Spine-related health issues have become a national epidemic. Eighty percent of Americans experience low back pain at some point, and 40 percent of Americans over the age of 40 have degenerative disc disease. Proper spine care can reduce your risk of spinal health problems, back pain, and mobility issues. Even if you already have spinal health issues, lifestyle changes may help with the pain and prevent the problem from getting worse. Here are our top 10 tips for spine care:
1. Stay active
In a demanding, stressful career climate, it’s increasingly common for people to spend most of their lives sitting in cars or in front of computer screens. This sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for chronic pain, spinal health problems, and disc issues.
Stay active throughout the day. Take frequent breaks to walk and stretch, particularly if you feel a twinge of pain. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (such as walking) per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running). Additionally, it’s important to do strength-building exercises that target each major muscle group at least two days per week. More exercise is better, and every age group—even the elderly—needs it.
2. Don’t sit for long periods
Sitting for long periods of time is one of the worst things you can do to your spine. Bad posture is especially dangerous because it puts more pressure on your spine and can eventually lead to ruptured discs.
If you must sit in front of a computer, take a break at least every hour. Practice good posture by keeping your shoulders back and spine straight, with your feet flat on the ground. Strengthening your core can make it easier to maintain a healthy posture.
3. Be careful when lifting
If your legs or core isn’t strong enough to lift heavy objects, your back may compensate for this weakness. This can cause serious back muscle injuries and ultimately contribute to disc degeneration. To lift something heavy, squat with your legs bent and your back straight. If you need to bend forward or strain, the object you are attempting to lift too heavy—get help from someone else.
4. Quit smoking
Smoking is linked to chronic back pain. It can cause spondylosis, a condition that narrows the spinal column, pinches the spine, and triggers chronic pain. It may also play a role in ruptured discs and weakened back muscles. Do whatever you must to quit smoking. Doing so can also make it easier to become more physically active, which can further improve spinal health.
5. Maintain a healthy weight
The more excess weight you carry, the more pressure it places on your back muscles and spine. If your legs and core are weak, your back will compensate for the weakness. This places your spine at risk and is a major factor in back pain. Losing even a few pounds can reduce pain and make it easier to exercise.
6. Manage your stress
Most people have tensed their back or clenched their jaw in response to stress. For some people, this physical response becomes so chronic that they don’t even notice it. Stress makes it difficult for your muscles to relax, weakens your immune system, and interferes with your ability to get healthy sleep and eat a balanced diet. Therefore, find new ways to balance your stress. Exercise, meditation, and stretching are especially beneficial because they may relieve back pain.
7. Protect yourself from injuries and accidents
Many back and spinal cord injuries are preventable. These strategies can reduce your risk:
- Wear a properly fitting helmet every time you bicycle, Rollerblade, ski, or visit a construction site.
- Wear your seatbelt every time you get into the car.
- Don’t dive into the ocean or in shallow water.
- Drive defensively and under the speed limit. Never text and drive.
8. Strengthen your core
Your core muscles help support and stabilize the spine. They also make it easier to safely lift heavy objects and comfortably maintain a healthy posture. Exercises such as planks and yoga, pilates, and other exercise programs that include stretching and bodyweight exercises can support a healthy core.
9. Protect your bones and muscles with proper nutrition
Calcium and vitamin D can help prevent osteoporosis of the spine. Dairy products are rich in both, but you can also get vitamin D from natural sunlight. A balanced, healthy diet can help the muscles and bones remain strong and prevent disc degeneration. Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. Avoid eating too many processed, packaged, and frozen foods.
Your nutritional needs can change with your lifestyle, age, or other factors such as pregnancy. If you know you need to make a change but are unsure how, consider talking to a dietitian or nutritionist.
10. Seek treatment for chronic pain
For too many people, chronic pain becomes the backdrop against which they live their lives. It’s just the way things are—unpleasant, but also unavoidable.
Chronic pain is not normal. It’s not a part of normal aging. It’s not something you have to live with forever. It’s a treatable medical condition. The earlier you seek treatment, the more effective treatment is likely to be. Reclaim your life if you live with chronic pain. See a doctor you trust for a referral to a spine specialist.
Want to learn more about spine care? Tired of living with chronic pain? We’re here to help. Our guide to minimally invasive spine surgery tells you everything you need to know. There is hope. You can recover.
About the author
Robert S. Bray, Jr., M.D. Nicknamed “Dr. Fix-It” by The Red Bulletin, Robert S. Bray, Jr., M.D. makes an art of helping the world’s most elite athletes return to push the boundaries of performance. The neurological spine surgeon, recognized globally for his thorough diagnoses and pioneering minimally invasive approach, is quickly redefining sports medicine, one champion at a time. Dr. Bray founded the state-of-the-art, multi-disciplinary DISC Sports & Spine Center (DISC) in 2006 located in Los Angeles, CA. Read more articles by Robert S. Bray, Jr., M.D..