Prevent, Manage and Relieve Lower Back Pain

These days, there is almost no escape from back pain; up to 80% of the population will experience backaches at some point in life ( ).

Fortunately, for a vast majority of these people, the pain tends to resolve on its own with self-care. Most back pain is mechanical in nature, that is to say, caused by strain and fatigue rather than a specific medical illness.

In many cases, simple lifestyle changes can help improve back pain or reduce the likelihood of suffering from it in future.

Listed below are 7 steps you can take, starting right now, to relieve lower back pain:

1. Sit properly

Sitting - Pressure On Spine
The effect of four postures on intervertebral disc pressure between the 3rd and 4th lumbar vertebrae. Source: Kroemer & Grandjean, 2005.

Each time you hunch forwards in your chair, the pressure on your spine increases by up to 90%.

Sitting upright significantly reduces the strain on your back, but most individuals with lower back pain find this difficult due to weak core muscles or poor posture.

To help you sit properly, always choose seats or chairs with back support over those that don’t come with any i.e. stools, benches, etc.

You may even want to invest in doctor-approved back support pillows to help you achieve and maintain a neutral sitting posture. Alternatively, consider using a seat cushion for back pain (such as this ) – these tilt your pelvis forward to induce a neutral position for your spine.

2. Don’t stay in one position for too long

When sitting, always take frequent breaks to stand or walk around. A recent study by Penn State University found that people who sat for four hours or more actually lost lumbar disc height during that time – compressing the cushions between the bones of the spine. However, those who changed positions and stretched every 15 minutes had no measurable loss.

When standing for long periods, alternate resting one foot and then the other on a low stool to relieve back stress.

3. Sleep properly

Correct Sleeping Postures
Recommended sleeping postures for stomach, back and side sleepers. Illustration by Blausen Medical.

Good posture doesn’t just apply to sitting and standing.

‘Your back muscles and ligaments heal and relax themselves while you’re asleep. To protect your back, good posture is important while sleeping’, says Robert Ayer, MD , a neurosurgeon at the Brain & Spine Institute at Gwinnett Medical Center.

1. Back sleepers – a small, knee pillow placed under both knees can help reduce stress on your spine and support the natural curve in your lower back.

2. Stomach sleepers – sleeping this way can put the spine out of position and create stress on the back. A flat pillow under the stomach and pelvis area can help to keep the spine in better alignment. If you sleep on your stomach, the pillow for your head should be flat, or sleep without a pillow.

3. Side sleepers – a firm pillow between your knees will prevent your upper leg from pulling your spine out of alignment and reduce stress on your hips and lower back. A rolled towel or small pillow under your waist may can also help support your spine.

4. Strengthen your core muscles

Your core muscles work together to support the weight of your body. Unless specifically exercised, they tend to weaken with age and become more susceptible to strains or injuries.

When the core lacks strength and endurance, maintaining upright postures for long becomes difficult. This often leads to excessive hunching or slouching, and eventually, lower back problems.

Performing exercises to strengthen your core muscles (especially your back, abs, and glutes) and increasing endurance through low-impact aerobic activities, such as walking and swimming, can help better support the torso.

Physical activity is an excellent way to strengthen the back and help the healing process, but some moves should be avoided if your back hurts. Learn which exercises put greater stress on the discs and ligaments in the spine here: Exercises to avoid if you have lower back pain.

5. Stretch your calves and hamstrings

High Heels & Tight Calves
The higher the heels, the worse the shortening of the calves.

Most of us are unaware, but tight calf muscles are often the hidden cause of lower back pain.

Tight calves usually affect those who often keep their calves in a shortened state by wearing high heels, driving, running (especially uphill), ballet dancing or standing on tiptoes.

‘Releasing the hamstrings and the calves together will at least create more freedom of motion during a forward bend, and is likely to aid in the relief of symptoms of low back pain‘, according to Sydney-based physiotherapist Tom Cartwright (B.Sc. (chiro), M.Chiro).

If you’d like a full explanation on how the muscles in our lower extremity affect each other, and how tight calves can cause back pain, you may find it here: Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance – The Janda Approach .

6. Reduce consumption of inflammatory foods

Little things add up. The daily consumption of foods that are inflammatory in nature can aggravate your back pain. In this regard, Dr. John Spallino of the Laser Spine Institute in Florida suggests avoiding fast foods, processed foods and saturated fats.

He recommends a mostly plant-based diet that includes foods such as chia and flax seeds. Fish that are rich in omega-3’s like tuna, salmon and trout are also great staples of an anti-inflammatory diet.

7. Bend over/lift objects correctly

Lifting objects correctly
To help prevent back pain and injury, always bend at your knees, and not at your waist or back.

Did you know that you can increase the pressure on your back by 50% simply by leaning over the sink incorrectly to brush your teeth?

Bending over or lifting objects the wrong way can put excessive loads on the discs in the spine, which often leads to back problems. Keeping the right amount of curvature in the back takes pressure off the nerves, helping to reduce pain.

Many find that common back braces found in local pharmacies or sports stores help improve posture and relieve pain. These are worn to support your back during activities that involve a lot of bending over or lifting of objects, such as cleaning out your garage or gardening.

Changing your mindset

The key to long-term lower back pain relief is to acknowledge that back pain is not a single episode to be addressed and forgotten, but a condition that will require your vigilance and care over time.

Only then can you prepare to do whatever it takes over the long run to get well and stay well. Always keep in mind that no amount of treatment will help if you do not take steps by yourself to maintain good form or posture, especially while doing things that may put your back at risk!