The most common area of the back to get injured is the lumbar region. The five lumbar vertebrae, known as L-1 through L-5, and their surrounding support structures, go through more stress than the rest of the back. The majority of the bodies twisting and bending occurs here. The L-4 and L-5 vertebrae and surrounding discs and soft tissue receive the most wear during a lifetime.
Statistics have shown that most people will suffer some form of back pain or back injury at some point in their life. the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that there over one million back injuries are reported each year. Whether it is caused by improper lifting, repeated twisting or twisting to far, sudden movement from a shock, like a fall or an accident, or just poor posture, there are things that we can do to help prevent these problems. For this post, I’m going to look at some tips to prevent back injury. Keep in mind, this is for prevention only, not if you are already experiencing back issues, that will come later.
According to everything I have read, and doctors and therapists I have talked to, the number one thing you can do to help prevent back problems is proper exercise. I say “proper” because every exercise or exercise program may not be good for everybody. For example, people over 50 should not be doing sit-ups or full crunches. As we age, our back changes. Discs become stiffer and don’t react like they did when we were younger. Sit-ups are bad for you all the way around. We use our hips and thigh muscles, not our back. Sit-ups put a lot of unnecessary stress on the discs which could lead to injury. For the same reason, standing toe touches are to be avoided.
Before you begin any exercise, it’s always a good idea to warm up the muscles with some stretches. Until recently, most trainers would have you do static stretches before a workout. Static stretches are those that have you stretch the various muscles and simply hold the stretch for ten or more seconds before you release it. Research has determined that static stretches do little to warm up the muscles before a workout. It could even do more harm than good. It has been found that static stretching actually reduces the ability to reach top performance.
Dynamic stretches are what trainers call for now. Dynamic stretching involves movement similar to the exercises you are about to do. This type of stretching actually raises the heart rat and warms up the body as well as the muscles and gets them accustomed to the same movements you make while exercising by going through the full range of motion. There are as many dynamic stretches as there are muscles in the body, so I am going to concentrate only on the most common ones for the lower back. The following is a list of recommended dynamic stretches.
- Knees to chest – lie on the floor on your back with both of your knees bent. Raise one leg towards your chest. As your knee nears you chest, wrap your hands around both sides of your knee, or around the back of your thigh if it’s more comfortable. Gently pull your knee toward your chest until you can feel the stretch. Don’t pull so hard that you feel pain, just feel a gentle pull. Then slowly extend you arms and let your let go back to the starting position. Do this 15 to 20 times, then switch to the other leg and repeat.
- Pelvic tilt – lie on the floor with knees bent as before. In the neutral position, you should be able to slide your hand under your lower back. Once your in position, tighten your stomach muscles and slowly tilt your pelvis up. This will bring your lower back in contact with the floor. Then slowly return to the neutral position. Do this 15 to 2o times.
- Spinal trunk rotation – just like the previous two stretches, lie on your back with your knees bent. Keeping your shoulders on the floor, twist both knees to one side. Go slowly just until you feel a good stretch, then come back up. Then twist to the other side. Do this 10 to 15 times.
- Hamstring stretch – tight hamstrings lead to a lot of lower back pain and injuries. This stretch requires the use of a towel or band. Lie on your back just as before. Hook the towel around the bottom of your foot. Hold the ends of the towel with both hands and straighten your leg until it’s not quite flat on the floor. Now slowly lift your leg keeping it just slightly bent. The higher you lift your leg, the more stretch you will feel. Raise your leg slowly until you just feel a good stretch then slowly lower it back down. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each leg. Don’t forget to breath.
- Seated spinal twist – sit sideways on a hard chair, like a kitchen chair. With your left side facing the back of the chair. Twist your upper body and your head to the left as far as you can. Then take the back of the chair with your hands and gently twist your upper body even farther. Go until you feel a good stretch, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth through the entire stretch. Then return to neutral. Do this five or six times then turn around and do the same thing in the other direction. Note: this is not a race, slower is better.
- Rotating ab stretch – lie face down on the floor with your hands in by your chest. Like you’re going to do a push-up. Slowly straighten your arms to lift your torso as you let your back bend. Lift your head as you lift your torso. Your waist will come off the ground slightly, but your knees will not. Once your arms are straight, slowly bend your right arm twisting you torso to the right. Then straighten your arm then do the same thing with the left. Remember to go slow. This will stretch your abs and your obliques.
Beginner Core Exercises
The core muscles are extremely important for back support. Like stretches, there are literally hundreds of exercises that you can do to strengthen your core. Everybody has their favorites. Again, I am not a professional body builder or trainer, but I do what I feel is best for me. Since I have been neglecting my exercises for the past several months . . . okay years. These are the best beginner core exercises I have found that strengthen all the core muscles without killing me. Once I get back in better shape, I may change some or even add some. One thing for sure, if I intent to stay active, and I do, I will be exercising for years to come. Here are the ones I do.
- Bridges – lie on your back with your knees bent and your feel flat on the floor. Now tighten your abs and lift your butt up off the floor. Keeping your abs tight, you want a straight line between your shoulders and your knees. Hold this position for 5 or 6 seconds, then slowly lower your but to the ground. Do 10 to 20 of these. They sound easy, but believe me, by the time that last one is done, you’ll feel the burn. As these become easier, and they will, you can put your lower legs on a workout ball. The closer to your feet you put the ball, the more difficult the bridge becomes. Remember to start slow. Fewer reps and shorter times. You can always work your way up.
- Single leg lifts – lie on your back with one leg straight out and the other one bent and your food flat on the floor. Lift your straight leg up slowly, keeping it straight. Starting out, only lift it about 6 to 8 inches. Hold it for about 5 or 6 seconds then slowly lower it to the floor. Do this 5 to 10 times then switch to the other leg. As you get stronger, you can lift the leg higher and hold it for a longer period of time. When you think this becomes easy, try doing it in a seated position.
- Standing bicycle crunch – stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Interlock your fingers behind your head. Now bring your right knee and left elbow together and then go back to the starting position. Now bring the left knee and right elbow together and go back to the starting position. Do about 20 on each side. When these get easier, do them while lying down them try doing them while sitting on the floor.
- Bird dog crunches – get on your hands and knees, reach your right arm out straight. While your arm is out straight, take your left leg out straight until there is a straight line from your right fingers to your left toes. Now bring your right elbow to your left knee under your stomach then straighten them back out. Put your hand and knee back on the floor. Now do the same thing with your left arm and right leg. Repeat 5 to 10 times for both sides. If you’re not stable enough to do the crunch at first, just hold the arms and legs straight for a count of 3 and return them to the ground. As you become stronger, you can increase the length of time you hold out your limbs and increase the number of crunches per rep as well as the number of reps.
- Spider plank crunches – start out like you are going to do a push up. Push up into the plank position until there is a straight line from your head to your toes. From this position, bring your right knee up to your right elbow then go back to the plank position. Repeat the same thing for the other side. Do this 5 to 10 times for each side. If you are unable to do the crunch part yet, just hold plank for 5 or 6 seconds then bring your knees to the ground to rest. Eventually you’ll be doing the whole exercise. As you get stronger, slow your speed down and increase the number of reps.
- Wall sits – start by standing a foot or so away from the wall. Lean back on the wall and slide down until your legs are almost parallel with the floor. Hold that position for 5 to 10 seconds then stand back up. Starting out, you may not get your thighs quite parallel with the floor, but that’s okay. You can work your way up to it, or down to it in this case. Do this 5 or 6 time starting out, then increase reps and length of time as you go.
- Supermans – I saved the best for last. Lie face down on the floor with your arms straight over your head. Lift your arms, head and legs as high as you can and hold them for 5 to 10 seconds then slowly return them to the floor. Do 5 to 10 of these. This one’s a killer but you can do it. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to hold for up to 30 seconds.
You can do all do these in less than half an hour. Do them three times a week and keep doing them. In no time at all you’ll find your core will be much stronger and you’ll be walking much taller. Your overall posture will improve, too.
Posture And The Back
Your spine is the only structural support for your entire upper body. If your posture is good, the support is good and wear and tear is at a minimum. If your posture is bad, you put a lot of unnecessary strain on the spine and its supporting tendons, ligaments, discs and muscles. Good posture does not mean your spine is straight. In its neutral position, the spine actually has three curves. At the top of the back, it curves inward, toward the front of the body. The middle of the back has an outward curve. The lower back curves inward again. The spine must maintain these natural curves in order to best support the body. A strong core will help maintain good posture, but that alone is not enough. In order to help the core maintain your posture, you need to practice good posture while standing and sitting. Here are a few tips to help improve your posture.
- The wall test – stand with your back against the wall. Your feet will be about 2 to 4 inches out from the wall. Your buttocks, shoulder blades and head will all be touching the wall. Take your hand, palm towards the wall, and slide it between your lower back and the wall. It should just fit. If it is too wide, tighten your abs a little until your back just touches your hand. This is perfect posture. You should be able to draw a straight line from your ears, through your shoulders all the way down through your knees and to your ankles. I know this feels a little strange at first, but it won’t take long to get used to it.
- Use a full length mirror – as a quick reminder of your posture. Turn sideways in front of the mirror and look at yourself. Is your head up, shoulders back and your abs tucked in? Do this every day and before long good posture will be as natural as breathing.
- Stand with more weight on the ball of your foot – this forces your core muscles into play. Once you are accustomed to improved posture, you’ll find it is much easier to stand if you put more of your weight on the ball of your foot. If you’re standing for a longer period, you can rest by standing on your heels or shifting your weight from one foot to the other.
- Sitting – it is just as important to sit with good posture, especially if you’re sitting at a desk all day. An ergonomic office chair helps if it fits you and is adjusted correctly. Don’t slouch. Keep your shoulders straight with your back. Make sure the back of the chair is adjusted to support your back. Your knees should extend just beyond the chair and be level with your hips. Your elbows must form an angle of between 75 and 90 degrees. Adjust the height accordingly. Keep your feet flat on the floor. Use a foot rest if necessary. Most important, get up and walk around and stretch occasionally, even the best fitting office chair gets tiresome after a while.
Posture and back support are just as important while you sleep as while your awake. Generally speaking, a relatively firm mattress is better for your back than a soft one. It offers much more support. Sleeping on your back or side has always been suggested. If you sleep on your back, consider putting a rolled up towel under your neck and a pillow under your knees to keep the spine properly aligned. If you sleep on your side, place a pillow between your knees. Since I started doing this, I don’t have the near the back issues I used to have.
Weight And Back Pain
About a third of the overweight or obese people in the U.S. today complain of lower back pain. The spine is designed to support the body. When additional weight is added, specifically in the abdominal area, it forces the pelvis to tilt forward putting added strain on the lower back. While I could find do studies that have actually been done to prove the relationship between obesity and back pain, common sense should tell you that it leads to behavior that is detrimental to a healthy back. Obesity makes it hard to get around. Just going up and down stairs requires considerable effort. You tire easily and aren’t able or aren’t willing to exercise. While obesity hasn’t been proven to cause back pain, lack of activity has. You may not be having problems now, but trust me, you will. Get the weight off. If you can’t get it off on your own, seek professional help. Being healthier is not just good for your back, it can improve your overall quality of life. I know, I’ve been there. I’ve dropped over 50 pounds and it does make a difference.
Everybody has heard, “Lift with your legs, not your back”. This is so true, but not everyone knows how. Safe lifting needs to be taught. Approximately one fourth of all work related accident are back related from improper lifting techniques, that’s over a million a year. The older you are, the more important safe lifting becomes. One thing I know for sure, once you’ve injured your back, it’s easier to injure it again. For those of you who never knew, or those of us who seem to have forgotten, here are the steps for safe lifting.
- Stand close to the object you’re lifting with your feet about shoulder with apart and your toes turned slightly out. In other words, stand close but naturally.
- Squat down bending your knees and your hips. Don’t bend your back.
- Grip the object firmly and pull it in close.
- Tighten your abs and lift your head up. This forces you to use your legs to do the lifting.
- Most important, lift with your legs, not your back.
- Keep the object close to your chest if you have to carry it.
- If you have to change directions, do so with your feet. Don’t twist your body.
- Don’t over do it. If you can’t safely lift something, ask for help.
We all have gone through life with blinders on. Aging is a natural part of life. We can’t always be ten feet tall and bullet proof. According to statistics, everyone is going to experience back trouble at some point in their life. The older we get, the more likely it will happen. Understand is pretty strong medicine. The more you understand, the more willing you are to do something about it. It’s never too late to learn and it’s never too late to do something about it.
The tips I’ve given you are meant to help. What you do with them is up to you. Don’t be like me and wait until your hurting to do something about it. Get off your butt, loose the weight, start stretching those muscles, ligaments and tendons, and start exercising. Be smart when it comes to lifting, sleeping posture. You’ll be surprised how your quality of life will improve.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Any questions or comments can be left below.