Friday, May 28, 2010

High-Risk Moments for Your Lower Back

When are you more likely to injure your back? Why can you get into more trouble picking up the newspaper than doing something more challenging? What simple steps can you take to avoid injury and pain? Let's get the answers to these questions and more.

Two Critical Moments

When it comes to your lower back and injury risk, there are two critical times when you need to be especially careful. One is first thing in the morning when the joints in your back are actually a little swollen. You are actually taller because the discs have extra fluid in them. A careless forward bend or twist first thing in the morning can do substantial damage to the discs or other structures in your back. It doesn't seem fair that something as simple as bending and twisting, something you have done thousands of times before, can suddenly cause big problems.

The other critical time is after you have been sitting. Long periods in the car or on an airplane can be especially challenging. In this case, the culprit is something called "creep." This means that your ligaments and tendons lengthen to accommodate the position that you have been in. The ligaments and tendons do not provide the proper protection and stability when they have been lengthened by “creep“. When you first get up from sitting, you are at risk. The longer you have been sitting, the higher that risk. If you sit more upright, with good lumbar support, you will have somewhat less risk.

Here are a couple common events that can contribute to lower back pain. Keep in mind that in all of these scenarios, your back was already vulnerable.

Scenario #1: You didn't sleep well last night, perhaps from sleeping in an unfamiliar bed while traveling. After sitting too long, you get up, feel stiff, but ignore it. You sit back down in a soft chair to read the paper, get up and suddenly there’s a sharp stab in the back.

Scenario #2: You get up from sleeping, and sit at your computer. After getting lost in an article you end up sitting far longer than you planned. You get up, and can't stand completely straight.

Even a good night’s sleep on your favorite bed leaves the small joints and discs in your spine extra hydrated. This is because they have been relatively inactive and there is no pressure compressing them (gravity), forcing some of that fluid out.

If you have a good back, none of this matters. If you have a vulnerable back, it all matters. Ideally, when you get up, you should do some kind of activity that warms up and "wrings out" the excessive fluids. One of my favorites is simply rolling on to your back and bringing each knee (right, left, then both) to your chest. This should be done first thing, before even sitting up in bed. As soon as the spine has to work against gravity, the muscle will contract to keep you upright, preventing some of the motion in the spine. Sitting down at the computer, sitting on the toilet, etc., before a short walk or performing some simple movements can get you into trouble.

So, who has a good back versus a bad back? Unfortunately, most of us have bad backs, at least in the sense that they can be subject to injury and pain at any time. In fact, studies suggest that as many as eight in 10 people experience low back pain during their lifetime. That's a lot of back pain already happening or waiting to happen. As you can tell, some scenarios whereby people experience back pain are all too common.

How to Avoid Injury and Pain

Don't bend over immediately after sitting. Sitting, even in good posture, puts you at risk. The longer you sit and the worse the seat, the more at risk you are. Airplane seats can be very risky because it's hard to get up and move around due to the tight quarters. To make matters worse, the minute the plane stops, you bend over to get luggage from under the seat, or reach up, and twist and lift to get your bag from the overhead compartment. After a long sit, give yourself at least a few seconds of backward bending and/or moving around to “reset” your spine. Then you can carefully, using your hips rather than your back, bend over to pick up something.

When you sit, don't slouch. Slouching amplifies the risks, makes it more likely for something bad to happen to your discs or joints or muscles. Sit up straight and keep your back in a neutral position with some forward curve (or lordosis). Using a lumbar support helps maintain this position. This one simple action can make a huge difference but like any habit, will require you to "Just Do It" for a few weeks. If it’s “too late” and your lower back has already flared, call our office today and get relief!

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