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 the third most common cause of surgery. And 56% 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, “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 mistakes that may be causing your aches and how to correct them for good:
1. You have a long commute.
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.”
2. You’re a desk jockey.
Did you know that sitting puts 40% more pressure on your spine than standing? But let’s be honest: Maintaining proper posture is probably the last thing you’re thinking about when under a 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.
3. You skip the gym.
Get moving to alleviate aches and pains andfix back pain faster. Research shows that 40% 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 Raj Rao, MD. For instant relief, he recommends stretching your hamstrings and hips.
4. Your mattress is really old.
Can’t remember the last time you replaced it? Your back may be in trouble. A good mattress lasts 9 to 10 years, according to the National Sleep Foundation, but consider replacing yours every 5 to 7 years if you don’t sleep well or your back throbs. A study at Oklahoma State University found that most people who switched to new bedding after 5 years slept significantly better and had less back pain.
Fix it: When you do replace your mattress, take a Goldilocks approach: Pick one that’s not too squishy or too hard. Very firm mattresses can increase pressure on the spine and worsen pain, say Spanish researchers. A study of 313 people revealed that those who caught Zzzs on medium-firm mattresses were more likely to report pain improvement than those on firmer ones. To help ease nighttime discomfort even more, tuck a pillow under your knees if you sleep on your back, between your knees if you’re a side sleeper, or beneath your stomach and hips if you snooze on your belly.
5. 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 three 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.
6. You’re a crunch addict.
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 (non-crunch!)exercises like these. Added bonus: you’ll whittle your middle and beat hard-to-torch belly fat while improving posture and relieving back pain.
7. You’re not the best eater.
Research shows that eating habits that are good for your heart, weight, and blood sugar are also good for your back. Finnish research found that people who suffered from back pain were more likely to have clogged arteries to the spine than healthy control subjects. Healthy circulation brings nutrients to the spine and removes waste, says Sinett. If this doesn’t happen, inflammation can result, and inflammatory chemicals in the back can trigger nerves to send pain signals to the brain.
Fix it: A back-healthy diet is one that reduces inflammation, according to the The Truth about Back Pain. The book’s plan advises avoiding excess caffeine and processed foods (read ingredient labels for the following: hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, enriched wheat flour, words ending in -ìose, and additives that end in -ìates or -ites), and eating more whole grains, soy, nuts and seeds, protein (chicken, fish, lean meat), vegetables, and fruit.
8. You love high heels Or flip-flops.
Both lead to foot instability, which can in turn affect your back. High heels force you to arch your back, making your spinal muscles work harder. Backless shoes like sandals cause your feet to move from side to side, according to Sinett, which distributes your body weight unevenly and can cause pain.
Fix it: You don’t have to forgo trendy footwear—just don’t walk long distances in them. Commute in comfy flats or supportive sneakers, and consider adding cushioning inserts to uncomfy shoes. When Lehigh University researchers gave back-pain sufferers lightweight, flexible shoes with simple cushions, 80% reported significant relief within a year. (Try these 4 exercises for high-heel wearers.)
9. You ignore the pain.
Trying to block out pain could make it worse, finds research from the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. A better approach: Let yourself consciously experience the hurt. In a standard pain test, psychologists had 68 back-pain sufferers plunge their hands or feet into ice water. When the volunteers were instructed to suppress the shock of the icy water, a key muscle in the back clenched. In contrast, the muscle didn’t tense up when volunteers thought only about the shock. Over time, an increase in muscle tension intensifies pain, says lead researcher John W. Burns, PhD.
Fix it: Accepting pain may be the best way to mentally cope. “Try thinking about the sensory details of the experience, not the negative emotions,” says Burns. “If you have a back spasm, describe the pain to yourself—if it’s burning or throbbing—and remind yourself that it will pass.”
10. You bend your back during work