Keys to alleviating back pain include exercise, good posture, stretching

Protect your spine by working it out
An estimated 80 percent of Americans see a doctor at some point in their lives for back pain.

For most of us, the cause of the pain is simply muscle or back strain.

And in 90 percent of those cases, the pain will go away with the help of anti-inflammatory drugs, pain relievers and a few days of rest.

But many people who have experienced one episode of back pain are likely to have another.

Then it's easy to fall into the mind-set of "having a bad back." Afraid of hurting your back again, you become less active. And the less active you are, the weaker your back becomes.

The cause of the initial strain probably is not the heavy box you lifted out of the car trunk ? though that may have been when something went "ping" and the pain began.

The true cause of most back pain is simply sedentary living in general.

We slouch at our desks all week, and then expect our backs to perform when we bend over to lift our children out of car seats or play a game of golf once a month.

The good news is you can potentially avoid the chronic back pain so many people assume is an inevitable part of growing older.

The prescription: Get moving
"Back pain is a cry for help from your body. It's your body saying, 'Something is wrong here,' and you've got to fix the whole thing," said Richard Bryant, a physical therapist who specializes in orthopedics.

There is no quick fix.

"People want to hear that there is some great new exercise to make your back stronger," he said.

The key to preventing back pain is not in any one exercise but in the commitment to a lifelong exercise plan that includes strength training, stretching and aerobics.

Women in particular are guilty of focusing too much on aerobic exercise alone, Bryant said.

Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or running, can help prevent osteoporosis, which can also cause debilitating back pain, later in life.

But strength training also helps prevent the loss of bone density and muscle mass.

And it's not just the "mirror muscles" ? those that make your arms look good and your stomach flat ? that are important, said Dr. Edward Pratt, a Memphis, Tenn. orthopedic surgeon.

The goal is to strengthen your entire trunk as well as the legs.

Stretch the body, work the abs
Flexibility is also important to avoid the stiffness that makes it more difficult to maintain good posture.

Aerobics instructor Marilyn Cummings, said she injured her back body-surfing 15 years ago but has kept pain at bay by doing "core strength" exercises as part of her overall fitness routine.

The exercises, which she includes along with abdominal work in her aerobics classes, include back strengthening and yoga-influenced stretching with slow, deliberate movements.

"It's a preventive measure more than a cure," she said. "If your muscles are strong and support your body, you're less likely to be injured."

But Cummings said such exercises are not for everyone.

"If you have injured your back, the first thing to do is see a doctor," she said.

Warning signs that back pain might be a symptom of a serious problem include:

  • The loss of bowel or bladder control.

  • Radiating pain below the elbow or knee.

  • Numbness or tingling below the elbow or knee.

  • Loss of appetite or weight, coughing-up or passing blood.

    Back specialists say its best to see someone who understands the physiology of the back, such as a chiropractor or physical therapist, before starting a new exercise program.

    Kelly Lee, senior physical therapist at the Campbell Clinic Orthopedics in Memphis, said she puts most patients with back problems into a program that works on strengthening and stretching the abdominals, legs, hips and back.

    "Many people think doing a bunch of sit-ups is enough. But standard sit-ups will not strengthen the lower abdominals, which are crucial for back strength," said Angela Redden, Campbell Clinic's exercise physiologist.

    One way to work the lower abdominals is with leg lifts, making sure the back is pressed flat to the mat.

    "Getting the form right is the thing," Redden said.

    Good posture? always
    In fact, good posture is another key to good back health ? and not only when sitting still.

    Lee said she spends a lot of time working with patients on maintaining "neutral spine position" while they exercise.

    For example, when walking the tendency is to either arch the back or slouch forward. Good neutral posture is somewhere in between, with the back aligned with the shoulders and hips.

    Poor posture at rest is also a cause of back pain.

    Sitting in a car or in front of a computer for hours strains the back and neck.

    Pratt said he sees a lot of patients with chronic neck pain and headaches that are the result of sitting improperly at a computer with the chin jutting out. "It's a default position so many people fall into, but it's a problem," he said.

    Doctors and physical therapists recommend taking a break from sitting. At least once every hour, stand up, walk around and stretch your back if possible.

    Improper lifting is also a common source of back pain.

    To lift correctly, use your legs: Start with one knee on the ground, maneuver the object as close to your body as possible, raise the object to mid-thigh, then stand up while using leg strength, keeping your back straight. Don't bend at the waist.

    "I always tell people to lift everything twice," Pratt said. "Lift it in your mind first. Plan it out before you grab on and tug."

    Some back problems can be blamed on degenerative changes that occur in the spine as we get older.

    The discs in our spine settle and wear out as we age, often causing us to lose height.

    "We pay for walking on two feet instead of four," Pratt said.

    "But that doesn't necessarily have to result in back pain. There are lots of active, healthy people with arthritis in the spine."

    Shop for fitness gear at the Active Sports Mecca

  • Discuss This Article