If you’ve ever had a sore back, you have a lot of company. Eight out of 10 adults experience back pain at some point in their lives.
Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden sharp pain. The good news is that lower back pain usually goes away on its own and surgery is rarely needed.
“Simple lifestyle changes can help you prevent back pain,” says Gregory Mundis, MD, a spine surgeon at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines. “Strengthening your back and core muscles will help and so will learning 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 are the best remedies 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. 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.
Include core-strengthening exercises to develop stronger abdominal muscles, which also protect your back by providing greater support. If your core muscles are weak, your back has to work harder to pick up the slack, especially on the lower back. “It’s important to maintain the back and core muscles long before you start having back pain,” Dr. Mundis says.
Strengthening your core also can improve your posture, which in turn can help relieve 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.
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’ve probably seen pictures or illustrations showing the best ways to prevent a back strain when lifting something heavy. 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.
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. 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. Mundis. “Take breaks by standing and walking around and stretching.”
This applies even if you are working remotely as many people are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re working from home, you may be missing the ergonomic workspace you had in your office. If so, you may benefit from learning more about desktop ergonomics.
Surgery should be your last option, but it may be the best one for specific conditions, such as a compressed nerve or a collapsed or slipped disc.
Spine surgeons may treat many of these conditions with minimally invasive surgery, which involves one or more small incisions instead of a large incision. The surgeon inserts a tube with a tiny camera through one of the incisions and, guided by images on a video screen, performs the procedure using very slim surgical instruments inserted through the incisions.
Compared to standard open surgeries, multiple studies have shown that minimally invasive procedures may result in less blood loss, less pain after surgery, and reduced scarring. Recovery time often is faster as well.