Our back is an essential part of virtually everything we do. Our back hosts the muscles that allow us to stand straight, and the spine allows our brain to communicate with the rest of the body, enabling us to function. Despite its importance, how often do you think about the health of your back? Experiencing back pain is extremely common, affecting 1 in 6 UK individuals annually.1 Whilst many understand the inconvenience that back pain can cause us, few consider that it could be a sign of poor spine, bone, or muscular health. To help prevent back pain, let’s take a look at what causes it and how we can maintain a healthy back.
Types of back pain
Back pain is an extremely broad term. Like any type of pain, back pain is split into three main categories: acute, subacute, and chronic.
Acute: Experienced over a short duration of time, lasting no longer than four weeks.
Subacute: Experienced over a period of 1-3 months.
Chronic: Experienced regularly or constantly over a period of over three months.
Back pain can be caused by a wide variety of factors, all of which can contribute to acute, subacute and chronic pain:
- Muscle tears, sprains, and strains
- Bone fractures
- Poor posture
- Repetitive movements (e.g. continuous bending over or twisting)
- Slipped/bulging or herniated discs
- Spinal arthritis
- Spinal cancer
Back pain and lifestyle factors
Whilst anyone can suffer back pain, there are certain lifestyle factors that can increase our risk of having back pain.
Sedentary Behaviour – Leading a sedentary lifestyle has been shown to significantly increase the risk of back pain.2 After prolonged periods of inactivity, the muscles in the back become stiff and weak, increasing the risk of pain and injury.
Obesity – Excess fat, especially around the stomach, changes our centre of gravity by pushing it forward. As a result, the muscles in our back become strained, causing pain.
Diet – Diets high in sugars, saturated fats, and inflammatory foods can significantly increase the risk of obesity and inflammation in our back, both of which increase the risk of back pain.
Smoking – Smoking has been shown to significantly increase the risk of a range of back related medical conditions. For example, osteoporosis and lumbar disc disease, both of which can cause substantial levels of back pain.
Occupation – Those with jobs that involve regular heavy lifting and repetitive motions are at an increased risk of overuse. Overuse can lead to injuries and muscle strains, causing back pain.
Ways to prevent back pain
According to a study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, those who regularly exercise are 16% less likely to suffer from back pain.3 Each week, try to incorporate 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, cycling and swimming) and 2 resistance training sessions with back strengthening exercises (e.g. bridges and pelvic tilts). In doing so, you will reduce your risk of an array of medical conditions that can cause back pain, including obesity and osteoporosis. Additionally, the resistance exercises will help strengthen the muscles located in your back, providing support for the bones in your back and reducing the stress placed on them.
Research indicates that our dietary choices can influence our risk of back pain by as much as 49%.4 Simply following a healthy, balanced diet can significantly help reduce the risk of becoming obese, as well asprovide the muscles with adequate levels of protein to maintain strength, supporting the bones located in our back. However, consuming high amounts of anti-inflammatory foods, such as leafy greens, tomatoes, and salmon, can help significantly reduce back inflammation, which in turn reduces the amount of back pain we experience.
According to the sleep experts at Sleep Foundation, sleeping on your side with a firm flat pillow between your legs is an extremely effective way of preventing back pain.5 When in this position, your spine will remain in line with your hips, preventing pressure from building up in your lower back. For additional benefits, ensure to sleep on your left side to improve circulation and reduce the risk of night cramps.
Attention to posture
Even the way we walk and sit can contribute to back pain if done incorrectly. The NHS report that those who slouch forward when standing or sitting down are at an increased risk of developing back problems.6 Poor posture can lead to stress being distributed unevenly across our back, meaning certain areas become overworked and strained, causing us pain and injuries. But what is actually considered ‘good posture?’ Good posture involves:
- Standing up straight
- Keeping your neck straight with your head facing forward
- Shoulders kept in line with the hips
- Feet kept at a shoulder width apart
Avoid repetitive movements
Individuals that regularly perform repetitive movements, such as bending over or pulling a heavy load, are at an increased risk of suffering back pain. Repetitive movements place continuous strain on the muscles being utilised to perform the action. Overtime, this strain can cause our muscles to tear, causing further pain and a potentially serious injury. Of course for some, performing these types of movements are a regular part of their occupation or hobby (e.g. gardening or lifting heavy loads at work). Fortunately, there are methods we can use to limit the risk of back pain and injury, these include:
- Taking regular breaks to prevent muscle fatigue and strain
- Maintaining good posture whilst completing tasks
- If possible, modify the way you complete the task (e.g. regularly switch which arm is carrying a heavy bag)
- If you have multiple tasks to do, regularly switch between them to allow certain muscles to recover whilst others work
Lowering our stress levels can help reduce the risk of experiencing back pain. A recent study found that regular bouts of stress can make an individual 2.8 times more likely to suffer from back pain.7 When stressed, our body releases hormones that force the muscles in our shoulders, back, and neck to become tense, placing a strain on our back. The longer this goes on, the higher the strain and pain we experience in our back. Fortunately, there are ways we can both prevent and reduce our stress levels, some of the most effective methods include:
- Taking deep breaths
- Progressive muscles relaxation
- Listening to calming music
- Regular physical activity
- Healthy diet
Treatment for back pain
The treatment required for back pain is highly dependent on the cause and type of back pain you are suffering from. In most cases, treatment for acute back pain will not require specialist medical attention. Instead, treatment will likely consist of some home-based remedies, such as:
- Using ice packs
- Using heat packs
- Incorporating gentle exercises and stretching
- Taking pain medication
Whilst some of the above treatments may be useful, it is more likely that those suffering with chronic back pain will require specialist medical attention. Some of the most common treatment options for chronic back pain include:
- Specialised exercise programme/classes
- Neural Blockade (blocks nerve pain)
In recent years, events such as ‘world spine day’ led by the World Federation of Chiropractic have been organised to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining the health of our spines and back muscles.8 Implementing some of the methods previously mentioned in this article could be highly beneficial for both the short- and long-term health of your back, reducing your risk of back pain. If back pain is a regular occurrence for you, visit a health care professional to assess what may be causing the pain and how it can be prevented in future.
- ‘Musculoskeletal Calculator’. Public Health England. https://www.versusarthritis.org/media/13183/portsmouth-back-pain.pdf
- Citko, Anna, et al. ‘Sedentary Lifestyle and Nonspecific Low Back Pain in Medical Personnel in North-East Poland’. BioMed Research International, vol. 2018, 2018, p. 1965807. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/1965807
- Shiri, Rahman, and Kobra Falah-Hassani. ‘Does Leisure Time Physical Activity Protect against Low Back Pain? Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 36 Prospective Cohort Studies’. British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 51, no. 19, Oct. 2017, pp. 1410–18. bjsm.bmj.com, https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2016-097352
- Zick, Suzanna Maria, et al. ‘Association of Chronic Spinal Pain with Diet Quality’. Pain Reports, vol. 5, no. 5, Aug. 2020, p. e837. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1097/PR9.0000000000000837
- ‘What Are the Best Positions for Sleeping?’ Sleep Foundation, 29 Apr. 2021, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleeping-positions
- ‘Common Posture Mistakes and Fixes’. Nhs.Uk, 30 Apr. 2018, https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/common-posture-mistakes-and-fixes/
- Choi, Sungwoo, et al. ‘Association between Chronic Low Back Pain and Degree of Stress: A Nationwide Cross-Sectional Study’. Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, July 2021, p. 14549. www.nature.com, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-94001-1
- 2021 WORLD SPINE DAY THEME ANNOUNCED. April 12, 2021. https://www.wfc.org/website/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=609%3A2021-world-spine-day-theme-announced-april-12-2021-&catid=56%3Anews--publications&Itemid=27&lang=en
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