Over 80-percent of Americans experience back pain at some time during their lives. It is, in fact, one of the most common reasons for both missing work, and for visits to the doctor. In most cases the pain is in the lower back, and this is the form we will concentrate on in this article. One of the major problems in relation to back pain is that it is usually very difficult to isolate its cause, and it can be caused by many things. A few of these things can be serious; in most cases, however, it is due to over-stretching the muscles of the back, and can be cured in a few weeks. (In this article we’ll look mostly at physical ways to treat it, and will not deal with medicines.)
Anatomy of the Backbone
Let’s begin by looking at the backbone. It is made up of twenty-five vertebrae, but it’s the lowest five (called the lumbar) that usually cause the most problems. Between the vertebrae are fibrous disks that act like cushions to prevent the vertebrae from rubbing together. These disks contain a gelatinous material that absorbs any force that is applied to the vertebrae.
Over time, however, the disks lose a lot of their flexibility, and become less effective in absorbing the forces imposed on the backbone. In addition the fibrous cover of the disk may weaken, and this may lead to part of the disk being pushed out beyond the confines of the backbone. In a sense it’s like a weakened section of an inner tube that has ruptured and is bulging outward. It is referred to as a ruptured disk. Severe pain can occur if the rupture presses against one of the nerves that pass through the backbone and you must see a doctor if this is suspected.
Also, there are small opening between the vertebrae that allow the nerves from the spinal column to pass through.
Main Causes of Lower Back Pain
Although a ruptured disk is one way that lower back pain can come about, a more common cause is over-stressing the muscles and tendons associated with the backbone. Tears can occur in the muscle fibers if this happens, and as a result they may bleed into the surrounding muscle. This irritates the muscle fibers and causes them to go into spasm to protect themselves. It is this spasm that causes the pain. Pain can occur immediately after the injury, or the next morning. It is important to break up this spasm as quickly as possible. The major reason is that the longer it remains, the harder it is to get rid of, and the weaker the surrounding muscles become. In addition, it can become chronic if not treated immediately. The best way to get rid of it is to stretch the muscle. But make sure you do it slowly and carefully. This is referred to as the acute case.
Ice is usually used early on to stop the swelling as much as possible. Later, when the swelling has stopped, heat is more effective.
For serious back pain that doesn’t go away it is a good idea to see a qualified practitioner. As I mentioned earlier, there are many other reasons for back pain and you have to be sure it isn’t being caused by something serious.
Importance of a Straight Back
One of the most important thing you can do to prevent back pain is keep your back straight. The lower five vertebrae are subject to tremendous stress as you twist and turn your torso. And this may cause you to arch or distort your back when it begins to tire or weaken. This is not a good. When you arch your back you distort the backbone’s normal curve, throwing the vertebrae off-center causing a shearing force that pushes them sideways. This puts more force on the muscles around the backbone, and if it is kept up for long, a physical movement can occur, or the muscles can tear, both of which will create pain.
So it’s important to keep your back straight at all time, particularly when you are lifting.
Importance of Strong Abdomen Muscles
As we saw above, the muscles behind and to the side of the backbone are critical in keeping it straight. But there are other muscles that are also important, and the main ones of these are the abdomen muscles. Although they are not attached directly to the backbone, they play an important role. For proper stability the back muscles and the abdominals must complement one another. In most people, however, this is not the case. Their back muscles are relatively strong from frequent use, but their abdominal muscles are weak. (This is usually seen as an overstretched, pot belly.)
The best way to strengthen these muscles is with crunches or curl-ups. People usually think of sit-ups as a good exercise for this, but crunches are much better. In this exercise you lie on your back with your hands resting together on your chest, then slowly curl your head and shoulders so that your shoulder blades are just above the floor. Hold this position for a few moments, then slowly lower your back to the floor. It is important to make sure your back stays straight, so you feel the force on your stomach. Do several sets of about five, if possible.
Preventing Back Pain
The most important thing in relation to back pain is preventing it, and as I mentioned above, exercise is the best way to accomplish this. Exercise is also particularly useful in relieving chronic back pain. The following are several exercises that will help strengthen both your back and abdomen muscles. With these muscles in good shape your chance of back pain will be decreased considerably.
1. Lie down on your back. Lift your legs together over your head as far as possible and press several times. You can use your hand to support the position by placing them on your hips.
2. Down on your back again. Cup your hands around one of your legs and pull it into your chest. Hold it for a few seconds. Do the same with the other leg.
3. The above exercise can also be done with the legs straight up, perpendicular to your body. Cup your hand around them (above the knee) one at a time and pull several times.
4. On your back again. Raise your knees and place your hands behind your neck. Move the right elbow to touch the left knee as you pull it forward, then reverse them and touch the left elbow to the right knee.
5. Lie on your back again. Raise your legs a few inches off the floor. Pull them into your chest, then straighten them out, keeping them off the floor.
6. This exercise is particularly good for your back. From a sitting position on the floor, curl your knees into your chest and hold them with your arms. Then roll back and forth on your back.
7. Sit on the floor with your legs extended and place your hands behind your neck. Cross one leg over the other, then twist your trunk over the knee. Alternate to the other knee.
8. Stand with your legs apart. Lean over slightly and arch your back. Raise your hands over your head, then slowly touch your toes. Raise up and repeat.
9. Walking, particularly fast walking, is also good for your back. Stretch out your legs as you walk.
Start out with about 10 of each of the above exercises and gradually increase the number.
Other Things That are Also Helpful
1. Sitting for long periods of time is particularly hard on your back. Get up at least once an hour and walk around. Also every fifteen minutes or so make a point of pulling in your stomach and straightening your back.
2. Always warm up and stretch before any strenuous physical activity (and warm down).
3. Avoid slouching and bending over as much as possible.
4. When you have to lift something heavy, avoid bending over. Lift with your legs.
5. Be careful of your sleep position. Sleeping on your side is best.
6. Control your weight
7. Wear comfortable shoes.
8. Drink enough water and take vitamin D and calcium.
9. Stretching your back by holding onto the top of a door or something similar and pulling downward is also helpful.
Barry Parker, Ph. D., is a professor emeritus (physics, biophysics) at Idaho State University. He is the author of 25 books on science, health, writing and music. He has a strong interest in health and fitness, self-improvement and music. His most recent book is “Learn from Yesterday, Live for Today, Hope for Tomorrow.” He is also the author of “Feel great Feel alive.” His website is http://www.Barryparkerbooks.com
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