Bad back? More likely, you just have bad habits. Back pain is one of the most common medical problems—experts say it affects about 80 to 90 percent of Americans at some point—but also one of the easiest to avoid.
The pain is usually due to a muscle spasm, which can be set off by all kinds of things: Constant strain from poor posture, a sudden bout of repetitive motion such as shoveling snow, chronic inflammation, or a single twisting move at just the wrong angle. “Those muscle fibers lock up, like if you lace the fingers of your hands together,” says Michael Neuwirth, M.D., director of the spine institute at Beth Israel Medical Center. That constant tension is what leads to pain. (Work one of these 7 Best Exercises for Lower Back Pain into your routine.)
If you seem to pull the same back muscles often, that might indicate a problem with your vertebrae pinching the nerves that communicate with those muscles, Neuwirth says. A tweak that doesn’t improve in a few days is reason to head to the doctor. Before you get to that point, here’s how to keep your back in shape and pain-free.
Fix bad posture. Eventually you catch yourself slumping forward in your chair, so you try to correct it by stretching with your pelvis rocked forward and pulling your shoulders back. Wrong move. “You’ll actually put your back into overextension, which puts more strain on your spine,” says Kelly Starrett, D.P.T., author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Instead, stand up then sit back down like you’re doing a box squat: Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart, brace your abs, then push back with your hips and lower your butt to the chair. This trains your hips and core muscles to properly support your spine while seated.
Loosen tight muscles. “Using a foam roller can work out muscle kinks before they cause more problems,” says Neel Mehta, M.D., director of outpatient pain medicine at the Weill-Cornell Pain Medicine Center. (You can buy one for about $20; it’s one of the best purchases you’ll ever make.) Set the roller lengthwise on the floor and use your body weight to massage your upper back, lower back, hamstrings, and hip flexors. (Sports trainers all over the country are encouraging their athletes to foam roll. Pick up your copy of The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies for more feel-better secrets every athlete must know.)
Take up yoga. You only need to go once a week. When 228 people with chronic lower back pain practiced a 75-minute yoga routine weekly for three months, they saw a 50 percent improvement in their pain compared to merely following a pain relief book.
Un-tweak your lower back. A twinge in your back is often the result of tight muscles that rotate your pelvis out of alignment, says Starrett. Here’s the fix: Lay on your back and lift your knees to your chest. Put your right hand on your right knee and pull it toward you, push your left knee away from you with your left hand, while opposing those movements with your leg muscles. Hold for five seconds, then switch. Repeat three or four times, then squeeze a medicine ball or soccer ball between your knees for five seconds. Repeat the whole cycle until you feel a slight “pop” and feel a wave of relief.
Treat with cold and heat. First, apply an ice pack for five minutes, then take it off for five minutes. Repeat for up to half an hour. “The cycle of cooling tricks your body into increasing blood flow to the sore muscle, which promotes healing.” Meehta says. The next day, you can use a heating pad or a hot towel, which will help to relax any remaining tightness.
Get back on your feet. Sure, a cramped or pulled muscle needs time to recover. But it is possible to rest too much. “Being completely inactive for anything more than 48 hours, and you start to see muscle atrophy, which makes you weaker and more prone to injury,” says Neuwirth. If you’re still in pain after two days, see a doctor.
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