Proactive steps to lower your risk of back pain

November 1, 2022 in Healthy Living  •  By Miles Varn, MD
back pain

If you’ve ever experienced back pain, you know how much it can disrupt your life. Back pain can make it nearly impossible to sit, stand, move, or lie down comfortably. That means it’s difficult to sleep, work, or go up and down stairs.

Back pain is an extremely common problem, with 80% of people in the U.S. experiencing it during their lifetime and 25% of Americans reporting an episode of back pain in the past three months. The causes of this type of pain include:

  • Mechanical problems, like sprains and strains, degenerative disc disease and herniated or ruptured discs, fractures (from trauma and osteoporosis), spondylolisthesis (vertebra that slip out of place), spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column that presses on the spinal cord and nerves), scoliosis
  • Inflammation, which causes conditions like inflammatory forms of arthritis
  • Pinched nerves
  • Less common problems, including tumors and infections in the discs or bone

While not all of these types of back problems can be prevented, there are several proactive steps you can take to lower your risk of developing many types of back pain. Here are the building blocks of a strategy to protect your back:

  • Be more active. Exercise that helps strengthen the core muscles that support your back can help lower your risk of developing back pain. Before starting an exercise plan, talk with your doctor to learn what types of exercise are appropriate for you considering your health and fitness level. If you’re not currently active, take a gradual approach to getting moving. If you’re currently experiencing back pain, your doctor may recommend waiting to start exercise for a bit. Although it hurts to move when you’re having an episode of back pain, in most cases bed rest is not recommended and it may make your condition worse. A health advisor can connect you with a trainer or physical therapist who can help you build a safe and effective exercise plan.
  • Work on your posture. Sitting at a computer for most of the day or hunching over your cell phone are just two of the daily behaviors that can lead to poor posture. The first step towards better posture is to be more aware of your posture and correct it when you’re slouching. Other things that can help include setting up an ergonomically correct workstation at work and at home if you work at a desk. It’s also helpful to break up periods of sitting with gentle standing stretches.
  • Lift more carefully. If your job requires lifting heavy things or if you’re lifting heavy items at home, it’s important to practice proper lifting techniques. If possible, get someone to help you lift especially heavy things. When lifting, spread your feet apart to create a stable base, stand close to what you’re trying to lift, tighten your stomach muscles, keep your back straight and bend at the knees, and hold the item close to your body.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. When you’re carrying extra body weight, you’re putting additional stress on your back, not to mention on your hips and knees. Talk with your doctor or ask for a referral to a registered dietitian who can help you put together a healthy eating plan to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke. Nicotine can restrict blood flow to the discs in the back, so fewer nutrients and less oxygen reach the spine, making it easier to injure your back and slowing healing if you do hurt your back.
  • Eat foods that support bone health. To lower your risk of osteoporosis, choose food rich in calcium and vitamin D like yogurt, leafy greens, fatty fish, and egg yolks.
  • Manage stress. Not only can stress make pain less manageable, it also causes muscle tension that can lead to back pain. While you can’t eliminate all stress from your life, take steps to manage it. Try yoga, breathing exercises, mindfulness, mediation, or tai chi. Strong social connections can also help you reduce stress.