Whether you’re sitting at a desk all day, lifting heavy weights on a construction site or rushed off your feet doing the school run, most of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives.
But recent research published in the Lancet journal suggests many people may not be getting the best advice when they seek medical help for the problem. Frequently prescribed painkillers and rest do little to help back pain, the researchers argue. Instead, most cases of back pain are best managed through keeping active.
This is also a key principle of preventing back pain from occurring the first place.
Both Ashley James, spokesperson for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), and Dr Steve Iley, medical director at Bupa UK, say regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do in order to maintain a healthy back.
“Having a strong core can really help support your back. Building strength in your abs and back muscles can alleviate some of the pressure on your lower spine, preventing the likelihood of long-term damage, and helping to correct any postural issues or prevent existing pain getting worse,” Dr Iley tells HuffPost UK.
“Yoga and pilates are a great way to develop muscles and relieve pressure on our backs, and can also help to soothe existing strain. Building our strength and flexibility can relieve back soreness and improve our mobility.”
While James agrees yoga and pilates are beneficial, he notes core stability isn’t “the be-all and end-all of preventing back pain” and other types of exercise, from walking to swimming, to playing football or dancing around your kitchen, are just as valuable.
“In fact, there’s no one type of exercise that’s been proven to be better than the other,” he tells HuffPost UK. “The best form of activity to prevent back pain is one that you enjoy, because that’s one that you’re going to stick to. Try to find something you can commit to doing regularly. If you don’t like yoga, there’s no point starting yoga.”
As well as taking planned exercise, James says staying active throughout the day via small movements can be key to avoiding the build up of tension in the back and shoulders, especially if you’re desk-bound. “Try not to sit down for too long in one position,” he says. ”Move little and often, if you have the opportunity every 15 minutes, stand up, move around your desk, have a little wiggle and sit back down.”
Whether you’re sitting at a desk or completing manual labour, Dr Iley says having good posture can alleviate some of the strain on your spine, muscles and ligaments from day-to-day life, preventing aches and pains.
“Try to keep a straight back with your shoulders back and down, we tend to round our shoulders or hunch them,” he says.
In order to have the energy to keep moving during the day, sleep is an essential part of back health. James says a good night’s kip is also important to help the muscles recover from the day.
“People who don’t sleep well experience higher levels of pain,” he says. “There’s really no magic position that can prevent pain, but comfort is key. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a hard mattress or a soft mattress to a certain extent, as long as you’re comfortable.”
If you can feel back pain creeping in, Dr Iley says making sure your spine is supported in bed can help nip it in the bud. He recommends putting a pillow under your knees and lower back, which may help prevent bending your back in an unnatural way “which potentially makes the pain worse”.
You may feel your body stiffen more in times of stress, such as your shoulders feeling more tight or your lower back beginning to ache. According to James, our mental health can have a big impact on our back health, and there’s “plenty of research out there to show stress and anxiety change the way we move”. Because of this, he recommends taking some time up to work on your wellbeing and address any underlying issues that may be causing stress in your life. Speak to your GP if you are concerned about your mental health, or see our tips for practising self-care in 2018 for more general advice