Bob and I recently returned from driving around North America. We saw some amazing sights, including Mount Rushmore, where the four presidents’ heads are carved in the mountainside. We went further into South Dakota and saw the Crazy Horse monument, which is even more spectacular. I love the natural wonders too. Travel is great, but after sitting in the van for several hours at a time, my back would ache!
In its ‘neutral,’ or best resting, position, the spine has three main curves (not counting the sacrum and coccyx) which are designed to absorb shock during walking, running, jumping and falling. Imagine that your spine was perfectly straight and rigid – you’d have a lot of injuries and possibly bones would break! A little flex is a good thing.
The bones (vertebrae) in the spine are stacked up with little discs between them. When the low back is in its neutral position the rest of the spine seems to position itself correctly too. So the inward curve (‘lordosis’) of the low back is very important to the health of the whole spine. If the curve is lost for long periods (as in sitting or bending for a long time) pressure builds up in the discs, ligaments are stretched to their limits, and pain can result.
The discs also absorb shock, by changing shape as you move – thick gel in the centre of the disc (the nucleus) squeezes between back and front, and one side to the other, within rings of tough, fibrous tissue (the ‘annulus’).
The back pain I was experiencing, after long periods of driving, was ‘postural pain’. Postural pain is pain or ache from too much stretch or pressure on normal tissue. There is no actual damage yet. Any part of the body can feel pain from overstretch of tissues. Here we see a finger bent back – not a pleasant sensation, especially after a few minutes of holding it in this extreme position.
But there is no physical damage, pain is only a warning here. Hey buddy, you’d better let up or you’re going to do some real harm! Yet we carelessly abuse our spines in the same way on a daily basis, without a thought. I knew I risked actual damage if I persisted with my poor sitting posture in the motorhome.
Most of our movements are in the forward direction. We sit to work at desks and computers, sit to drive, and even sit to relax. We bend over to pick things up, to put on our shoes and socks, to wash our feet, and other activities. We seldom bend backward!
So self-treatment for postural discomfort or pain is easy – remove the pressure and reverse the curve. The tissues in the spine don’t have a good blood supply to provide oxygen and nutrients. They depend on the pumping action of movement for their health. So interrupt static postures frequently and move. Reverse the bad curve you settle into when resting or working. Do it frequently, perhaps every half an hour, or more often if you are already feeling discomfort.
Do as much as you can to put your lumbar curve in its neutral position. As sitting reduces the lumbar curve, try using a lumbar roll or even a towel (rolled up and tucked behind the low back) when sitting at home, work, or in the car. This posture will help all areas of the spine.
Is your mid or low back giving you pain?
There is one simple and effective exercise to prevent low and mid back pain. This exercise is remarkably effective in preventing and relieving posture pain, and you can do it ‘on the job’:
1/ Stand up, feet slightly apart, hands spread over the small of your back.
2/ Gently move your hips forward, extending the arch in the low back. (Say slowly to yourself as you do the movement, pressure on…pressure off…pressure on…pressure off… and this will give you the rhythm for the movement.)
3/ Return to the starting position.
Do five of these stretches several times a day, perhaps more often if you are sitting for long periods or are having discomfort. Interrupt an activity with this exercise frequently, before pain begins.
Caution: do not push your spine through pain at all. Don’t jerk or ‘bounce’ the movement, keep it smooth. Go as far as you can but ease off the pressure if you feel any soreness, pain or stiffness. You can’t hurt yourself if you do the stretch this way. If pain begins to increase with the repetition or moves further away from your spine (into the buttock, for example, or down into the leg) you have either put too much enthusiasm into it, or have gone past postural pain to having an actual injury which stops you from doing this exercise at this time. (Look for my blog on treating your own back pain.) This video clip will show you how to do this exercise.
Is your neck or upper back the problem?
This easy exercise is useful for preventing and treating neck and upper back pain and stiffness:
1/ Sit comfortably in a chair with a back in it. (The back should not be too high.)
2/ While looking straight ahead, gently tuck your chin in, pulling your head backward as far as you can. It should be a smooth movement. Do not push through pain or stiffness. Go as far as you can without pain or discomfort.
3/ Relax, returning to the starting position.
Repeat the exercise five times. Say to yourself: pressure on…pressure off…pressure on…pressure off…to give the rhythm of the exercise.
Do this exercise several times a day, five repetitions each time. Do it more often if your spine is in a position of strain for long periods of time.
You will feel relief from postural pain very quickly. However, if your back or neck is stiff, don’t be surprised if it takes weeks or even months to regain movement – it has stiffened up over a long period of time; it will take time to restore the range. Don’t approach this too enthusiastically or you may make your joints sore!
If you have neck pain which begins to increase with the repetition or moves further away from your spine (into the shoulder for example, or down into the arm) you have either put too much enthusiasm into it, or you have gone past postural pain to having an injury which prevents you from doing this exercise at this time. (Look for my blog on treating your own neck pain.)
Make these two exercises part of your routine for life. Don’t forget to do them even when you have no more pain – they are very effective at preventing spinal pain if done regularly.
Here’s to self-treatment!
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