Possibly the most common complaint in any orthopedic or physical therapist's office is the dreaded low back pain or neck pain. Often, these chronic conditions are a direct result of our own doing, and it seldom happens that the moderately fit and flexible would show up with such symptoms.
The human spine is a versatile, shock-absorbing and surprisingly flexible structure consisting of a set of appropriate curves based on the load-bearing sections. For example, our cervical or neck curve formed during our infancy when we began to elevate our heads for the first time. Our lumbar, or lower back curve, began to form when we first started to walk. Attached to our spine are a series of elastic but essential muscles, including the large, postural muscles, shoulder muscles, abdominal and core muscles deep within.
The lumbar and cervical curves of the spine bear a lot of weight – the neck must bear the weight of our heads and the brain harbored within, and the lower back must take twice that load, holding up the entire body and all of the muscles, bones and internal structures upright during waking hours. When you experience low back pain, usually after a specific period of on-off spasms that could span for weeks, it is usually an indication of something mechanically gone wrong. The same can be said for neck pain. When an imbalance of load-bearing occurs on the spine and its shock-absorbing curves, we can expect pain to ensue.
Where does this pain come from? For starters, there can be several root causes of low back and neck pain, the most disturbing and severe of which your physician, chiropractor or physical therapist can rule out for you. But for a vast majority of people, pain originates from poor posture and excessive over-use or straining of the posterior muscles supporting the curves. In some particular cases, pain can be caused by a slipping disc from between the two vertebrae of the spine. This too, can be caused by postural and load-bearing problems.
Everyday spinal pain can be commonly caused by…
Slouching in front of a computer, whether you’re a student, gamer, blogger or working in an office environment – this can trigger low back and neck pain altogether
Texting for long periods of time in a particular position
Manual labor which requires frequent lifting of heavy objects with poor body mechanics
Previous trauma from a fall, an injury or a road traffic accident
Obesity and poor fitness
Poor sleeping posture
With that said, here are 5 tips to help prevent low back and neck pain before you head to the doctor’s office for those painkillers:
Many people with the condition happen to have a specific type of body shape – a protruding belly, a severe lumbar curve and a package deal of chronic low back pain. If you are obese or even moderately to severely overweight, you may be loading your lumbar spine with a ridiculous amount of stress. This could cause your back muscles to go into severe spasm or your disc to give way, both of which can lead to an array of chronic low back problems.
While easier said than done, the importance of losing weight is underestimated by most people. It is often the first line of treatment for a number of orthopedic cases, including osteoarthritis. Stressing your bones and joints with unnatural stresses they were not made to cope with will result in your body’s protective mechanism backfiring on you – make sure to implement a firm diet and a decent exercise regimen which combines strengthening, aerobics and flexibility to get the best results.
Do you work longer than four to five hours a day in front of a laptop, PC or even paperwork? If so, it’s necessary to implement ergonomics into your work-space. Ensure that your monitor is level with your eyes, your feet are perpendicular to the ground and your back is well supported. If you can’t get access to an ergonomic chair, place a cushion on the curve of the lower back when you sit in a standard chair to give it the support it needs.
Ensure that your shoulder-blades are well in place and you’re not craning your neck to peer at your paper or your screen. Adjust the height of your chair to match your most convenient and pain-free Most importantly, take breaks every 45 minutes to stretch your neck, give it a few rolls, and take a brisk walk or shake out your legs. Muscles of the lower back and trunk take much longer than upper or lower extremity muscles to fatigue, but they will tire eventually. Care for them and they will, in turn, care for you.
Stretch and stroll
As mentioned above, stretching and free exercises are important to maintaining the stability of spinal muscles, whether it be the lower back or the neck. However, there are some vitally important muscles to stretch to achieve desired and quicker results and pain relief:
Hamstrings à often, the shortening of the hamstring muscle on the back of the thigh is the root cause of low back pain. An example of a hamstring stretch would be a straight leg raise at a 90-degree angle or more, passively.
Erector spinae à the large concentrated collection of muscle fascia at the lower back needs to be flexible and intact to support the weight of the trunk on the lumbar spine and keep it upright. An example of a stretch of the erector spinae would be a yoga pose known as Child’s Pose, or knee-to-chest, passively.
Scaleni à the important muscles of the neck maintaining correct posture of the head, this muscle needs to be adequately stretched morning and evening to prevent and relieve any pain or spasm. An example of a scaleni stretch would be a side-bent stretch.
Trapezius à the thick wad of muscle at the back of the neck is also essential to maintaining good posture of the head, and like the scaleni, is important to relieving pain and spasm. An example of a trapezius stretch would be stretching your neck while directing your gaze toward your opposite knee.
Warm it up or just add ice
Both heat and ice can be a source of relief to painful or aching muscles and joints. But in short, heat is used to relieve pain in chronic, long-term muscle spasm whereas ice is excellent to combat inflammation and acute, immediate injuries. Ice is also excellent to complement with regular stretching sessions, usually done before the stretching or strengthening begins.
Apply heat to your lower back or neck as needed for about 15-30 minutes, ensuring that the hot pack or water bottle doesn’t scald your skin by wrapping it in a single towel layer. If desired, you can ask someone to help you perform an ice massage on your affected muscle as it will also help in the long term. Simply freeze some water in a Styrofoam cup with a popsicle stick in the center, much like a popsicle itself. Remove the cup and ice the area in a circular motion for about 15 minutes per session and follow with recommended stretching exercises.
A large majority of studies have proven that thermotherapy (heat) and cryotherapy (cold) work wonders on muscle strength, flexibility and relieving spasm and tightness.
If you wake up and find yourself aching in pain, your mattress or even your pillow could be the cause of this. Invest in a good cervical pillow and mattress when possible. Waterbeds are probably the least orthopedic-friendly, whereas firmer mattresses help with relieving the load off the back. When sleeping, place pillows in appropriate positions, with neck support, between your knees when on your side and under your lower back when lying face-up.
These are just a few tips to help you manage your daily back and neck pains. With patience, persistence and good fitness and health, you’ll be able to return to your life without any traces of muscle spasm or aches. Most of back pain comes and goes on its own within a range of 6-8 weeks. If all fails, see your physician for a full physical assessment and diagnosis.