The back is one of the most important elements of the body; in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, you must look after your back.
Since back pain affects 8 out of 10 Americans in their lifetime, here are nine simple steps you can take to relieve some of the symptoms and improve your back today.
Table of contents
Table of contents
Just remember these are suggestions and it’s always best to speak with a doctor before starting any exercise regimen, changing your diet or lifestyle, and altering your habits.
1. Improve your posture to reduce neck pain and back fatigue
On average, we spend two to four hours a day on our phones; thus leading to longer-term problems, and lifelong bad posture.
Recently, the term ‘text neck’ was coined to describe the pain and damage that results from prolonged periods of looking down at phones or tablets.
Based on his research hear Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, explain to HLN news network how texting can cause back pain:
Looking at cell phones is not the only activity that requires the head and neck to be at an unnatural angle. Looking down to read is something we’ve done for years and it has the same impact on the neck and spine.
Dr. Leah Concannon from the University of Washington explains:
If the head is constantly forward, such as when you slouch, the weight of gravity has to be countered by muscles in the back of your neck and shoulders, and over time this leads to muscle fatigue and possibly pain.
What is posture and when is it considered ‘good’?
The Harvard Medical School describes posture as the way in which you hold your body, whether you’re sitting or standing, but also when you are performing activities, like bending or reaching. When you have good posture, the spine (and vertebrae) is correctly aligned.
Understanding good posture is important for maintaining or improving your back health.
Early action is crucial to prevent further damage and is particularly important for growing children.
2. Change your position frequently and introduce regular stretching at your desk
Repetitive activities, like sitting at a computer all day or lifting, may produce tension in the muscles, resulting in a backache. The antidote to this is changing your position frequently, as well as regular stretching to relieve the tension.
If you have a desk job, the following video shows the ten best desk exercises you should do throughout the workday:
In tandem with regular stretching during the workday, adults should make sure they are sitting in the proper desk posture since they can spend eight hours a day at their workstation.
3. Incorporate regular and low impact exercise to your routine
We all know that regular exercise is good for your health, but few people realize the positive effects exercise can have on back pain.
Remember though, consult your doctor before beginning any exercise regime or changing your routine.
Exercise benefits for the back depend upon the following principles:
- Partaking in satisfactory aerobic exercise for 30 minutes several times per week
- Focusing on muscle groups that support the back
- Avoiding any exercise that puts excessive strain on the back
Of these, walking is the most commonly prescribed exercise and professionals acknowledge it delivers many benefits for easing lower back pain.
Walking, as well as other forms of exercise, has many inherent health benefits for the back – and the body – such as strengthening muscles that increase spinal stability, nourish spinal structures and helps with controlling weight.
In addition to increasing low-impact aerobic exercise, developing strong abdominal muscles can help prevent back pain because it teaches you proper spinal alignment and makes you less prone to back injuries.
According to the Harvard Medical School, the other ‘core muscles’ that help form a central link between your upper and lower body are the back, side, pelvis and buttocks.
As with all forms of exercise, be careful not to over do it, you are just working to keep your back, as well as yourself, more mobile.
4. Evaluate your dietary choices and make changes where necessary
In late 2015, chiropractor Todd Sinett, author of “3 Weeks to A Better Back” was featured on Fox News and a number of other media outlets.
Dr. Sinett made a discovery when his late father, who was also a chiropractor, put his back out and was bedridden for nine months:
His discovery was the link between diet and back pain.
To find out how this simple dietary lifestyle change may help to ease chronic back pain, watch the short video below:
The first example in the video focuses on the chiropractor’s late father and the profound impact cutting sugar and caffeine out of his diet had on his lifestyle in just one month.
Dr. Sinett explains:
Sugar, gluten, dairy, caffeine and alcohol… what those foods specifically do for the general population is they elevate the levels of cortisol. Cortisol is an inflammatory factor in your body so when you have elevated levels off cortisol it raises the inflammatory factor, creating pain.
The idea of foods causing or reducing levels of pain isn’t a new one, but research is constantly evolving. And it’s not only a case of some increasing inflammation, a number of foods have been shown to actually reduce inflammation.
Foods that can cause inflammation:
- Refined carbohydrates: i.e. white bread, pastries, white rice, white potatoes, and many cereals
- Sugary foods: i.e. jelly beans to sweetened yogurt
- Dairy products: especially for those who have issues processing lactose and/or casein
- Gluten: found in wheat, rye, barley, and any foods made with these grains
- Fried foods: i.e. French fries, onion rings, and potato chips
- Saturated fats: i.e. Cheese, pizza, full fat dairy products
- Trans fats*: e.g. not all but certain margarines, potato chips, cookies, pies, donuts
- Red meats: i.e. burgers, steaks and processed meat (like hot dogs and sausage), especially commercially produced meats
- Alcohol: drinking too much can lead to inflammation
*Many producers now make trans-free versions of these products.
Foods that may fight inflammation:
- Fatty fish: i.e. salmon and tuna
- Nuts and seeds: particularly almonds, walnuts and flaxseed
- Green leafy vegetables: i.e. spinach, kale, and collards
- Garlic and onions
- Berries: i.e. blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries among others
- Olive oil
5. Choose footwear that supports good posture during the day and is designed for your chosen exercise
It should come as no surprise that footwear has an impact on your spinal alignment, and consequently, your back health. Dr. John M. Giurini explains the importance of choosing the right shoes, not just for your feet, but for your back:
Feet are like the foundation of a building; they are the foundation of the body. If the feet are mechanically unsound, they can change the alignment of all the structures above them.
Doctors and podiatrists discourage people from wearing high heels because they result in a more unstable posture, thus increasing pressure on your lower spine.
If you have to wear heels, you should try to limit wearing them while walking, ensure they have a thicker heel and wear soft insoles, according to osteopathic physician Dr. Natalie Nevins.
Flip flops are another shoe type that doctors acknowledge does not provide adequate support, which can lead to an array of problems related to stress and strain on joints and tendons.
For activities, such as running and walking, shoes with shock absorption are recommended because the shoe absorbs more shock, lessening what is absorbed by lower extremities, including the back.
Running shoes begin to lose their shock absorption after 400 miles, this is a good time to replace them. When purchasing running shoes, try to visit a specialist retailer who can offer gait analysis to ensure you are wearing a pair optimized for your feet.
In this video you can see advice on how to choose the appropriate running shoe:
Always take into consideration that sports shoes are not made to multi-task. Therefore you should choose appropriate footwear designed specifically for your relevant exercise.
6. Pay attention when lifting items and adapt your stance to protect the back
Lifting items is a commonplace task for most people and an incorrect stance – especially when lifting heavy items – can lead to injuries or problems for the back.
Watch the video below, from the Atlantic Physical Therapy Center, explaining dos and don’ts when lifting objects:
Spine-health advises the following actions when lifting:
- Keep the chest forward: Although it is important to bend at the knees, this form alone can lead to injuries. When bending, make sure to also bend at the hips and push the chest out.
- Lead with the hips, not the shoulders: Twisting is dangerous when holding heavy objects. If you need to turn, make sure the shoulders are kept in line with the hips, but always move the hips first.
- Keep the weight close to the body: When you hold an object further from your body, it requires more force to hold it up. Make sure you hold objects as close to your center of gravity as possible.
Tips for how to avoid back injuries:
- Take small breaks between lifts
- Make sure you have enough room to lift safely
- Don’t rely on a back belt to protect you.
- And most simply, don’t overdo it.
7. Make sure your workstation is optimized for you
Because most of us spend eight hours a day, on average, sitting at the computer, it’s important that your desk space is optimized for your body.
Sitting for long periods of time can cause strain to your back and neck and conscious efforts to prevent excessive problems or strain are not wasted.
To prevent hunching forward at your desk, you should make sure your computer isn’t too far away and that your mouse is within an easy reach.
A supportive desk chair is equally as important. A good chair should support your lower back and allow for your feet to be firmly planted on the floor.
Additionally, the University of Washington states that the proper sitting posture requires:
- Feet flat on the floor (or propped on a footstool if needed)
- Knees should be level with hips or even slightly higher
- Sit back in the chair so your spine is supported
- Shoulders should be relaxed, not pulled upward or elevated
- Ears should align with the shoulders
- Shoulders should not be rounded or hunched
- Computer screens should be at eye level so the neck can remain neutral
If you find yourself slouching at work or leaning up to see your computer, remember to sit back and straighten your back. Don’t forget to take regular stretching breaks and change your position. Poor posture is often the result of bad habits, so make sure to constantly check in with your back and correct your posture if you notice yourself slipping back into your bad habits. By doing this you will save yourself from future back and neck aches.
8. Check that your sleeping positions and mattress support the back
We spend a third of our lives sleeping, and because of this, we should not neglect the impact of sleeping positions or mattresses on back health.
The Mayo Clinic recommends the following sleeping positions:
- Side: If you sleep on your side, by slightly drawing your legs up towards the chest and placing a pillow between your legs, you will take the strain off your back.
- Back: When sleeping on the back, a pillow under the knees will help maintain the natural curvature of the spine. A small, rolled towel under the small of the back can help relieve additional pressure and provides further support. Make sure a pillow supports your neck.
- Stomach: Sleeping on your stomach can be very hard on the back. To reduce any unnecessary strain, keep a pillow under the pelvis and lower abdomen, which raises the lower back to maintain a more neutral spinal position. If using a pillow causes strain on the back or neck, try sleeping without one.
Sleeping on your stomach puts your neck in a more extended, rotated position — because you can’t sleep face down — and that puts the most strain on your joints.
Polivka also recommends taking a few minutes before getting out of bed to allow the body to wake up and give it some much needed stretches, which can help prevent injuries.
While sleeping positions are an important factor for the back, you must also consider the mattress.
Supportive mattresses are better for the back and ones where you can choose different levels of support work best for partners because each person can take into account differences in body structure to provide maximum comfort for both.
This video from Howcast explains the steps to take to ensure you choose a mattress that is best for you:
Choosing the right mattress can be very difficult, given the sheer number and types available on the market.
Spine Health states that personal preference is a determining factor when choosing a mattress. Any mattress that helps you sleep better and does not induce any pain or stiffness is the best mattress for you.
Experts suggest you understand and inquire about the physical components of the mattress, as well as finding one that provides enough support for the natural curves and alignment of the spine.
Although there is not much clinical data about the best mattress types for relieving back pain, one study found that medium-firm mattresses tended to provide more relief than firmer mattresses.
This is because medium-firm mattresses allow the shoulders and hips to sink in slightly, achieving a balance between support and comfort.
Finally, you should know when to buy a new mattress. If your mattress is visibly sagging in the middle, or no longer comfortable, you should invest in a new one before it causes further pain.
With the new generation of mattress producers, many now offer free home trials allowing customers to now try their products in the comfort of their own homes. Below are three of the most popular high-quality mattresses designed to offer relief from chronic back pain:
- The Saatva Mattress (innerspring and memory foam)
- The Helix Mattress (natural latex, microcoils and memory foam)
- The Bear Mattress (proprietary technology and gel-infused memory foam)
Remember, if you suffer from severe back pain at night, this may be a sign something more serious than your sleeping position or mattress. Back pain that is worse at night or wakes you from a deep sleep are symptoms that should be evaluated by a physician.
9. Quit smoking to encourage better back health – and the rest of your body will thank you
A Northwestern Medicine study discovered a link between smoking and chronic back pain.
The study was carried out by researchers from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern and was funded by The National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Bogdan Petre, lead author of the study and a technical scientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine explains:
We found that it [smoking] affects the way the brain responds to back pain and seems to make individuals less resilient to an episode of pain.
This is the first evidence that links pain to the two brain areas associated with addiction.
Because the study observed patients over time, it cannot prove smoking causes a transition to chronic back pain, but does highlight the potential links of smoking and back pain.
This link is the same for men and women, as well as manual laborers and white-collar workers.
Although this is not the only report to note a link between smoking and pain, scientists admit they are not entirely sure why smokers are more likely to develop chronic back pain.
Despite the possibility of unclear links between smoking and chronic pain, health professionals agree that quitting smoking might help to banish back pain, and of course dramatically lowers the risk of heart disease, cancer and many other associated health problems.
Therefore kicking a smoking habit could encourage a healthier back, as well as a healthier lifestyle.
- Shoshany, S. (2015) A Modern Spine Ailment: Text Neck. [Online] Available from: http://www.spine-health.com/blog/modern-spine-ailment-text-neck [Accessed 11 July 2016]. ↩
- Shoshany, S. (see footnote 1) ↩
- Shoshany, S. (see footnote 1) ↩
- Harvard Medical School (2016) 4 ways to turn good posture into less back pain. [Online] Available from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/4-ways-to-turn-good-posture-into-less-back-pain [Accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Kolettis, G. J. (2015) The Best Exercises for Low Back Pain. [Online] Available from: http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/back-pain/low-back-pain/best-exercises-low-back-pain [Accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Kolettis, G. J. (see footnote 5) ↩
- Kolettis, G. J. (see footnote 5) ↩
- Forcum, T. and Hyde, T. E. (2004) Exercise Walking for Better Back Health. [Online] Available from: http://www.spine-health.com/wellness/exercise/exercise-walking-better-back-health [Accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Keys, G. (2016) Building Core Strength to Reduce Back Pain. [Online] Available from: http://www.spineuniverse.com/wellness/exercise/building-core-strength-reduce-back-pain [Accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Forcum, T. and Hyde, T. E. (see footnote 8) ↩
- Watson, S. (2012) 10 Ways to Manage Low Back Pain at Home. [Online] Available from: http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/features/manage-low-back-pain-home [Accessed 12 July 2016]. ↩
- Appold, K. (2014) How You Can Eat to Beat Back Pain. [Online] Available from: http://www.everydayhealth.com/news/can-good-diet-fight-back-pain/ [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Appold, K. (see footnote 12) ↩
- Mitchell, T. D. (2013) 9 Foods That Cause Inflammation. [Online] Available from: http://www.chicagonow.com/get-fit-chicago/2013/09/9-foods-that-cause-inflammation/ [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Sly, B. (2013) An Athlete’s Guide to Inflammation: What to Eat and What to Avoid. [Online] Available from: http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/an-athletes-guide-to-inflammation-what-to-eat-and-what-to-avoid [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Arthritis Foundation (2015) 8 Food Ingredients That Can Cause Inflammation. [Online] Available from: http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/foods-to-avoid-limit/food-ingredients-and-inflammation.php [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Sly, B. (see footnote 15) ↩
- Arthritis Foundation (see footnote 16) ↩
- The Nutrition Source, Harvard School of Public Health (2013) Shining the Spotlight on Trans Fats. [Online] Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/transfats/ [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Harvard Medical School (2015) Foods that fight inflammation. [Online] Available from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Sly, B. (see footnote 15) ↩
- Kotz, D. (2009) Building a Diet That Lowers Inflammation. [Online] Available from: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/diet-fitness/articles/2009/11/02/building-a-diet-that-lowers-inflammation [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Kotz, D. (see footnote 22) ↩
- MacMillan, A. (2013) 14 Foods That Fight Inflammation. [Online] Available from: http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20705881,00.html [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Johnson, R. (2008) Inflammatory Foods. [Online] Available from: http://www.eatingwell.com/nutrition_health/heart_health/inflammatory_foods?page=3 [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- Harvard Medical School (see footnote 20) ↩
- MacMillan, A. (see footnote 24) ↩
- MacMillan, A. (see footnote 24) ↩
- Weisensale, A. (2014) Berry Berry Beneficial: Reduce Inflammation with Fruit. [Online] Available from: http://extension.psu.edu/health/news/2014/berry-berry-beneficial-reduce-inflammation-with-fruit [Accessed 13 July 2016]. ↩
- MacMillan, A. (see footnote 24) ↩
- Watson, S. (see footnote 11) ↩
- The Science Of Eating (2015) This Is What Happens To Your Feet When You Wear High Heels. [Online] Available from: http://thescienceofeating.com/2015/06/10/dangers-of-high-heels-how-they-affect-the-body/ [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (2016) Are Your Shoes Causing Your Back Pain?. [Online] Available from: http://www.bidmc.org/YourHealth/Health-Notes/Back-Pain/PreventionManagement/Are-Your-Shoes-Causing-Your-Back-Pain.aspx [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Foot & Ankle Center Of Washington (2015) Solutions Using Foot Orthotics for Back Pain and Hip Pain. [Online] Available from: https://www.footankle.com/back-hip-knee-pain/back-pain-feet/ [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Frank, C. (2005) 10 Tips for Choosing Athletic Shoes. [Online] Available from: http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/how-choose-athletic-shoes/ [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- American Academy of Family Physicians (2010) Lifting Safety: Tips to Help Prevent Back Injuries. [Online] Available from: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/prevention-wellness/staying-healthy/first-aid/lifting-safety-tips-to-help-prevent-back-injuries.html [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Watson, S. (see footnote 11) ↩
- Mar, J. (2014) Slouching…So Wrong but it Feels So Right. [Online] Available from: https://www.washington.edu/wholeu/2014/08/26/posture/ [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Mar, J. (see footnote 38) ↩
- Shaw, G. (2016) Back Pain Dos and Don’ts. [Online] Available from: http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/features/back-dos-donts [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Shaw, G. (see footnote 40) ↩
- Talbot Sellers, J. (2008) Choosing the Best Mattress for Lower Back Pain. [Online] Available from: http://www.spine-health.com/wellness/sleep/choosing-best-mattress-lower-back-pain [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Talbot Sellers, J. (see footnote 42) ↩
- Ted & Stacey’s Mattress Guides & Reviews (2015) Best Mattress For Chronic Back Pain Finally Revealed. [Online] Available from: http://www.mattress-guides.net/top-premium-mattresses-chronic-lower-back-pain/ [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Ray, C. D. (2011) Should I See a Doctor for Back Pain?. [Online] Available from: http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/lower-back-pain/should-i-see-a-doctor-back-pain [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- Woolston, C. (2016) Back Pain and Smoking. [Online] Available from: https://consumer.healthday.com/encyclopedia/back-care-6/backache-news-53/back-pain-and-smoking-645336.html [Accessed 14 July 2016]. ↩
- NHS Choices (see footnote 46) ↩
- Woolston, C. (see footnote 47) ↩