Our spines are a barometer for our quality of life. In the U.S. alone, lower back injuries account for an astonishing one million new cases annually and are the leading cause of workman’s compensation claims and lost wages. It is estimated that up to 80% of adults will suffer some insult or trauma to the neck or back. Back injuries can be tremendously painful, debilitating, and, unfortunately, often permanently degenerative. When it comes to healthy posture, the proverbial ounce of prevention is the key to avoiding a lifetime of physical and financial despair. An attentive regimen of muscle stretching and toning coupled with a keen awareness of body mechanics can all help keep your back safe and pain-free.
Here are five ways to avoid a lower back injury:
Maintain your core muscles
Any fitness regimen for overall health almost always includes some discussion of the core muscles. These are the muscles that make up your abdomen and pelvis, including the rectus abdominis muscle (your “six-pack”) along the front of the stomach, the oblique muscles that interweave the ribs, the erector spinal muscles that support the spine, and the gluteal and accessory muscles that encase the pelvis.
Your core is your foundation for strength and balance. Core strength helps prevent falls and ensure continued activity throughout your life. By keeping this central area in shape, you can protect the lower back from the breakdown that comes with daily physical activities. When back and abdominal muscles are weak, the bones and cartilage end up shouldering the burden, which eventually causes damage. Choose exercise routines that challenge all of these muscle groups together, like swimming, dancing, or yoga. In the gym, use crunches on a mat or a machine that targets abdominals specifically. Beware of the classic sit-ups, as these have fallen out of style. Classic sit-ups tend to overstrain the lumbar area.
Watch your weight
It’s no secret that obesity is a growing problem in the United States. Weight problem causes several health issues and further compounds itself by making the activities needed to resolve those issues more and more difficult. Back pain is no exception; nearly one-third of patients that suffer from lower back pain are also obese. Because we tend to distribute extra weight toward the front of the abdomen, it places constant strain on the anterior (front-facing) aspect of the spine. This can pull the middle and lower vertebrae out of alignment over time, and cause stretching and damage to the muscles and ligaments that support them.
Aim to keep your weight in the healthy range, preferably at a BMI of less than 25. Cardiac exercises that help reduce stress and deplete fat stores around the abdomen are the most beneficial for supporting spinal health as well. If you’re overweight now and suffering low back pain, be sure to consult with your physician to create an exercise regimen that will let you reclaim your back safely. Too much exercise too soon may do more harm to your upper or lower back than good.
Lift with your legs
Using proper lifting techniques is one of the most important things that you can do to protect your back from injury, primarily if you are employed in a physically strenuous job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 80% of work-related back injuries impact the lumbar spine, and are the direct result of manual lifting. Learning to use your legs and core instead of your back to lift heavy objects will significantly reduce your chances of a back injury. This rule does not just apply to construction workers; nurses, paramedics, daycare teachers, retail workers, and career military are just a few examples of those whose daily responsibilities put them at risk for back problems.
This is where the core, as mentioned earlier, strengthening will come to good use. To properly lift a heavy object, be sure to keep the spine straight, and let your abdominal muscles bear the weight downward toward the legs and knees. Don’t arch your back over to lift something off the floor or out of a box. If you don’t feel confident in your core or leg strength, try a kettlebell routine to help you build that foundation. Start with a lighter weight, practice squatting down to the kettlebell and lifting it straight against your abdomen, keeping the spine as straight as possible, and using muscles of the legs, arms, shoulders, and stomach instead of the back.
Avoid twisting motions, especially when lifting
The large lumbar vertebrae, designed to support the bulk of upper-body weight, are poorly suited to accommodate twisting motions. These injuries are common, however, especially among people who play sports, like tennis, golf, or football. When you combine twisting motions with heavy lifting, the potential for injury goes even higher.
The thoracic, or mid-back, vertebrae are safer for turning and twisting motions. Try to utilize this area instead when turning to hand someone papers (or anything more substantial), or when you are glancing over your shoulder when driving. Identify repetitive motions that you may be using that routinely rotate your lower back, and practice an alternate movement instead. Lower back injuries caused by twisting motions tend to occur suddenly, but the pain can last for weeks or months. By changing specific habitual actions early, you can prevent this from happening.
Stay active for life
In our busy lives, it can be challenging to dedicate time every day for activities, but there is nothing better proven to sustain overall health than exercise. One of the best ways to keep your lower back healthy and flexible is to keep your body moving regularly. This is especially important for older people or for those who hold sedentary jobs that require prolonged periods of sitting.
Just thirty minutes of brisk walking three times per week is enough to delay arthritis symptoms and improve health overall. A good idea to maintain good posture promotes flexibility of spinal musculature and helps rehydrate the fibrous intervertebral discs that cushion our spines.