Preventive Maintenance: Keeping a Healthy Back

by Karen Bowen

Has your back been giving you some trouble lately? Back pain is a common medical complaint.

Four out of five of us will suffer from back pain during our lives, many without a known injury. Some common causes of back pain are muscle strain, back injury, overuse, muscle disorders, nerve-root pressure, muscle spasm, a herniated disc and poor posture.

Pay attention if you are a pregnant woman, a construction worker, or a person who lifts heavy items repeatedly while working, because you are more prone to back pain and injury.

Is driving truck easy on your back? Not really. Sitting without support puts more stress on your back than standing. Sitting is serious business for your back, so do it right.

Your seat needs to support the natural curves in your back.

Most seats, even those that are called “ergonomic,” don’t give your back enough support. You need low back support.

If your seat doesn’t have good lumbar (lower back) support, you should add it yourself. Even a rolled up towel placed in the curve of your lower back is better than nothing.

As well, you have to pay attention to where your butt and legs are positioned on the seat.

Your butt should be right against the backrest, and your legs should extend two inches past the front end of the seat.

Keep your knees lower than your hips.

This tilts your pelvis and keeps your back curved properly.

If your back is sore, but you can’t remember hurting yourself, you’ve probably just strained your muscles.

If this is the case, take two to five days off, and some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, etc.

When it’s time to get back to work, take it easy. Gradually return to your duties.

However, if your back muscles continue to spasm, you may need to take some prescription medicine.

To get back on your feet, physical therapy is also an option. It will help you reinforce and practice proper body mechanics and lifting techniques.

But (heave a sigh of relief) surgery is not usually needed. Rest usually does the trick.

If your back’s sore and you’re trying to get some shut-eye, try using a firm mattress. If yours is a little soft, put a board under it. You could even slide your mattress onto the floor for a few nights. (Make sure to get some help if you decide to do this!) You could also use heat or a heat rub.

However, there are times when you should take your back pain seriously. You should call your doctor if:

Your back pain wakes you up at night.

You have back pain with an unexplained fever, and or weight loss.

Your spine is swollen and red.

You have pain that travels down your leg and below your knee.

You have hurt your back by a blow or fall.

You were injured at work (examination by a doctor is required by the Workman’s Compensation Board.)

Your legs are weak or numb.

You’ve already been treated by the doctor, but your back pain keeps getting worse.

To avoid back trouble, follow these tips:

Don’t smoke. Smoking makes your body lose calcium and leads to osteoporosis.

Drink your eight glasses of water every day.

This keeps the moisture in your discs, and keeps your bones gliding past each other easily.

Eat lots of fibre, and lots of dark green and orange fruits and vegetables. If you take a vitamin, make sure it includes calcium and vitamin D. Eat protein to keep your muscles strong. They hold your spine in place. Don’t forget your whole grain carbohydrates: bread, pasta and beans, for energy to do your lifting without straining.

Less weight means less strain.

If you need to lose a few pounds you may want to try this plan: Eat any one of the following three types of meals with at least two to-three hours between meals: 1) Fruit by itself, 2) Fat and/or proteins with veggies only; or 3) Carbohydrates with veggies.

Preventing back pain is very important, given the huge number of people who suffer from it. Maintain your weight in a healthy range and keep your back muscles strong and flexible.

Practice good posture and correct technique when lifting heavy objects (lift with your legs, keep your back straight) or carrying heavy objects (keep the object close to your body) are also beneficial.

Fortunately, most back pain is not life threatening. But don’t let it cramp your style. Or cost you work days, either.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant. She can be reached by e-mail at

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