If you want to steer clear of lower back pain, remember this: Arch is good, flat is bad.
Back pain is anything but rare; only headaches and colds are more common. According to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, Americans spend more than $50 billion each year on lower back pain, which is the No. 1 cause of job-related disability in the country and one of the leading contributors to missed time from work.
There’s acute lower back pain, sometimes intense but generally short-lived discomfort resulting from injury to the lower back incurred during sustained physical activity (playing sports, doing yard work) or by a sudden jolt (being in a vehicle collision). But it’s chronic lower back pain, the kind that lasts for more than three months, that is more debilitating and more difficult to treat.
Much of that chronic pain is caused by damage to the discs — the spongy, multi-function structures that lie between the spine’s vertebrae — in the lower part of the back right above the pelvis known as the lumbar region. And much of that damage is caused by poor body mechanics — the way people stand, walk, lift, carry, reach, bend, sit and sleep — in which the back is too often flat, not arched.
“The key to avoiding lower back pain is keeping pressure off your lower lumbar discs,” said Tadhg O’Gara, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That means keeping an arch to your lower back.”
The intervertebral discs, essentially the spine’s shock absorbers, are under constant pressure, especially in the lower back, which supports the weight of the upper body. The five vertebrae in the lumbar region are naturally arched toward the front of the body, so bending forward compresses the front of these disks, which over time can force them out of position to press on one or more of the nerves emanating from the spinal cord. This condition — known as a bulging, herniated or ruptured disc — can cause pain in the lower back and elsewhere, especially the buttocks, thighs and even below the knee (sciatica). And that pain can be severe.
“People who haven’t had lower back pain don’t re alize how painful it is,” O’Gara said. “And many health care providers don’t realize how painful it is.”
So how is chronic lower back pain treated?
“The first thing to figure out is what exactly is causing the pain, because that determines what approach to take with treatment,” said Kristopher Karvelas, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Wake Forest Baptist. “That’s not always easy. Pain is usually related to the discs, but other causes of low back pain have overlapping symptoms and pain patterns.”
Basic diagnostic methods include physical examination, review of the patient’s medical history and patient descriptions of the onset, location, severity and duration of the pain and of any limitations in movement. Imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRI and CT scans also can be employed to pinpoint the source of pain.
Once the reason behind the pain is determined, the most frequently prescribed treatment is physical therapy, not surgery.
“I typically reserve surgery for patients who have a medical need other than pain,” Karvelas said. “There’s a large toolbox that we can go to for patients, and surgery is the last tool.”
Depending on the individual patient’s condition, physical therapy programs usually include exercises designed to strengthen back and abdominal muscles and to promote proper posture and balance. These can include stretching, swimming, walking and even yoga. But education also is a key element.
“Patients need to recognize that posture and activity are crucial in relieving and preventing back pain,” Karvelas said. “They need to learn what exercises to do on their own and how to do them properly to prevent future flare-ups.
“We can help resolve acute back pain episodes, but when we are talking about chronic back pain, the pain may never resolve completely. However, we do use a team approach to treat patients and teach people how to cope with their pain effectively.
Living and working in this century will have seen us spending more and more time sitting at the computer, whether it is part of our work, studying or even leisure time. An unfortunate consequence of spending long periods of time doing this is that it can cause pain in a number of areas including the neck, shoulders, arms and lower back.
Sitting at a desk for long periods means it is often difficult to maintain good posture for long periods of time. Many people will have a tendency to lean forward or slouch their shoulders which will put unnecessary stress on the spine leading to pain and fatigue. Repetitive movements such as typing /filing can also contribute to pain by placing your body in awkward positions and increasing the risk of muscle strain.
Simple tips how we can avoid this situation developing and causing pain.
Get up every 20 minutes, stretch and walk around
Specific stretches to the neck, chest, shoulders and mid and lower back.
Strengthening exercises to improve the strength of the deep neck muscles, shoulder blade muscles and the deep abdominals that stabilise the lower back.
Ergonomic assessment. The set up of your desk will have a big influence on the stresses and strains on your muscles and joints. A few adjustments could make a huge difference to your pain and also prevent future problems developing, for example adjusting your computer screen height. Many workplaces offer these assessments. Your physiotherapist will be able to advice you on simple adjustments or even visit your workplace to perform an assessment.
Already have pain from sitting at your desk?
If you are in the unfortunate situation of already having pain it is recommended that you address all the above steps immediately. It is also advised that you take some painkillers and/or anti-inflammatory medication. Consider using heat packs to soothe tightness and soreness in muscles. Most importantly, physiotherapy or your preferred form of musculoskeletal treatment should be sought. Everyone is different, so a physiotherapist will be able to specifically assess your painful area and look at the causes of your pain. Following this he /she will be able to advise what you can do yourself. This may include specific stretches and strengthening exercises, adjustments to your desk and correction of your posture.
The physiotherapist will also provide you with some hands on treatment which may include soft tissue massage, joint mobilisation and dry needling to help settle the pain. Early intervention is the key to ensuring your pain is managed effectively and will normally mean less physiotherapy treatment is required.
Headaches are a problem that affects at least 90% of us during our lifetime. There are multiple types of headaches that vary in symptoms and severity, with some of the more common types including tension-type, migraine and cervicogenic headaches. A number of headache types share common contributing factors to their source of pain, including that they often originate or are linked to the neck region. Some of the following signs may indicate that your headache may be neck related:
Pain and tension through the neck
Pain is initiated or increased with neck movement or prolonged neck posture
Neck range of motion is reduced
The pain may be more prominent or localised to one side, or may exist on both sides of the head
Pain may be experienced from the base of the skull and often refer around the skull or behind the eyes
There may be a feeling of dizziness or light headedness
History of acute trauma or repetitive trauma to the neck region
Diagnosis of headache type is critical for effective management and is an area where physiotherapists can utilise their assessment skills to help differentiate which type of headache is present. Physiotherapy invention can be very effective in managing headaches with a cervical spine (neck) related origin. A physiotherapist will assess the joints of your neck, associated muscles and neural structures to identify any abnormalities. Your posture and work ergonomics may also have a significant impact on headache development and persistence, which are areas that physiotherapists have expertise.
Physiotherapy management may include any of the following depending of your specific presentation and symptoms:
Soft tissue mobilisation/massage
Stretching of tight structures
Postural advice and correction
Strengthening of important neck stabilising muscles
Ergonomic assessment/advice for your work place set-up
Stress and tension management
If any of the above physical symptoms are sounding familiar you may find that your pain in the neck was the cause of your headache all along.
If there is one thing worth mastering to avoid injury it is the art of lifting. Setting yourself up correctly before attempting to lift something will keep you injury free. To achieve this it is best to practice the movements as an exercise to train the body so that correct posture and execution become second nature. The suitability of the pick up options below will depend on your physical condition so it is important to pick the right technique for the right situation.
The Golf pickup for lifting
Suitable for light items that can be picked up with one hand only. Saves on the effort of a squat for picking up something small like a pencil. Be sure to use your leg to counter
balance your weight. This technique is great for those who have some degree of stability and flexibility. Using a prop such as a chair, wall or table to stabilise yourself is also a good idea.
The Squat for lifting
A squat is something we often do without paying much notice to how well it is being performed. For those who lift items as part of their job, the squat is an integral part of manual handling duties.
As an exercise it is particularly good for your legs and one of the best to develop leg strength, working the kinetic link from the ankles all the way up to the hip. Stronger legs also offer greater support for the back, as performing better squat technique helps maintain correct spinal control.
So as well as strengthening our legs the squat exercise is also working our spine. As such the back should stay straight whilst the hips do the bending.
To performing a correct squat it is important to have the correct equal bend though our hip and our knees, making sure that the level of our knees is in line with but behind the level of our toes. Lowering yourself enough to create a ninety degree angle through both hip and knee, sticking the bottom down and back, plus maintaining a neutral position through the back is essential.
The Lunge for lifting
Whereas the squat offers a wide base of support and a higher power output for lifting, the lunge in contrast requires greater balance and is better for lifting smaller items.
The lunge is more like a variation of the squat. It works the same muscles but in a different way, challenging balance and control with an uneven load. Rather than both legs taking an equal load the front leg is working a lot harder to keep the body stable. The same posture principles of a squat apply, so ensure that there is an equal ninety degree bend through the hip and the knee whilst keeping your back straight. Remember when lunging it is important for the front knee not to go past the level of the front foot toes. In order to get down far enough the back heel will need to come up. When completing the lunge be sure to go down as far as is comfortable.
Remember that the co-ordination involved in performing these techniques for lifting and the use of momentum will lessen the need for isolated muscular strength and aid injury prevention. Also by switching on your core stabilising muscles on before doing any of these movements you will have greater control over the movement.
By doing a mixture of squats, lunges and golf lifts you will benefit from working a variety of muscles in different ways. Also if you happen to acquire an injury then having options as to how you pick something up will better enable you to rely on other muscles whilst the injured area recovers.
Incorporating these exercises into a routine and performing them correctly, will ensure that when you do need to use them in a practical manner throughout the day, that you are moving correctly.