Standing, bending, or twisting, we put our backs to work each day. It’s no wonder that at some point in our lives about 80 percent of adults report having back pain due to strained muscles or ligaments.
There are several ways to prevent back pain and keep the back strong, says Ben Newman, MD, an independently practicing neurosurgeon on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
“Walking is perhaps the best exercise for the majority of my patients to help achieve and maintain a healthy spine. It is low impact and not only strengthens the core muscles, such as the abdominals, spinal erectors, and gluteals, but also activates the nervous system to activate these muscle groups appropriately. Adding resistance training or other low-impact activities such as swimming or bicycle riding is also beneficial in this regard,” advises Dr. Newman. “These exercises are good for building muscle strength and flexibility, which can help protect the spine and increase overall mobility.”
When standing, Dr. Newman suggests relieving pressure on the lower back by placing one foot forward and keeping the knees slightly bent. Sitting with knees slightly higher than hips also helps relieve pressure. Whether standing or sitting, keep shoulders back and avoid slouching. If you have a desk job, try to get up each hour and walk for at least five minutes if possible.
“Lifting can be the back’s worst enemy,” Dr. Newman says. “To protect your back while lifting, bend at the knees and keep your back straight, then lift with your legs. Hold heavy objects close to your body and don’t twist. If an object is too heavy to lift, have someone help you lift it.”
Maintaining overall health also helps your back. Being overweight can cause back strain, and smoking cigarettes can reduce blood flow to the lower spine, causing pain and spinal disk degeneration, Dr. Newman explains.
Another cause of pain is a herniated disk, sometimes referred to as a slipped disk. Disks are round and flat and have a jellylike center with a tough outer layer, he continues. The disks provide cushioning between the bones of the spine and act as shock absorbers when you walk or run.
When a disk becomes herniated, it protrudes out from the spinal column. The outer layer of the disk ruptures, and the material inside the disk may move out into the spinal canal and press against the nerves of the spine. The pressure against the spinal nerves can produce sudden, intense back pain.
If the herniated disk presses against the sciatic nerve, back pain may include numbness that radiates down the leg or foot, known as sciatica.
Sometimes a herniated disk can cause loss of bladder or bowel control. If this occurs, Dr. Newman recommends seeking immediate medical attention.
“Back pain doesn’t always mean surgery, and most of the time it can be treated conservatively,” says Dr. Newman. “For mild or moderate pain, rest for a couple of days and use an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen, and apply ice or heat packs for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. If the pain does not subside, seek medical attention to relieve back pain and improve mobility.”
Texas law prohibits hospitals from practicing medicine. The physicians on the Methodist Health System medical staff are independent practitioners who are not employees or agents of Methodist Health System or Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.