Save your spine; 4 ways to prevent back pain

FEATURE – Patients who seek help from a spine specialist ask the same question: “How could I have prevented this back pain?”

Degenerative disc disease, arthritis, spinal stenosis and sciatic pain are all conditions that come with an aging spine. It’s not a question of if you are going to get one or more of these diseases, but when. Our spines are going to wear out no matter what we do.

However, you can prevent or delay these diseases by taking care of yourself. Avoid pain later in life by doing these four things to save your spine:

Avoid impactful movement

Jarring of the spine is common for the “weekend warrior.” Activities such as trying back flips on a snowboard or catching air on your four-wheeler can jar the spine and accelerate degeneration. Many spine patients don’t engage in such strenuous activities. However, some activities can be too impactful to the spine and cause degeneration.

The healthiest low-impact exercise is swimming. Patients who are swimmers have the healthiest spines. Biking causes little impact to the discs and back joints as well. If you choose to jog, jog on soft surfaces, as jogging is somewhat impactful to your spine. In other words, it is preferable for you to swim rather than jog, but certainly jog as opposed to becoming a couch potato!

Pickleball and tennis can be somewhat impactful to the spine as well; however, if you work your way into these sports slowly, you will have the core strength required to prevent too much impact during your play.

Lose abdominal weight

The bird-dog (top) and plank positions | Image courtesy of Dr. Court Empey
The bird-dog (top) and plank positions | Image courtesy of Dr. Court Empey

Losing weight is always easier said than done, but it’s important. Because of the mechanics of our body, belly weight adds a tremendous amount of strain and pressure to the joints of the spine. Physics and biomechanics indicate an estimated 1 pound of fat on the belly equates to 10 pounds of pressure on the spine and discs. That means losing just 5 pounds of belly fat would decrease the strain on your spine by 50 pounds.

Maintain good posture

Poor posture is much more common than good posture, especially when lifting. We tend to keep our legs straight and completely bend our backs. When pulling weeds, picking up your child or retrieving your birdie shot from the cup, you’re better off bending your legs and lifting with them while maintaining a good lumbar curve. Having a good lumbar curve means that your lower back is curved inward, not out like a scared cat.

Build core strength

The most important way to prevent spine pain is to have great core strength. As stated earlier, swimmers seem to have the best core strength, but pilates, pickleball and even walking can help you have adequate core strength.

Two great exercises are the bird-dog and planking. Bird-dogs are done by getting down on all fours and then holding a single arm and the opposite leg up in the air. To plank, get into a position similar to the push-up but go down onto your forearms. You can then roll over to the left and subsequently the right and hold each position there as well.

The goal is to be able to hold both the bird-dog and plank positions for 90 seconds, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Do three reps of each of these exercises twice a day and hold each position for five seconds, to start. After a week or so, you’ll notice that you can go for 10 seconds and slowly work your way up as your core strengthens.

In conclusion: Eat right and exercise. Your parents were giving good advice when they told you to sit up straight and finish your vegetables; both of these help prevent spine problems. Remember to avoid impact, lose weight, practice good posture and build good core strength. If you do these four things, you may avoid having to see a spine specialist altogether.

Dr. Court Empey
Dr. Court Empey

Written by Dr. Court Empey for St. George Health & Wellness magazine and St. George News.

A native of St. George, Empey completed his training in interventional pain medicine at the Mayo Clinic. He also has experience in medical management, physical medicine, cancer pain therapy, psychology and lifestyle modification and believes in a multidisiplinary approach to pain treatment. Away from work, he enjoys spending time with his wife and five children, waterskiing, snowboarding, shooting hoops and playing guitar.

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1 Comment

  • Mike January 11, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Sleeping on a firmer mattress and wearing orthotic insoles has helped my back quite a bit.

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