Our body would be a giant puddle of flesh if not for our spine. Our spine is the one part of our skeletal system that knits the entire body together, supporting us as we move through life. From the delicate cervical vertebrae to the solid (and highly stressed) lumbar spine, the entire spinal column is devoted to helping us stay strong and upright. For that, we often reward our vertebrae with abuse that includes poor diet, lack of exercise, and stressful work environments. It’s time to give the spine the love it deserves. It’s time to look at what’s causing our back pain and to do something about it.
It is first helpful to understand the structure of the spine. The spine is divided into four sections related to each region of the body. The sacral spine is at the very base of the spine where the tailbone and bowl of the pelvis sits. Above that is the lumbar spine, the only series of bones that connects the upper body to the lower body. Your thoracic spine is the area of the spine along the mid- and upper-back, and the cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae that connect your skull to your spine. Your vertebrae surround and protect your spinal cord, the super highway for nerve signals both voluntary and involuntary, sent to and from your brain. This long, bony column has four graceful, natural curves to it.
The average adult in the U.S. spends 12 hours a day seated, and many of those hours occur at work. Sitting in front of a computer with our shoulders and head hunched forward causes tremendous pressure on the cervical and thoracic spine (the area between the shoulder blades on the back). An additional eight pounds of pressure is added to the cervical spine for every inch the head sits forward (instead of properly seated farther back with the cervical vertebrae properly aligned). This head-forward posture can cause long-term damage to the cervical spine, including daily chronic pain and fractures. The muscle soreness and fatigue in the upper back may be due to this improper care of the spine.
To make matters more complicated, when we try to correct this posture on occasion by sitting up “straight” or stretching out our spines, we may feel sore and fatigued because the body isn’t used to being utilized correctly. Muscles are out of shape from misuse (or no use), so we go back to our poor, slouchy habits that put so much pressure on the spine.
There are some easy ways to create a more healthy work environment for your spine.
- Stand up: If you had to make one change that would improve overall health exponentially in relation to the amount of effort expended, this one would be it. Every half hour, stand up, stretch your arms above your head, take a walking meeting, or make a phone call while standing.
- Minimize repetitive motion: As much as possible, try to minimize repetitive motions in your work. If that is just not possible, practice safe techniques in your work. If you are lifting, use the strong muscles of your legs. If you are twisting, engage your core to help support your spine. When possible, counteract forward bends with small backbends.
- If you are sitting, sit well: Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your knees (at least) level with your hips. Support your lumbar spine with a pillow. Allow your body to find its natural curves without forcing them.
- Look into ergonomics: If your company won’t spring for it, look into buying your own ergonomic desk chair. These are designed to be supportive and adjustable to each person’s individual height and body structure. A one-size-fits-all chair doesn’t actually fit all and can result in pain and damage to the spine over the long-term.
- Get rid of the chair altogether: There are a few options when it comes to getting rid of your chair. The simplest one is to swap out a regular desk chair with an exercise ball. Although this may seem strange at first, an exercise ball forces you to engage your core muscles for balance and stability. Strong core muscles are an essential part of a healthy lumbar spine because they help hold up this area of the body. Sitting on an exercise ball can help work those core muscles without resorting to daily crunches (although those are important also!).
Another option for getting rid of the chair is to get a standing or a treadmill desk. These two types of desks are a revolutionary way to work but can result in fatigue at first as you get used to them.
After a long day of work, the first thing we want to do when we get home is to flop down on the couch. Resist the urge and go out for a walk instead. This serves a couple different purposes when it comes to creating and maintaining a healthy spine:
- Gives your mood a boost, which is proven to increase overall health, happiness, and feelings of well-being (especially if you walk with friends or family to create a social connection)
- Helps maintain (or achieve) a healthy weight to minimize strain on joints and forward pulling on the lumbar spine (in the case of weight around the middle)
- Keeps you standing up and active, which, as noted above, is the single best thing you can do for your health
- As a weight-bearing but low-impact exercise, it works to maintain strong, healthy bones to prevent bone loss due to osteoporosis
In general, maintaining a healthy weight by eating many different calcium-rich fruits and vegetables is another great way to give your spine the respect and support it deserves. Combining a healthy diet, exercises, and simple changes at work can make a world of difference in the health of your back.
We sometimes don’t appreciate all of the things the spine allows us to do until we feel that first twinge of back pain. How can you take steps today to prevent that from happening?
Image by Thomas Leuthard via Flickr