Most of us will be bothered by back pain or discomfort at some stage in our life. In fact, 1 in 6 Australians suffer from back problems.
Our spine is a wonderfully complex structure. A healthy spine has three natural curves that separate it into three sections – cervical, thoracic and lumbar – and it sits in a natural S-shape. It contains 33 bones called vertebrae, that work to protect the spinal cord and support a range of movements. They are protected and joined by connective tissue and cartilage, and supported by soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments and tendons.
The tissues that support our spine are incredible. Facet joints allow our spine to twist, allow us to bend, absorb heavy loads that we carry, and help to protect us from actions that might damage the spine or overload vertebrae. Intervertebral discs sit in between our vertebrae and act like shock absorbers, allowing us to run, jump and dance without discomfort.
With such an intricate and essential structure, it’s only natural that there are a lot of things that could go wrong. Here at The Brisbane Spine Clinic, we believe in individualised and non-invasive care and support for the spine. You know what they say – prevention is better than a cure!
So what can you do to support your spine today?
Here are our top 10 tips for a strong and healthy spine.
Many of us grew up hearing adults tell us to “Sit up straight!”. But is there truth to the old adage that good posture is better for our back? It turns out that yes, they might have had a good point after all. The goal of maintaining ‘good’ posture is to train your body into the habit of sitting, lying, standing and walking in a way that places the least strain on your back.
The correct posture supports the structures in your back and spine to sit in alignment and optimises functionality. Good alignment reduces the chance that ligaments in the spine will be strained. Importantly, it helps to reduce wear and tear on the joints.
Tips for maintaining a good posture include:
– Bracing your core muscles
– Keeping your head aligned on top of your shoulders rather than pushing it forward
– Standing with feet shoulder-width apart
– Improving overall fitness
– Regular stretches for mobility
For a breakdown of why posture is so important and what you can do to support a healthy posture, head over to our blog on how posture could be causing your back pain.
Use correct lifting techniques
Correct lifting techniques may reduce wear and tear on your spine, and may also reduce the risk of a spontaneous injury. Improper lifting can damage the discs in our spine – they may become ruptured, or develop a crack and bulge into the spinal canal, which is referred to as a herniated disc.
Our back could also ‘lock up’ if one of our flexible facet joints becomes injured while lifting and stiffens as a result. There is also a risk of muscles or ligaments becoming strained and struggling to support our spine.
Before lifting a large or heavy object, consider whether it is safe to do. If possible, reduce the weight of the load or ask for assistance to carry it. When lifting, use your core muscles and hold the object close to your body. Focus on lifting with your knees and hips rather than your back – it should be your leg muscles that are getting a workout.
A physiotherapist or chiropractor can give you specific lifting advice for your needs, but there is general information about how to create an ergonomic setup that can easily be found online, such as this helpful slideshow.
We sleep for around 8 hours a night, which is a long time for our spine to be in a certain position. In our average lifetime, we sleep for 229,961 hours. It makes sense to ensure that our spine is protected and aligned for those hours – because they truly do add up!
Two of the most important things you can do to support your back while you sleep is to ensure you are:
- Sleeping in a healthy position and
- You have a comfortable and supportive mattress.
A 2017 study recommended sleeping on your back as the best position to support your spine, because it supports a healthy alignment and curve of the spine that is similar to when we are standing. Sleeping on your stomach with your head crooked to the side is an unnatural posture that we would not adopt while we were awake.
The ideal mattress will vary from person to person, but you should generally look for one with appropriate back support and firmness but still assists your spine to maintain its natural curve. A medium-firm mattress is a popular choice. Choose a pillow that keeps your head and neck in a straight line with your back, meaning that the pillow is not too tall or too flat.
You might be surprised to learn that among the many deleterious effects of smoking is back pain. Studies have established a link between smoking cigarettes and experiencing back pain. Smoking leads to inflammation, and the nicotine in your blood vessels acts as a vasoconstrictor – this means that it narrows your blood vessels. This can damage important structures in your back and accelerate wear and tear on your joints throughout your body, including your spine.
If you’re thinking about quitting, quit.org.au has some helpful resources.
Limit time spent sitting
There are many health concerns associated with sitting for a prolonged period of time, and one of them is back pain. Sitting for a long time, especially without ergonomic support, places your spine under pressure, can strain the discs in your spine, and tire important back muscles that support your spine.
We suggest creating an ergonomic workstation to improve the health of your spine while sitting. But even the best workspace will still be bad for you if you are sitting in it for too long. Try to set regular reminders to get up, stretch and move around – or set yourself up with a standing desk.
This will support your back.
Treat yourself to a massage
Massages from a qualified massage therapist can not only help to relieve back pain and discomfort but can actively work to reduce muscle tension in the back.
Studies have shown that massages lead to an increased release of dopamine and serotonin, as well as improving the range of motion. A good back massage also improves blood flow and circulation, supporting natural healing and pain relief for your spine.
However, if you’re finding yourself heading to your massage therapist consistently with the same problem, it’s worth visiting a physiotherapist to identify the underlying root cause of your pain, instead of just managing the symptoms.
Strength and conditioning
Your core muscles and back muscles work together to support your spine, and keep it in a healthy alignment. Exercise protects your heart and lungs, but it also helps to protect your spine.
Strength and conditioning exercises aimed at supporting the back and building up core muscles will reduce the stress and pressure placed on the spine’s intricate structures. Unfortunately, many of us don’t have the core strength that we need to support our back properly.
Try incorporating some simple, targeted exercises into your daily routine to build strength and support your spine.
Try water therapy
Jumping in the pool is a fantastic way to cool down in summer. But did you know that it is also a fantastic way to support your back and spinal health?
Notably, swimming is a low-impact form of aerobic exercise. This reduces wear and tear on your back, because there is very low impact on the structures in your spine, especially when compared to activities such as running. Additionally, the buoyancy of the water helps relieve stress on joints throughout the body, including all of the joints in your spine.
Pool therapy and exercises are often suggested to people with lower back pain or common conditions such as osteoarthritis or stiffness in the back. Additionally, swimming helps to build core muscle and improve flexibility and conditioning.
Take up yoga
Our spine is supported by our muscles, from our head to our toe. Yoga offers low-impact movements that strengthen the muscles in your core, in your lower and upper back, and in your neck.
This form of exercise typically involves careful, guided movements and stretching, helping to reduce the risk of injury in comparison to more strenuous activities such as weightlifting. There are classes available for every level of fitness and flexibility, making them easily accessible to most people.
These stretches help to reduce inflammation, relax our muscles, improve circulation and increase our flexibility and range of motion. A unique benefit of yoga is that it supports you to increase awareness of your body, and to take notice if you are feeling pain or tension in a particular area. This helps to prevent injury.
A focus on balance and core strength helps you to align your spine in the correct position and supports healthy posture. You can sign up for local classes, or even begin a simple yoga routine at home using a book or video for reference.
See a physiotherapist or chiropractor for a spinal check-up
A physiotherapist or chiropractor is trained in the healthy function and movement of your spine. Many people wait until there is an acute problem before heading down to see a professional.
Popping in for a functional assessment of your spine’s alignment, your range of motion, and any discomfort you may be experiencing is a great way to ensure that you get on top of problems before they become too severe.
A physiotherapist or chiropractor is also able to provide you with individualised advice about how to take care of your spine, taking into consideration your occupation, risk factors and lifestyle. It is just like taking your car to the mechanic for a service.
How the Brisbane Spine Clinic Can Help
At The Brisbane Spine Clinic, we are highly knowledgeable about the spine. When you come to us with pain or discomfort, we do much more than just treat the symptoms. We use our clinical expertise to explore all underlying causes related to your pain points for the purposes of a thorough prognosis and a holistic treatment solution.
All information is general in nature and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The Brisbane Spine Clinic can consult with you to confirm if this advice is right for you.