More than millions of people suffer from back pain, according to the American Chiropractic Association, and spend billions each year trying to find relief.
But "in the same way that you brush your teeth to prevent getting a cavity, you can take measures to protect your back before you get hurt," says Delia Roberts, fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and professor of biology at Selkirk College in British Columbia.
Here, her suggestions for keeping your back healthy and pain-free.
1. Check your posture
A healthy spine has two curves an outward curve in the upper back and an inward curve in the lower back. To check your posture, stand sideways and look into a mirror. "Imagine there’s a string tied to the top of your head and someone is pulling up on that string to elongate you as much as they can while still maintaining those curves," says Roberts. Also, check the alignment of your hip bone and pubic bone. "Women typically tip the pubic bone backward, and men typically tip it forward," says Roberts. "The ideal is no tipping at all." Practice this healthy alignment known as spinal neutral both sitting and standing, and check it periodically throughout the day to make sure you maintain it as much as possible.
2. Strengthen your core
Engaging your core (your abdominals and back muscles) helps you keep your spine in a healthy position. "There’s a point midway between your belly button and your pubic bone," says Roberts. "Imagine that you’re grabbing your muscle there and lifting it up into your belly button until it tightens." Just make sure not to brace too tightly: "If you brace, you’re locking down the muscle, and movement can no longer occur," says Roberts.
Try to do this whenever you can throughout the day. Eventually, it will become automatic. In addition to engaging your core, activating your pelvic muscles (aka Kegel exercises) can also help you maintain spinal neutral. You can practice Kegels throughout the day too just be sure not to overdo them.
3. Watch your back
It’s a great idea to do exercises to strengthen your core. But many people use incorrect form when doing floor or mat work: "I often see people totally flatten their backs while doing crunches or other moves designed to strengthen abdominal muscles," she says. "That’s taking you out of spinal neutral." Whether you’re lying down or standing upright, make sure you maintain normal, healthy spinal curvature.
4. Don’t exercise first thing in the morning
Many people get out of bed and do stretches or yoga poses first thing in the morning. "That’s not a good idea," says Roberts. "For the first 30 minutes after you wake up, you’re at a higher risk for back injury than at any other time. Since you’ve been lying down all night, the discs in your spine are filled with more fluid than normal." Save stretching or any other activity that could stress your back for later in the day, when much of that fluid will have drained from your spinal discs.
(Robyn Hilmantel for Completely You)