Back pain, or dorsalgia, is a very common pain. Nearly 9 out of 10 people suffer from back pain, occasionally or regularly. In the vast majority of cases, pain is caused by poor posture and repeated bad movements. It is therefore possible to avoid these pains, provided you follow a few simple rules on a daily basis.
Your back pain can have different causes. Often, there is no associated pathology. Pain is caused by prolonged misalignment of your spine. The majority of back pain could thus be avoided by prevention. Inflammatory rheumatic diseases, congenital spinal deformities and degenerative diseases cannot be prevented, however, and painful symptoms can still be reduced by these same preventive measures. The use of balms, such as Tiger Balm, can also help reduce back pain.
Movements and postures that cause back pain
Some movements should be avoided at all costs to protect your spine :
- Bend in half and lean forward with both legs straight
- Carry a heavy object with arms stretched upwards
- Lift a load while leaning forward
- Make sudden torsions of the bust, with excessive amplitude or carrying loads
- Wear heels longer than 4 cm over an extended period of time
- Take steps that are too big when walking
- Steps too long when walking
- Extend the lumbar or cervical vertebrae too much (head backwards)
- Play sports that cause falls or vibrations
- Stretch the hip with standing extensions (classical stretching of the calves, with one leg bent forward and one leg stretched backwards)
- Spread your legs too far apart when standing upright
Among all these harmful movements for the back, we often find the same postural problems that cause pain :
- The back is too hollow. Try to raise your arms, you will see that your back is curved. Same thing when you’re walking with heeled shoes, when you’re making very big steps or hip extension stretches.
- The back is too rounded. This is the case when you sit a little slumped, when you lift a load while leaning forward…
Back pain: the right movements and positions
The right posture and gesture are those that help avoid the potentially painful situations mentioned. Always try to keep your back as straight as possible, without curving or bending.
- The right position when you are sitting (in front of your computer, at the office, on a sofa, in the car, etc.): don’t let a hollow in your lower back. If necessary, place a lumbar cushion or rolled-up towel on the lumbar region. Keep an alignment between the head, shoulders and pelvis. Position your legs so that they form a 90° angle, with your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest. Forget the crossed legs!
- The right position when you’re lying down: we all have a favourite position to sleep on our backs, stomachs or sides. Regardless of this position, it is important to prevent the back from becoming hollow. On the side: place a small cushion between the waist and the mattress and another between the two bent knees. On the belly: place a cushion under the hips; ideally, it is better to avoid this position for too long as it promotes pain in the lumbar and cervical muscles. On the back: place a cushion under your knees to protect the alignment between head, shoulder and pelvis.
- The right position to pick up an object on the ground: you have several options, all designed to keep your back straight. One is to bend one leg, bend over and lift the other leg backwards, while you lean forward. Another is to put a knee on the ground, right next to the object to pick up. You can also bend both legs to get closer to the ground, but always keeping your back straight.
- The right position to lift a load or an object above the head: you need to learn lumbar locking. Tightened abdominals and buttocks, put the pelvis in retroversion (belly tucked in and buttocks tightened), very slightly bent soft legs. If you pick up a heavy object, remember to combine the right movement (among those listed above) and exhale deeply by lifting the load (to strengthen the contraction of the abdominal muscles).
- The right position to stand upright: your back should remain straight, keeping the alignment of the neck, pelvis and heel. Always keep in mind the retroversion of the pelvis if you wear something, either in front of you (baby) or behind you (backpack). Shoulder bags can unbalance the back on one side, so choose bags that are balanced on both shoulders.
Tips for daily back pain prevention
Many tricks and reflexes to apply in your everyday life can help you avoid back pain.
- Avoid staying in the same position for too long. This is especially true when the static position is bad, whether at work, in the car or during sleep. Move around often, get up from your seat, walk.
- Avoid sports that are too violent or practiced with poor equipment (in the case of impact sports, such as running, invest in good running shoes that cushion shocks). For the back, the worst sport is still no sport at all. Against back pain, it is necessary to stay in motion as much as possible and escape sedentarity.
- As you get older, think about doing things in a split fashion, that is, not doing the same activity for long hours. Mow the lawn, repaint the living room… will have to be done in increments of 2 hours maximum, with breaks between each. We also need to think about heating up the body and joints.
- Wear a lumbar belt for certain activities if you are prone to back pain. Wearing it for 2 hours, for gardening for example, won’t melt your muscles.
- When you wake up in the morning, stretch your back. The joints have remained in the same position for a long time, it is preferable to wake them up gently.
- Hydrate yourself! The intervertebral discs (pads that act as shock absorbers between each vertebrae) are composed of 80% water. If you don’t drink enough, they suffer!
- If you are a smoker, get help to quit smoking. Tobacco degrades the intervertebral discs and therefore promotes back pain.
- Watch your weight, lose a few pounds if you’re overweight.
- For children, make sure that the schoolbags are not too heavy: no more than 3 to 4 kg in the junior high school; preferably, choose schoolbags with wheels.
- Periods of stress and overwork promote back pain. Learn to manage your stress by practising relaxing activities: meditation, yoga, sophrology…
- Follow basic lifestyle advice: a balanced diet, regular physical activity…
Preventing back pain: the value of muscle strengthening and stretching
To best protect your spinal column, the joint chain needs to be supported by a group of strong muscles. We often think of strengthening the back muscles, that goes without saying. But other muscle groups are essential. Whatever activity you choose, depending on your tastes and your physical condition, you must work hard :
- Back muscles: never do too much!
- Straight and transverse abdominal muscles: each muscle group in our body works with an antagonistic group that balances forces and movements. Parallel to the back muscles, it is therefore necessary to strengthen the abdominals, to create a balanced belt around the spine.
- Leg muscles: if you are doing the right movement to pick up a load on the ground, by bending your knees, you will need strength in the legs to get up. Without it, the back muscles will force and your spine will suffer.
- Arm and shoulder muscles: for the same reasons as leg muscles. If your arms are weak, when you carry something, the muscles around the spine will push instead. Strong arms and shoulders (not necessarily bodybuilded!) are important to avoid back pain.
- The gluteal muscles: they are essential for the “lumbar locking”, the posture to adopt as often as possible to create a protective framework all around the spine.
Which exercises to choose? The ones that suit you, the ones you enjoy doing. There is no need to plan programs that you will not follow in the long run. There are many different exercises for working out the same muscle group. Standing, sitting, lying down exercises… The important thing is to find the one you feel comfortable in. If you notice a slight imbalance on one side when you do exercises, work a little more on that side. The idea is to rebalance the muscles, gently.
In addition to strengthening your muscles, you will also need to maintain the flexibility of your joints, tendons and ligaments. The most important stretches to avoid back pain are:
- Hip stretching
- Stretching of the anterior and posterior thigh muscles
- Lateral stretching of the bust, through right and left inclinations
- Rotational stretching of the bust: the rotations must be very gentle to avoid disc pain
As with strength training exercises, find out about the different stretches that may be right for you. The important thing is then to practice them regularly.
All of these tips apply to everyone. It is easier to remember them when you are in a painful crisis, we tend to forget them when everything is better. It’s a bit idealistic to think that all the good gestures and movements will be adopted on a daily basis. This would require a review of all our habits.