28 February 2007

Fix that back pain

It’s been said that three things in life are certain: death, taxes and lower back pain. New findings help us understand more about back pain for how to fix it.

That dull ache’s been there all day: it started on the way to work, as you sat in a traffic jam, continued as you stared at your computer monitor and drove to a lunch-time meeting and lingered while you wait uncomfortably watching TV.

It’s been said that three things in life are certain: death, taxes and lower back pain. While a lot people may agree from grim experience of at least the last two, new findings help us understand more about back pain for how to fix it.

In days gone by, many people suffered back injuries at work, mainly because they had to lift oxen, carry millstones and the like.

Sitting around kills our backs
Back injuries are still prevalent, despite a mechanised society and workplace. Whereas our forefathers did their lower vertebra in by say, sneezing while carrying a water buffalo under each arm, we do ours in by simply sitting around.

New evidence suggests that underused back muscles deactivate themselves, depriving the spine of support and leading to symptoms that may feel just as debilitating as an injury.

A report in the 25 August edition of New Scientist shows a detailed experiment by the European Space Agency, where 19 volunteers spent eight weeks lying in bed. (So much for the space race. They think they can put a man on Mars by getting bedsores.) Apparently back pain is common in space, and lying around is supposed to help find out more about the cause of the pain.

Couch potatoes have atrophied muscles
The European study group teamed up with researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia and used magnetic resonance imaging to establish that the muscles critical to holding the lower vertebra in place had significantly atrophied.

This tied in with previous ultrasound studies, which have found that two major muscles needed to be inactive for lower back pain to occur: the lumbar multifudus, which holds the vertebrae in alignment, and the transverses abdominus, which holds the pelvis together.

Loss of alignment leads to back pain
In many cases, lower back pain occurs when there’s a loss of alignment between the pelvis and the sacrum, that wedge-shaped bone at the base of the spine it dovetails with. So unless you’re planning to become an astronaut or to get paid to lie in bed, why is any of this important?

Well for a start, many of us spend our days being paid to sit and as a result we’re not unlike the German volunteers mentioned earlier.

In that situation it’s not long before our back muscles lose interest in their jobs. Having lulled the muscles into a false sense of security all week, we then ambush them by mowing the lawn, moving furniture, lifting heavy things using straight legs or a bent back, or simply moving suddenly.

There’s many a chagrined patient who’s “put his back out” doing nothing more strenuous than picking up a sheet of paper.

How to keep your back muscles active
Clearly the solution is focus on keeping your back muscles active every day. This doesn’t mean you need to take up belly dancing, although that might help. Try these suggestions:

  • One way to persuade your muscles that you still want them around is to dispense with your chair in some of your daily tasks. If you sit in the car, at work and in front of the TV, buy a gym ball and sit on it while you’re watching TV. (The biggest ones are about 80 cm in diameter. They’re available at most sports shops);
  • Get up every 30 minutes at work. A quick circuit around your workspace will put the onus on your back muscles, not your chair’s backrest;
  • Check out your workspace: can you sit with your feet flat on the floor? Is your head level when you look at your computer monitor? Do you rest your elbows on your desk when you type? Do you ever cradle your phone between your chin and shoulder? Does the back of your chair recline easily, or does it provide back decent back support?
  • Stretch your back before you get up. Lie on your back, lift your left knee to your chest and pull it to your right with your right arm. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat three times and then swop sides. If you feel twinges of lower back pain, find somewhere at work to repeat this move during the day.
  • Walk. Or cycle, swim or jog. Soft tissues, muscles and bones rely on being physically stressed to maintain their vitality. If you’re unfit, start by getting out of the lift one floor before the one you work on. Each week, get out one floor earlier. After a couple of weeks you’ll be able to put your hand on your lower back and feel the muscles powering your legs as you climb the steps. – (William Smook)


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