Back pain isn’t just about heavy lifting or sleeping the wrong way. Here are some surprising everyday habits that cause aches and pains—and how to feel better.
Get to the Bottom of Your Back Pain
Back pain sends more patients to doctors than any condition other than the common cold.
It’s the fifth most common reason for hospitalizations and third most common cause of surgery. And 56 percent of people with lower-back aches say symptoms disrupt their daily routines, including sleep and sex. Talk about a pain in the...back.
There are many possible causes of back pain, which means there are also many non-invasive solutions, according to Todd Sinett, a chiropractor and coauthor of The Truth about Back Pain.
"Back pain is rarely one catastrophic event," he says in the book, "but several situations combining to create pain." And it turns out that some seemingly insignificant everyday habits can take a big toll on your back over time. Here, the top 14 mistakes that may be causing your aches and how to correct them.
1. You’re Chained to Your Desk
Did you know that sitting puts 40 percent more pressure on your spine than standing?
Let’s be honest: Maintaining proper posture is probably the last thing you’re thinking about when under a major work deadline. And on a jam-packed day, regular stretching breaks may not seem like a wise way to spend your time. But skipping these habits may cause your back to suffer. That’s because back muscles will weaken if you don’t use them; inactive joints lose lubrication and age more quickly.
Fix It: Sitting at a 135-degree angle can reduce compression of the discs in the spine, so lean back slightly every now and then. Do it when you take a phone call or a coworker stops by to chat, Sinett recommends. Make sure your office chair supports the curve of your spine, he says: Your lower back should be supported, and your head should be straight—not lurching forward—when you look at your computer screen. Get up and walk around for a couple of minutes every half hour—take trips to get water, use the bathroom, or grab papers off the printer.
2. You Have a Long Commute
Just like at your desk, hunching over a steering wheel can tighten chest muscles and cause your shoulders to round.
Slumping posture can zap energy and make you look heavier, not to mention cause back and neck problems. Back pain is the number one complaint of the patients of Darran W. Marlow, DC, director of the chiropractic division at the Texas Back Institute, and he advises them to first think about their driving posture.
Fix it: "Be sure you sit at a 90-degree angle, close to the wheel so you don't have to stretch," he says. "Extending your leg puts your back in a compromised position, but many people don't even realize they're doing it."
3. You’ve Been Ditching the Gym
Get moving to alleviate aches and pains and fix back pain faster.
New research shows that 40 percent of people become less active after back pain strikes—a strategy that's likely to delay healing or even make their condition worse.
Fix it: In fact, most sufferers would benefit from more exercise—particularly frequent walks, which ease stiffness, says spine surgeon Dr. Raj Rao. For instant relief, he recommends stretching your hamstrings and hips. Moves like these will take some strain off your back.
4. You Don’t Do Yoga
By improving circulation and lowering stress, just about any kind of exercise promotes back pain recovery. But yoga may be best.
University of Washington researchers say yoga eases lower-back pain faster than conventional exercises. In a different study, 101 patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group took weekly yoga classes and practiced at home; the second group participated in weekly exercise sessions developed by a physical therapist, plus practiced at home; and the third group received a self-help back care book. After 3 months, the yoga group had better back-related functioning, compared with the other two groups. And after 6 months, patients who took yoga reported less back pain and better back-related functioning. Because it promotes deep breathing and relaxation, as well as stretching and strength, yoga may help with both emotional and structural triggers of back pain.
Fix it: You can find yoga classes everywhere—at gyms, YMCAs, and local studios. Make sure to tell the instructor about your pain so she can help modify certain moves for you. Or check out our yoga videos on prevention.com to mix and match your own soothing workout.
5. You’re Addicted to Crunches
Sit-ups and crunches may actually cause more back pain than they prevent, according to Sinett.
We hear all the time how a strong core protects your back, which is true. But crunches don’t work the ab muscles that stabilize your back. In fact, they can contribute to pain by causing what Sinett calls core imbalance, "a condition of excessive compression, which results in the spine curving forward in a C-like shape."
Fix it: You don’t have to ditch crunches entirely, but you should do them slowly and use proper form. Include them as part of a broader core workout that also strengthens your transverse abdominus. This muscle is particularly important for a strong, steady core that supports your back, and the best way to strengthen it is with (noncrunch!) exercises like these. Added bonus: You’ll whittle your middle and beat hard-to-torch belly fat while improving posture and relieving back pain.