Does your back hurt? Of course it does. You’re an American.
Kidding, of course, but I'm pretty sure we'd all rather sit than stand. However, the statistics surrounding back pain are ridiculous. 80% of Americans will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. You can blame this fact on our mostly sedentary society, the prevalence of desk jobs, being overweight, etc. Yet, once you get past the fact the people HAVE back pain, things get a bit more interesting.
Way, wayyyy back in 1994, this study indicated that 52% of asymptomatic subjects in their study could be diagnosed with a disc bulge at one level in the lumbar spine. Further, it showed that 38% of those individuals had two or more abnormalities! When you throw in the fact that many of those in pain cannot be properly diagnosed due to “normal” MRIs, it’s no wonder that back aches can cause headaches for both patients and doctors.
It’s also important to state that the causes of back pain are numerous. End plate fractures, disc herniations, spondylosis, spondylolisthesis, ligament problems and much, much more are enough to make your head and/or tongue spin. So rather than give solutions to all, I’m going to list a few that have worked for me, and explain the science behind each.
First, a disclaimer: if you are in severe pain, go see a doctor. But, if you’re just dealing with an occasionally cranky back, read on!
- Go for a fast walk – Walking at a slow pace may not always work for those in pain, but walking at a fast rate can do a ton of good for your spine. First, it will get the majority of people out of a fixed, flexed, and possibly rotated position (hunched over at a computer), which is the best way to ask for a herniated disc. Also, when you walk, make sure you swing your entire arms, not just at the elbows. The arm swing when you walk is absolutely critical as it can reduce any aggravating spine loading that can occur.
- Stop doing sit ups - Seriously. STOP IT. Think of your back as a credit card that you’ve been bending repeatedly. One day that card will snap, and your back will too. Dr. Stuart McGill, possibly the smartest guy on the planet regarding the lower back, produced some awesome research showing that a normal sit up produces a compressive load on the lower back that exceeds the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health guidelines (over 7000 N of force for the nerds). If you want to train your core, focus on planks and anti-rotation.
- Avoid bending 30 minutes after you get out of bed – Ever notice you’re taller in the morning? Well there’s a reason, and it’s not because you’re more relaxed. While you’re walking around during the day, fluid seeps out of the discs that hold your spine together. Then, when you’re lying in bed, fluid seeps back into those discs due to the lack of compression. Bending your spine when these discs are fully “charged” with fluid will decrease the capacity of your back, setting the stage for pain and discomfort. Research from Dr. McGill has shown that the majority of the fluid that will seep out of your discs will have done so after 1 hour of rising from bed. I know that forcing people to rise an hour early and stand around isn’t exactly realistic, so 30 minutes sounds good to me.
- Drink more water – Your discs are made up of 80% water, and when you get dehydrated, there’s no reason why your discs may not get that way too. Having a dehydrated disc is most likely not the cause of your pain, but may facilitate other compression in your lumbar spine. This tip is at odds with the previous one, but it’s always something to try since the causes of back pain in two people can be VERY different. And hey, even if I’m wrong, at least drinking more water will get you out of your office chair and walking quickly to the bathroom.
- Change how you sit – Dr. McGill has repeatedly said that there are no "correct" sitting postures, which is contrary to what you may think. The problem when you sit all day is that when you're in a chair, your lumbar spine reverses it’s natural curve resulting in posterior tilt. This tilt is the same that occurs when you're flexing through your spine, causing herniated discs. But, the best sitting position that you can use involves using backrest on a chair, because when you don’t, you use your deep hip flexors to help stabilize yourself causing anterior shear forces on the spine (these are bad). Lastly, if you’re below 5’ 4’’, and your feet do not touch the ground when you’re in your chair, these problems become even worse. So lower your chair, use the backrest, and be happy!