Back Pain

Updated 14 November 2016

Slouching a real back-breaker

Your mother was right after all. The effects of bad posture can be debilitating. We take a look at what it actually does to your body and what you can do about it.

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If we were made out of rubber, bad posture wouldn't be a problem. But we are not. And, every time we sit slouched, or spend hours bent over a computer screen, we are straining, compressing and twisting our muscles, nerves, organs and spines.

What bad posture can do to you

Bad posture, by definition, means that you are sitting, standing or lying in a way that places strain on your body. Often, we are forced into such situations by the nature of the work we do, the height of chairs and tables, and other environmental conditions.

The amount of strain our bodies can take is limited. And, should you spend long periods of time in unnatural postures, your risk of developing various aches and pains increases significantly.

Bad posture has been identified as the number one cause of back pain and is also known to cause pain in the neck, head and shoulder area.

When you're sitting in a bent posture, or are continuously straining your neck muscles, you are using those muscles in an unusual, unintended way. Thus, it should come as no surprise when those muscles start aching - or even go into spasm in some cases. Prolonged bad posture may well lead to an old age spent battling chronic back pain.

Furthermore, poor posture has also been linked to an increased risk of developing arthritis due to the abnormal wearing of bone surfaces.

Protecting your spine

Our spines are one of the most important and fragile parts of our bodies. When we bend our backs and necks our spines bend with us. And, even though our spines are designed to handle some degree of flexibility, they have their limits.

Damage to the disks, the 'cushions' between your vertebrae, can be very painful. A slipped disk, for example, pushes out onto the adjacent nerves, causing acute pain. Pinched nerves have also been linked to bad posture.

Neglecting your posture has also been linked to several other forms of nerve damage. In thoracic outlet syndrome, the nerves and blood vessels in the thoracic outlet - between the rib cage and the collarbone - become compressed. Symptoms can range from numbness and tingling, to swelling and pain.

Pushing and squashing organs

Sitting with your body in a bent position can cause your insides to push against each other, especially the organs in the abdominal region - something that may lead to impaired functioning. Such compression of the internal organs has also been linked to decreased blood flow.

If bad posture were only an occasional occurrence, these effects would be of little importance. Yet, by spending day after day in an uncomfortable posture such relatively minor irritants can develop into chronic impairments of blood flow or organ function.

So, when once again you find yourself sitting with your body twisted at the hips, take a moment to remember those old biology charts from school, and then try to imagine what kind of twisting and mangling is happening inside you.

Improving your posture

Adopting a healthier posture can alleviate some of the symptoms of arthritis, as well as decreasing back pain and various other muscle aches and strains.

In most cases, bad posture is simply a bad habit. Thus, as you try to improve your posture you might easily find yourself slipping back from time to time into strenuous uncomfortable positions.

To make changes sustainable, you need to develop an increased awareness of your body, and you need to adapt the elements in your environment that are contributing to the problem.

What is good posture?

Good posture does not involve straining, bending in unnatural positions, staying in one position for long periods, or anything which prevents the normal healthy musculoskeletal functioning of the body.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, "A healthy back has three natural curves: a slight forward curve in the neck (cervical curve), a slight backward curve in the upper back (thoracic curve), and a slight forward curve in the low back (lumbar curve). Good posture actually means keeping these three curves in balanced alignment."

In general this can be achieved by standing and sitting up straight. A good guide is to imagine something pulling at the top of your head, letting it pull you upward, and then relaxing a little.

Adapting the height of chairs and desks is a crucial part of creating an environment where good posture can flourish.

Strong healthy muscles also help to prevent the effects of bad posture. Regular exercise routines, especially those focusing on the back and abdominal regions, can be very useful.

Furthermore, alternatives such as yoga and Pilates also offer a very good means of tweaking your posture and creating an increased awareness of your body.

In a press release the hospital group Medi-Clinic recommends the following general measures for preventing backache:

  • Maintaining a good, upright posture while sitting, standing and walking
  • Relaxing your shoulders
  • Positioning your chair, desk or computer screen correctly
  • Making daily routines as easy as possible on your back (e.g. when shaving, ensure that the mirror is at the correct height so that you do not have to bend over every morning)
  • Avoiding soft couches and chairs (which encourage slouching)
  • Sleeping on a good quality mattress or having the support of a hard board beneath the mattress
  • Adjusting your car seat so that you sit up straight
  • Bending your knees or kneeling, instead of bending your back
  • When lifting a heavy object, bending your knees and hips while keeping the spine straight and keeping the object close to your body
  • Maintaining a normal body weight
  • Seeking relevant professional advice. Pain is a warning that should not be ignored, as it often serves a protective function and informs us that our body has undergone damage. Therefore consult your doctor if you experience any back pain or have any other concerns.

 

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Backache expert

Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

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