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  • Mitchell Rothbardt

Back Handbook

Over the course of our lives over 80% of us will get some sort of lower back pain and, to paraphrase from a joke, the other 20% are lying. With this in mind I thought I would write a little back health handbook, if you will. These are a few little things that you can do over the course of the average day to help keep your back in good shape. Remember, with backs, little things can end up being big things. A good percentage of lower back problems come from small things that happen over and over again. Things like sitting with bad posture or rounding our back as we pick something up. We don’t notice anything until one day we reach for a pencil and … well, you know the rest. What I mean to say is that many of the things I suggest might not seem like a big deal and you might not even notice any difference right away, but give it time. If you have a bad back, these suggestions may eventually help yield a good result and if you don’t have a bad back, these suggestions should help keep it that way.

1. Don’t sit down for at least 30 minutes after you get out of bed.

When we lie flat the vertebral discs in our spine fill up with fluid. This makes the discs swell up, which increases the compressive force on the discs. Sitting puts a very large amount of compressive force on our discs as it is, and combine that with the increased compressive force you get with extra-hydrated discs, what you get is the exact kind of disc trauma that eventually can lead to disc herniation.

2. Try not to do any tasks involving bending over for at least one hour after getting out of bed.

Have you ever noticed that tieing your shoes in the morning seems harder? That’s because it is! For the reasons I mentioned above bending over is much more difficult in the morning. Bending puts a different kind of force on our spine than sitting does. It’s called shearing. To understand the difference between the two, picture a book. Now think of the pages as our vertebral discs. When the pages are all stacked up one on top of the other evenly, as if the book was just sitting on a table, the force is going straight down. That is considered compressive force. If you open the book and the edge of the pages become uneven, the forced would be angled out. That would be considered shearing forces. I hope that makes sense.

In any case, the spine can withstand a much greater amount of compressive force than shearing force and bending over causes a large amount of shearing force.

In short, just try not to bend too much after waking up.

3. Don’t sit for more than 20-30 minutes at a time.

Sitting is, quite literally, one of the worst things we can do to our spine for a few different reasons. For one thing sitting puts a tremendous amount of force on our discs. Dr. Stuart McGill, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on spine health, has done research on just about every possible area of low back problems. He found in his research that there is literally no good sitting position. Each position he researched uncovered a greater than healthy amount of compressive force on some area of the spine.

Another reason is that sitting tightens up our hips. When we sit we are causing a group of muscles called the hip flexors to flex and tighten. When we sit for long periods of time something called “creep” happens. That is what it’s called when a group of muscles actually shorten. Shortened hip flexors cause tight hips and also cause bad posture, which pulls the back out of alignment. All this adds up to low back pain.

The answer to this is to make sure that you don’t sit for long periods of time. Most computers have some sort of appointment calendar. Set yours to remind you every half hour to get up a take a walk to the water cooler. If you can’t get up for some reason, at least change your sitting position every few minutes. This will spread the force around to different areas. Your back will thank you.

4. Think about your posture.

This really can’t be overstated.

Our spine has natural curves that help spread around the pressure that is felt on our discs.

When we develop bad posture it puts more pressure on certain discs than others and that results in pain.

The Evolution of Bad Posture

There is probably nothing that could help our back health more than improving our posture. Here is an example of some common problems compared to good posture.

<>Can you feel the pain?

The easiest way to maintain posture is to always think about keeping your chest up and your abs tight. This goes double when sitting. It is very easy to look like the guy all the way to the right in the evolution picture. Keep your posture in mind.

5. Wear Your Backpack on Both Shoulders

This one is mostly for you students out there. It’s very simple: when you wear your backpack over one shoulder you bend slightly to the other side to balance. Done long enough this can affect your posture.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I wanted to just talk about a few simple things that people can do easily to good effect. I, myself, have really decreased my overall back stiffness after simply not sitting down after waking up.

The key for all of this is to be consistent and patient. None of these suggestions is going to have overnight results. If you do have a bad back, it likely took years to get it that way and a few days work isn’t going to get back to perfect condition. It is a start, however, and a good one. Just as a great deal of back problems originate from the sum total of many small things, the treatment of a bad back can start with small changes that eventually add up to to a good deal of spinal stress reduction. In other words, less pain.

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