Back to the Basic Spinal Care

Brace yourself. If it hasn't affected you yet, the statistics say it probably will. Maybe it will strike after you've lifted a heavy bag of groceries. Maybe turning quickly in response to an unusual noise will trigger it. The sobering fact is, no matter how familiar or benign a movement has been in the past, your back may suddenly take it as an affront, and it will let you know about it.

Almost 85 percent of Americans will experience some type of back pain in their lives. Not surprisingly then, back pain is the second leading cause of doctor office visits in the United States. A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that $ 50 billion was spent that year on the diagnosis and treatment of spinal ailments in this country a-lone. This is a tremendous increase from the 1950s.

Most physicians feel sedentary lifestyles have caused this rise in back pain and injuries. In our increasingly automated, hurried age we exert ourselves less and stress ourselves more. As a result, we are more likely to have poorly conditioned muscles and carry extra weight, both of which are important factors in whether a person develops back pain. Poor posture, incorrect lifting techniques, soft mattresses, awkward sleep positions and muscular inflexibility are other factors that contribute to back problems.

Understanding some basic anatomy might help explain how back pain can come on so unexpectedly. The spine comprises 24 vertebrae, the sacrum (the triangular bone connected to the pelvis) and the coccyx (tailbone connected to the sacrum). Forty muscles, 31 pairs of nerves, and countless tendons and ligaments wave their way around and through these bones. Muscles such as the latissimus dorsi stabilize the spine as it lifts, twists, straightens or bends. Muscles in the buttocks and upper thighs provide additional stabilization and postural support. As a shock absorber for it all, gelatinous discs of cartilage sit between each vertebra and aid in keeping the spine flexible.

As with any complex instrument, things can go wrong when the back is not cared for properly or is unduly strained. Because the spine's components work together inextricably, even the slightest damage within any of its systems can make movement painful.

A regular exercise program is your best, most crucial defense against back pain and injury. It's also great for your physical, mental and spiritual health in general. Activities like walking, Swimming and biking are excellent because they can relax you and stress your back less than sitting and standing do. They may also help you lose any excess weight that could exacerbate your discomfort. Modified sit ups are excellent as well, because keeping the abdominal muscles in shape helps protect the lower back. For more information about activities, your doctor can provide you with a personalized list of exercises that can strengthen the abdominal, leg and back muscles, all of which are important to back health.

In addition to exercise, watch your posture and be careful when lifting. Do not bend at your waist, bend at your knees and use your legs to lift. Use a stepladder instead of reaching for high objects, and don't carry heavy objects by yourself. Your physician has literature explaining proper lifting techniques as well as stretches and sleep positions that may improve your flexibility and chances of avoiding back pain.

When exercise, good posture, proper lifting and the like are part of your daily life, our spine should respond well to your care. Back pain is treatable but, more important, it's often preventable. Your health is worth any lifestyle changes that might be necessary.

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