If you’ve ever experienced a sore back, you have plenty of company. About 80 percent of adults experience back pain at some point in their lives, making it the second most common pain condition in the U.S. — right behind headaches — according to the National Institutes of Health.
While back pain has many causes and manifests in different ways, from a dull ache to a sharp pain, the good news is that lower back pain usually gets better within a few days or weeks, and surgery is rarely needed.
“There are some simple lifestyle changes that can help you prevent back pain altogether,” says Ryan Barenchi, MD, a family medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic Encinitas. “Strengthening your back muscles and the supporting core muscles will help, as will being knowledgeable about common causes of pain and how they can be avoided.”
Try these tips to strengthen your back and prevent pain.
You may think staying still and resting is the best remedy for a sore back, but regular physical activity eases inflammation and muscle tension. Low-impact exercise such as walking or swimming increases strength so your back muscles function more efficiently. Include core-strengthening exercises to develop stronger abdominal muscles, which also protect your back by providing greater support.
Yoga can be especially helpful because it promotes deep breathing and relaxation, as well as emphasizing stretching and muscle strength. Stay away from sit-ups, leg lifts and toe touches if you have chronic back pain.
Extra pounds can make back pain worse by shifting your center of gravity and putting strain on your back.
“High heels can shift your center of gravity and strain your lower back,” says Dr. Barenchi.
Smoking increases the risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to a weaker spine and subsequent back pain.
If you can, avoid sleeping on your back or stomach, since these positions add additional strain on your lower back. If you do sleep on your back, try putting a pillow under your knees for more support, and if you have to sleep on your stomach, place a pillow under your hips. Your doctor can help advise you about the best sleeping position if you have questions.
You have probably seen pictures or graphic representations of the best way to lift items to prevent straining your back. Always bend at the knees to pick up something, with your feet shoulder-width apart, rather than bending at the waist to reach down to the object with your arms. Holding the object close to your body, slowly straighten your legs, keeping your back straight. Avoid twisting your back in any way while lifting objects.
“Never lift an object that is too heavy for you,” adds Dr. Barenchi.
Standing and sitting up straight will help you avoid putting undue strain on your back. When standing, your ears, shoulders, hips and knees should all be in line with one another. Try walking around with a book on your head to see what proper posture feels like. If you are sitting, make sure you have a chair with good back support, and keep your knees and hips level. Never slouch or lean to the side.
Spending hours at work hunched over a desk can put undue stress on the back. Keep your feet flat on the floor and change your position regularly. “Sitting in one position for hours at a time is not healthy,” says Dr. Barenchi. “Take breaks by standing and walking around and stretching.” Consider a standing or treadmill desk as well.