5. You're Addicted to CrunchesSit-ups and crunches may actually cause more back pain than they prevent, according to Sinett.
We hear all the time how a strong core protects your back, which is true. But crunches don't work the ab muscles that stabilize your back. In fact, they can contribute to pain by causing what Sinett calls core imbalance, "a condition of excessive compression, which results in the spine curving forward in a C-like shape."
Fix it: You don't have to ditch crunches entirely, but you should do them slowly and use proper form. Include them as part of a broader core workout that also strengthens your transverse abdominus. This muscle is particularly important for a strong, steady core that supports your back, and the best way to strengthen it is with (noncrunch!) exercises like these. Added bonus: You'll whittle your middle and beat hard-to-torch belly fat while improving posture and relieving back pain.
6. You're Not the Healthiest EaterResearch shows that eating habits that are good for your heart, weight, and blood sugar are also good for your back. Finnish research found that people who suffered from back pain were more likely to have clogged arteries to the spine than healthy control subjects. Healthy circulation brings nutrients to the spine and removes waste, says Sinett. If this doesn't happen, inflammation can result, and inflammatory chemicals in the back can trigger nerves to send pain signals to the brain.
Fix it: A back-healthy diet is one that reduces inflammation, according to the The Truth About Back Pain. The book's plan advises avoiding excess caffeine and processed foods (read ingredient labels for the following: hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, enriched wheat flour, words ending in -ose, and additives that end in -ates or -ites), and eating more whole grains, soy, nuts and seeds, protein (chicken, fish, lean meat), vegetables, and fruit.
7. You Carry Your Entire Life in Your PurseA stuffed-to-the-gills handbag may cause back damage that's comparable to a sports injury!
When you tote a heavy bag, your shoulders become imbalanced, says Sinett. Your body elevates the shoulder carrying the bag, which throws your spine off-kilter. Doing this every day can cause back muscles to ache over time.
Fix it: First, carry the lightest bag possible. (Some of today's styles — with chains, studs, and other hardware — are heavy even when empty!) The American Chiropractic Association recommends that your bag — when fully loaded — weighs no more than 10% of your body weight. Alternate which shoulder you carry the bag with from day to day, and consider splitting your stuff between two bags (one for each arm), which will painproof your load by distributing it more evenly.
8. Your Mattress Is from Another DecadeCan't remember the last time you replaced it? Your back may be in trouble.
A good mattress lasts 9 to 10 years, according to the National Sleep Foundation, but consider replacing yours every five to seven years if you don't sleep well or your back throbs. A study at Oklahoma State University found that most people who switched to new bedding after 5 years slept significantly better and had less back pain.
Fix it: When you do replace your mattress, take a Goldilocks approach: Pick one that's not too squishy or too hard. Very firm mattresses can increase pressure on the spine and worsen pain, say Spanish researchers. A study of 313 people revealed that those who caught Zzzs on medium-firm mattresses were more likely to report pain improvement than those on firmer ones. To help ease nighttime discomfort even more, tuck a pillow under your knees if you sleep on your back, between your knees if you're a side sleeper, or beneath your stomach and hips if you snooze on your belly.
9. Your Bike Isn't Adjusted Quite RightDo you routinely get a sore back after even a leisurely bike ride? You may need to adjust your equipment.
Anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of bike riders experience some form of back pain, according to Jennifer Chu, MD, an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a chronic pain expert blogger for Wellsphere. You don't need to give up on this great form of exercise, but you should make sure your bike is properly fitted for you, advises says former US Olympic cycling coach Ed Burke, PhD, of Colorado Springs, CO.
Fix it: Try this quick test: When you straddle a road bike or hybrid, the bar should be about 1 to 2 inches from your crotch. On mountain bikes, allow 3 to 6 inches. As for your seat height, your down leg should be fully extended when the heel of that foot is on the pedal in the 6 o'clock position. Now put the ball of that foot on the pedal; there should be a slight bend in your knee in the down position. You should be able to keep a slight bend in your elbows and not feel stretched out when holding the handlebars. If your bike isn't adjusted properly, check with a local bike shop or bike club to find someone who can properly fit it for you.
Another tweak that can help: Tilt the front tip of your saddle down about 10 to 15 degrees. This simple adjustment takes pressure off your lower spine and pelvis, research shows. When researchers made this adjustment for 40 recreational cyclists who had back pain, the pain went away in 72 percent of the group — and another 20 percent reported significant reduction in pain.
10. You Have a Thing for High HeelsOr flip-flops. Both lead to foot instability, which can in turn affect your back.
High heels force you to arch your back, making your spinal muscles work harder. Backless shoes like sandals cause your feet to move from side to side, according to Sinett, which distributes your body weight unevenly and can cause pain.
Fix it: You don't have to forgo trendy footwear — just don't walk long distances in them. Commute in comfy flats or supportive sneakers, and consider adding cushioning inserts to uncomfy shoes. When Lehigh University researchers gave back-pain sufferers lightweight, flexible shoes with simple cushions, 80 percent reported significant relief within a year.
11. You Ignore the Pain
Trying to block out pain could make it worse, finds research from the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.
A better approach: Let yourself consciously experience the hurt. In a standard pain test, psychologists had 68 back-pain sufferers plunge their hands or feet into ice water. When the volunteers were instructed to suppress the shock of the icy water, a key muscle in the back clenched. In contrast, the muscle didn't tense up when volunteers thought only about the shock. Over time, an increase in muscle tension intensifies pain, says lead researcher John W. Burns, PhD.
Fix it: Accepting pain may be the best way to mentally cope. "Try thinking about the sensory details of the experience, not the negative emotions," says Burns. "If you have a back spasm, describe the pain to yourself — if it's burning or throbbing — and remind yourself that it will pass."