As common as back pain is – up to 80% of Australians will have it at some point – it doesn’t need to get in the way of what you love doing. Your spine is made up of segments of bones, known as vertebrae, with shock absorbers in between, known as disks, and many muscles which attach themselves to the spine. When it works well, your spine is a moveable and sturdy column, however when we are in pain, we tend to lose both the flexibility and stability of our back.
Plenty of research has been done into back pain, and yet we seem to be more uncomfortable than ever, according to the statistics. Of course, a new, sharp, or sudden pain requires a check-up with your doctor. But if you have a bit of an ongoing dull ache, and it gets worse with moving too much or not enough, read on to see how you can become a better back owner.
Like all things in life, our human body (the spine included) is subject to ‘wear and tear’, kind of like a car which has been driving on the road for a while. And just like a car – you can choose to drive erratically, wearing out the engine and brakes, or you can go smoothly and make sure you are topped up with oil and water, with some regular services booked in for good measure.
Getting the alignment right
Think about a car which is out of alignment – it will start to wear out its tyres unevenly. Your joints work in the same way! On the below graph, you’ll see that varying positions also place different stresses on the spine. We are generally most comfortable on our backs, followed by standing, and the most undesirable posture to find ourselves in is to be seated with a slouch. Is that you right now? It’s important to note that this graph doesn’t encourage everyone to lie down all day, as nice as that may seem! It reinforces that we are capable as humans of bending forwards, and even sitting with poor posture occasionally, but we don’t want to stay there for too long. No matter which position you find yourself in regularly, try not to sustain it for more than 30 minutes.
Source: Nordin, Margareta and Frankel, Victor H.: Basic Biomechanics of the Musculoskeletal System, 3rd Ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, 2001. Chapter 10: “Biomechanics of the Lumbar Spine”
Give yourself an oil change
Like many joints in your body, the spine has segments which connect to one another via cartilage and capsules, with a good dose of synovial fluid to keep things moving smoothly. The right types of movements promote circulation of this fluid, giving nutrition to the cartilage and removing any cellular waste which may be stuck inside. Try these exercises now to get things moving:
Place your hands across your chest and rotate your spine 10 times, imagining that your spine is a wet sponge and you’re wringing it out.
Interlace your fingers and reach your arms above your head, then gently stretch your ribs away from your hips, from side to side 10 times, like a tree waving in the breeze.
Place both of your hands behind your head and lean your spine backwards 10 times, using a sturdy backrest to assist if it is safe to do so.
Your built-in dynamic stabilising system
Did you know that you have a back brace all ready to go, made of muscles? Our deep abdominals are perfectly positioned to take the pressure off our spinal joints, however if we have had an instance of back pain currently or in the past, it’s likely that our body has switched them off. Re-activate these useful muscles by trying the following:
Seated in a chair, place your hands just inside the bony parts of your hip bones (if you cough, and you feel the muscles spring up, you’re in the right place)
Make sure that your posture is nice and tall, like a piece of string is pulling you up from the crown of your head
Find your pelvic floor muscles and lift them internally, as though you were holding on to go to the bathroom (about 30% of their maximum squeeze)
Lightly draw in your belly button away from your shirt, and you should feel gentle tension under your fingertips.
Most importantly: breathe! It’s a good sign for your spine if you can gently hold the muscle contraction and complete 5 full breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth if possible).
The aim is to make these muscles come on automatically, so check in with them on a daily basis to make sure they’re firing.
If you’re concerned about your back pain, it’s always recommended speak to your GP, as they may be able to refer you to an appropriate health professional to keep you moving in a safe way. In the meantime, try the above tips to prevent getting even more stiff and sore.
About the Author: Jennifer Smallridge
Jennifer is a highly qualified Exercise Physiologist (Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science and Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology). Her broad experience in the industry spans private practice, hospitals and community health; developing special interests in cardiovascular physiology, weight loss, joint pathologies, neurological conditions and chronic pain. In addition to her role as an exercise physiologist, Jennifer is an academic lecturer in the fields of Exercise Science, Human Anatomy and Physical Activity for Health. She is also a keen exerciser herself, and keeps fit through strength training, yoga, Pilates, dancing and cycling.