7 simple ways to avoid back pain

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By Lisa Salmon

The spine is one of the most important parts of the body - it holds you
up, keeps your muscles and organs together, and is a vital link between
the brain, bones, muscles and nerves.

Yet many people don't look after their spine properly. In fact, back
pain is the most common cause of long-term sick leave in the UK.

Whether through poor lifestyle choices or bad office set-ups, many of us
are unwittingly causing our own back-pain problems.

Here Stewart Tucker, a consultant spinal surgeon at The Wellington
Hospital, part of HCA UK, outlines seven simple ways to avoid putting
your spine at risk...

1. Don't smoke

Most people aren't aware that smoking can have an impact on your spine
health.

"Bone density can decrease when you smoke, which increases the risk of
osteoporosis, a condition that weakens the bones and makes them more
likely to fracture," says Tucker. "Smoking also impairs your blood flow
and deprives your spinal tissues of the nutrients and oxygen they need
to stay healthy.

"Another factor is that due to deoxygenated blood and damage to the
lungs, your physical activity will likely decrease. When your
cardiovascular system begins to weaken like this, simple acts such as
walking up stairs can become difficult, and any activity that reduces
your mobility is going to have a negative impact on your spine. The
solution? Stop smoking!"

2. Exercise correctly

"Everyone knows that exercise is good for us, and it's hugely beneficial
to your spine health," says Tucker.  "Engaging in fitness activities
helps to keep your back healthy by allowing the discs to exchange
fluids, which is how the spine receives its nutrition."

However, he stresses it's important that, with any exercise, you hold
the right posture. "I see many avid gym-goers who haven't been given the
appropriate training on how to use gym equipment, meaning they may be
doing themselves damage with their workout style.

"Just as you can hurt your back by lifting heavy boxes or furniture,
lifting weights with poor posture can cause damage to your lower spine.
When you flex your back muscles against resistance while weightlifting,
you're putting your back in a compromised position. This can cause
misalignments of the spine, which can not only cause pain, but may also
manifest elsewhere in your body.

"There are many ways you can harm your spine in the gym, so if you're
experiencing pain after workouts, it's best to book in with a personal
trainer so they can show you how to use the equipment safely, which is
crucial for maintaining a healthy spine."

3.  Be careful with your smartphone posture

Research suggests that, on average, Brits spend up to four hours a day
glued to their smartphones. "The term 'text neck' has been attributed to
the effect that having your head at a 30-60 degree angle for several
hours a day can have on your spine," warns Tucker. "This is because the
effective weight of your head on your neck increases the more it's bent,
causing heavier strain on your cervical spine.

"A normal standing head position would be facing and looking forward,
this allows all the curves in your neck and spine to correctly align,
but when the chin's dropped, you're stretching the whole structure,
often for a long time. This can cause increasing pain and, in some
cases, long-term damage to your neck and spine."

4. Travel carefully

"It's not necessarily the travelling that's damaging, it's the effect
that sitting in uncomfortable, unsupportive airplane, car or train seats
for a long time can have on the fragile elements of your spine," says
Tucker.

"There are also other factors to consider that go hand-in-hand with
travelling, such as heavy suitcases, heavy hand luggage and awkward
sleeping positions which can each aggravate painful areas in the back
and neck.

"If frequent travel is unavoidable, then ensure you keep your spine and
back in mind when preparing for it. For example, try packing a little
lighter or coming prepared with supportive neck and lower back pillows.
You can also help yourself while travelling by ensuring you get up and
move at least once an hour, and stay aware of your posture, especially
if you intend to sleep."

5. Crank up the calcium

"Calcium is incredibly important to bone health, and dairy products are
an important source of calcium," says Tucker, "but if you're dairy-free
due to a vegan diet or lactose intolerance, your bones may suffer.

"Calcium deficiency can make bones soft, which means you'll become
susceptible to painful pressure factors in your spine which can lead to
serious consequences.

"If you're dairy-free, you can still ensure you're getting your required
calcium intake by including lots of calcium-rich foods like certain
seeds, lentils, leafy green vegetables or fish with soft bones such as
sardines or salmon."

6. Don't sit so much

"Our bodies aren't designed for a sedentary lifestyle, but with our
present-day society being so heavily technology-driven, many of us are
left with little choice but to spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.
This can cause the back muscles around the spine to tense up from
supporting the rest of the body in a single stance for so long.

"If you have a desk job, it's likely you'll spend most of your daytime
sitting down. Desks are terrible at encouraging bad posture. Sitting in
the same position for a long time with bad posture, slouching over a
keyboard, can cause compression on the discs in your spine and lead to
premature degeneration, which results in chronic pain."

7.  Avoid dehydration

It's important to drink water for plenty of reasons, but one of the
lesser known reasons is the effect that dehydration can have on your
spine.

"The discs between your vertebrae need proper hydration otherwise they
can't support the weight of your spinal column and body," says Tucker.
"Dehydration causes vertebrae to touch each other and, over time, this
wear and tear can make the discs more prone to rupturing.

"Hydration is particularly important the older you get, as when you're
young your spine absorbs nutrients from your bloodstream, but as you get
older that process diminishes, and your spine relies on nutrients to
come from water in your body.

"Once you're dehydrated, your body will look for any source of water it
can find, which will include the space between your invertebrate discs,
which will give your spine less cushioning and leave less space for your
nerves. Then you'll begin experiencing back pain. If you stay dehydrated
and this issue persists, your discs may degrade to the point of needing
a surgery to place an artificial disc."

Catherine Devane