The secret to having a healthy back is pretty simple. Most back injuries are due to a build up of repetitive stress over time or a lot of stress applied suddenly ( falling, car accident). The stronger your back is, the more stress it can take before breaking down. Easier said than done, right? Not if you follow these five simple “secrets”.
—Don’t lift with back. The spine is designed to do many things well, but lifting is not one of them. Our arms and legs are designed to provide the power for lifting. The spine is designed to provide a stable platform for the arms and legs, and to transfer power between upper and lower limbs. Compared to using your legs, which are much, much more powerful, lifting with your back is very (mechanically) inefficient. When you lift with your back, you put extra stress on all the tissues (muscles, ligaments, disks, etc) attached to the spine. Sometimes, that extra stress is more than the tissues can tolerate—and they literally rip apart—causing pain.
—The stronger your legs are, the more likely you will use them to lift. Maintaining good leg strength is essential for a healthy back. Most people bend at the waist to pick something up off the floor instead of bending their knees because it is “too much effort” to squat. But since your back is a poor lifting substitute for your legs (see above), weak legs or a reluctance to squat will increase your risk of suffering a back injury. Studies show that performing exercises such as chair squats on a regular basis increases the likelihood of a person squatting when lifting or picking an object off the floor. If your legs are strong enough that squatting is effortless, you will have less of a reason to bend at the waist.
—Flexibilty: Decreased flexibility of the arms and legs increases stress on the back because it has to bend or twist more to make up for the loss of motion occuring at the arm/leg. For example, when reaching up high for an object that is barely out of reach, a person is more likely to arch their back in an effort to raise their arm higher instead of standing on a stool to increase the height of their reach. A flexible person has less need to use their back as an arm or leg “extender”.
—Strong core muscles protect the spine: The core muscles are primarily all the muscles between the hips and the ribcage. If these muscles are strong and trained to function smoothly as a unit, they will actually reduce the amount of stress being placed on the spine at any given time…not just when lifting. The core muscles form a cylinder around the spine and abdomen, helping to diperse any force being applied to the spine. They also help maintain good alignment/posture of the spine.
—Maintain good posture: Good posture is the natural position of the spine. This is the alignment that puts the least amount of stress on the spine. Any position that deviates from this, increases the stress on the spine. Remember, once your spine has been subjected to a certain amount of stress, it will start to breakdown. You need to have strong core muscles and strong upper back muscles to be able to maintain good posture. Observe gymnasts and dancers (or any athletes that emphasize strong postural muscles in their training) when they are sitting or casually walking around. They have great posture—even when they are not thinking about it—because their postural muscles are strong. Having good posture is important, but being able to maintain good posture throughout the day (and strong core and upper back muscles are essential for this) is the key.
The secret to having a healthy back is mostly common sense. Stay active, minimize the stress to your back, keep your back and core muscles strong, and you will have a great chance of having a healthy back for a lifetime.
Visit our Back Physical Therapy page to gain insight on our philosophy and treatment of this common ailment.