Ah, low back pain. It’s the condition that unites us all. About 31 million Americans suffer from pain in their lower backs at any given time, according to the American Chiropractic Association—and 50 to 80% of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives.
We hear all the time the importance of maintaining a healthy weight to prevent pain. But what if you’re a seemingly healthy, active adult and that back ache still won’t quit?
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Though your low back pain may feel like a sentence you will have to live with for the rest of your life, that’s rarely the case, says Todd Sinett, DC, a chiropractor in New York City and author of Three Weeks to a Better Back. Your pain is likely a symptom for something else going on in your body, he says. Pin down the underlying cause, and you just might knock out that pain for good.
Examine your daily routine to see if one of these eight habits is contributing to your back pain—and read on to learn how you can fix it.
Working from home comes with its advantages: No commute! Healthy snacks at your fingertips! Ability to take breaks! The problems arise when working from home really means working from the couch or, worse yet, from bed. Both provide little support for your neck and back. “Whilst it may be tempting to work slumped on the sofa or lying in bed when given the opportunity, workers need to [realize] that they could be doing damage to their spine,” said chiropractor Tim Hutchful in a British Chiropractic Association article. “By making a few simple changes to their work stations, workers can embrace the benefits of flexible working without putting themselves at risk of developing back and neck problems.”
Fix it: The key is to sit at a table, on a chair, says the British Chiropractic Association. Take regular breaks, walk around while on the phone, and use your home to your advantage by adding in stretches whenever you can. (Here are 6 stretches you must do if you’re stuck sitting all day.)
“A lot of people say sitting is the new smoking,” says Sinnet. “We’re not meant to be continually hunched over. For any muscle to work effectively it needs to contract and expand.” Sitting too much leaves us in one forward motion, resulting in our spines arched forward. That’s where the low back pain comes in.
Fix it: Counteract the motion of sitting by lying with your back on an exercise ball with your arms stretched out wide (or stretch over a pile of pillows, like this). You can also try lying on Sinnet’s adjustable Backbridge device for two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night to gently align the spine.
When was the last time you did a clean-out? Your purse or bag should not be more than 10% of your body weight, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Yet many women tend to overstuff their bags with a little of everything they may need. The weight of all those items can really add up and force your body to shift out of good posture, which can take a toll on your back.
Fix it: Don’t weigh down your bag with unnecessary items. Empty it out regularly and switch positions from arm to arm so you don’t end up with an imbalance, which can lead to back pain. If you have to carry more with you each day, use a backpack instead to equally distribute the weight. (Try these 4 tips to carry your purse without wrecking your back.)
You don’t have to engage in high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to help your back—a brisk walk can do wonders! (Though if you do want to try HIIT, this 10-minute, total-body workout will rev your metabolism.) Contrary to some people’s belief, exercise does not increase the risk of future back pain injuries and may even slightly reduce your risk, according to research in the journal Spine. And studies have found that exercise can reduce back pain intensity by 10 to 50%.
Fix it: Go for a walk, and while you’re at it, check the bottom of your shoes to see if you’re properly aligned, says Sinett. Your shoes should be wearing down symmetrically; if they’re not, your weight distribution isn’t correct, and you should consider seeing a podiatrist. Also try incorporating back-strengthening exercises (like these gentle moves) into your routine. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends bird dog, plank, and side plank, starting with 10 reps of each three times a week.
Stress is the number-one factor Sinett sees leading to patients’ back pain. (Here are 10 silent signals you’re too stressed out.) Countless studies have looked at the effect emotions have on pain, including a 2016 study in the journal of Brain Behavior that found mindfulness-based stress reduction could effectively improve back pain symptoms and frontal lobe regulation of emotional awareness.
Fix it: Evaluate your stress level and start incorporating relaxation into your daily life. One way to do so is gentle yoga, which has shown promising results to reduce chronic low back pain. If you’re short on time, you can also try these simple one-minute stress relief techniques.
How your digestive system functions impacts how your back functions. Diarrhea, constipation, gas, or an upset stomach can all trigger pain there. “An upset stomach or digestive system will create inflammation and gas,” explains Sinett. “Often the gas puts pressure on the abdominal cavity, including the lower back musculature, equaling 14 PSI’s (pounds per square inch), which is as much as the pressure of an inflatable football.”
With that much pressure, it’s no surprise your back hurts. Sinett sees patients whose diets consist of food with little nutritional value, such as candy, chips, pizza, and soda, all of which can lead to inflammation. But he also sees patients with back pain who are eating too much of a good thing: raw salads and green smoothies that create gas, and thus, pressure on their backs.
Fix it: A balanced diet can do wonders to improve your digestive woes and back pain. “An anti-inflammatory diet should help,” says Sinett. “You need to figure out the right diet for you; it’s very individual.” Highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and alcohol are a few of the common culprits of inflammation. Try swapping them for these 10 foods that fight inflammation.
Or, you’re not using a pillow at all. To prevent back pain, you want your head and neck to relax, says Sinett. The ideal pillow position is when your head is lower than your neck. A 2016 study found that pillow height elevation significantly increased pressure on the head and neck, and the extension (or curvature) of the spine, leading to pain and poor sleep.
Fix it: If you typically sleep on your back, place a pillow underneath your knees to help recreate the normal curvature of your back,” says Prakash Jayabalan, MD, PhD, a clinician-scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. (This is the pain-relief pillow Amazon users swear by for better sleep.) He advises side sleepers draw their legs up toward their chest and place a pillow between the knees to level out the hips, and suggests you avoid sleeping on your stomach if possible—doing so increases the arch to your lower back and the strain on this region. (If you can’t help it, try one of these best pillows for stomach sleepers.)
If you needed any more reason to quit smoking, this is it. Smokers are three times more likely to develop chronic back pain than non-smokers, according to a 2014 study from Northwestern University. What’s most interesting about this study is that smoking didn’t simply affect the backs of the participants—it affected their brains. Lead author Bogdan Petre said in a press release, “We found that it affects the way the brain responds to back pain and seems to make individuals less resilient to an episode of pain.”
Fix it: The good news is the researchers also found quitting smoking can help prevent pain from becoming chronic. Your best bet for success is to try nicotine replacement therapy—like gum or a patch—or a medication like Champix, according to a 2014 systematic review. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.