Along with the blessings of modern life comes the downside: too much stress, too much sitting down and too little time to exercise. The result is a near epidemic of back problems in recent times.
More Stress + Less Exercise = Back Trouble
You may not always find time for the daily exercise that keeps your back strong. When you do exercise, you may ask too much from yourself and “break your back” playing weekend athlete or gardener or trying to keep up in an exercise class.
We expect a lot from our spines without giving them the daily attention they need to stay strong and flexible. Combine this with constant muscle tension because of stress and sitting for long hours at a desk or behind the wheel and you’ve got back trouble.
Poor Posture and Alignment
If you find yourself with an aching back or neck after sitting or standing for long periods, check your posture. Poor posture puts strain on the muscles and ligaments of your back and forces the joints of your vertebrae to carry more weight than they were meant to carry. The results are pain and extra wear and tear on your spine. Your spine should be held upright in a gentle S-curve that allows your head, shoulders and torso to balance above your lower back.
Intense weekend exercise, a session of furniture moving or a load lifter improperly may produce a few twinges or no pain at all. Then, suddenly, the pain puts you flat on your back. Listen to your back’s signals that it’s had enough – but avoid overexertion even when your back seems okay.
Traumatic Back Injuries
Car, work and sports accidents cause most traumatic back injuries. Regardless of the cause, a back strengthened by regular exercise is less likely to be injured.
Wear and Tear
Although the spine undergoes a natural aging process, poor posture and overexertion can speed it up. Arthritis, osteophytes (bony growths around the vertebral bodies and facet joints), osteoporosis, disc aging and facet joint damage are some of the effects of aging that can cause back pain.
Bulging or Herniated Discs
Herniated or protruding discs actually cause only a small percentage of back pain. Again, regular moderate back exercise can help prevent such injuries and speed recovery when they occur. In some cases, surgery may be needed.
Stress and Muscular Tension
Stress and staying in one position too long cause muscles to contract. Continually contracted muscles stop the circulation of blood and oxygen, resulting in pain and muscle weakening. Take frequent breaks to relax and stretch your muscles.
Occasionally, low back pain is caused by a predisposing condition such as scoliosis, spina-bifida or spondylolistheses. These abnormalities may be diagnosed by an examination, x-ray or other test.
Sprains, Strains and Muscle Spasms
Most low back problems are caused by simple strains that can heal within six to eight weeks. If you know what causes back problems, such as sprains, strains and muscles spasms, and how to prevent them, you can save yourself a lot of discomfort.
You’re painting and you fall off your step stool. You feel a wrenching pain in your back, but you can get up on your own and continue painting. The real pain comes later. This is a sprain.
In a sprain, a joint’s forced to go beyond its normal range of motion. The ligament fibers overstretch and tear. This often happens with sudden twisting in active sports. The joint can still function, but ligament tears leak blood into the tissue surrounding the joint, causing swelling and discomfort.
Back sprains are usually severe. Pain and motion in the lower back will often cause a muscle spasm. See your doctor for a sprain.
Strain-Muscle or Tendon Injury
If a muscle or tendon was injured when you fell off the ladder, you have a strain. Strains are not as serious as sprains. They often happen when you neglect to warm up your muscles before using them or when you’ve overworked weak back muscles. Years of tension or misuse can cause chronically strained muscles or tendons.
You’ve been driving for two hours. You turn and reach for your hat in the back seat and wham – your lower back muscles on one side clamp into a spasm.
A spasm is a sudden, forceful and continuous muscle contraction. It’s usually caused by direct trauma to the muscle, too much exercise or chronic strain. You can tell when your muscle is in spasm. It bulges and is hard to the touch. The muscle’s painful and feels like it’s tied up in a knot. When you have a muscle spasm, all the fibers contract. With normal movement, only some of the fibers contract.
Muscles do two things: contract and relax. Muscles help protect your spine. If you overwork them, the message from the nervous system to the muscle is to contract and protect. A muscle spasm acts like a splint, restricting motion in your joints. If something’s wrong with the discs or facet joints, muscles may go into spasm to hold everything in place, preventing further damage to the spine. Protective spasm can be chronic.
Treat your muscles with the care and respect they deserve.
- Keep them flexible with daily slow stretching.
- Warm up your muscles and joints before exercise.
- Stretch out your muscles when you’re through exercising.