery with your spine specialist.
Myth 5: Bed rest is the best cure for back pain.
Reality Checkup: Bed rest can make your back pain worse! Inactivity can cause your back to become de-conditioned, weak and stiff. The helpless feeling of lying in bed all day can have emotional effects as well, causing depression or fear of movement, which could make a pain episode last longer. To reduce back pain, spine experts recommend no more than a day or two of bed rest to calm the pain and avoid further damage, followed by moderate, gentle exercise.
Myth 6: If I see a spine specialist, I’ll end up getting surgery.
Reality Checkup: First, not all spine specialists are
surgeons. Physiatrists, neurologists, physical therapists, anesthesiologists and others provide nonsurgical treatment of spinal conditions and pain. In fact, 90% of the care—including care provided by surgeons—is nonsurgical. Second, spine surgery is recommended in only a very small percentage of cases, with very specific diagnoses, after a more conservative course of treatment has been tried.