For the most part, my late twenties have been way more fun than my early twenties. But one thing about getting older that I have thoroughly not enjoyed has been the pain I now feel in my back constantly. Back pain gets more common as you get older, and often, our work, posture, and exercise habits (or lack thereof) don’t help much.
“In my experience, back pain isn’t the result of one thing in particular but rather a number of different injuries and stresses that accumulate until the body can no longer adapt,” chiropractor Dr Niccie Dearing RN, DC tells Bustle. “Pain isn’t a warning sign of something bad to come; it is the end result of a long time of degeneration. Think of someone having a heart attack, for instance. The chest pain that accompanies that isn’t a warning to change your diet and exercise more; it is more commonly the last thing you experience prior to death. Back pain is similar. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people walking around with no pain have disc issues at one or more levels of the spine. Our body is amazing and can adapt for a good while before it becomes an issue, and more often than not, it is a small and insignificant injury that leads to horrible back pain.”
All that is to say, if you’re experiencing back pain, there’s likely something wrong. Here are a few issues it could point toward.
Staring At Your Computer Screen All Day
Modern work environments aren’t exactly conducive to back health, to say the least. Looking at a computer screen requires a “forward head posture,” physical therapist Dr. Karena Wu, owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in NYC and Mumbai, tells Bustle. This head-reaching in turn strains our necks and middle backs. “For every inch forward the head sits in front of the torso, it increases the weight carried down through the spine by 10 pounds,” says Wu.
You can prevent this by sitting close to your computer — if your elbows are bent at 90 degrees to touch the keyboard, that’s about the right distance, says Wu. Your screen should also be eye level, so you don’t have to look down at it. If you start to get uncomfortable, get up and do a mini backbend by putting your hands on your hips and rolling your shoulders back over your pelvis.
Sitting Too Much
Sitting encourages you to slouch, especially if you’re on a couch, and even more so if you prop your legs up, says Wu. This pushes your intervertebral discs backward, which can lead to lower back pain — another reason to consider investing in a standing desk.
Traveling With Heavy Luggage
Bending at the waist to lift things up stresses your lower back, says Wu. And the twisting motions you might make to carry things around weighs your spine down, forcing the discs backward and to the side, leading to lower back pain and nerve pain. So, if you’re traveling with lots of bags, don’t be too proud to take the elevator or a cab. You can get your daily steps in once you’ve put your bags down.
A Weak Pelvic Floor
Weak pelvic floor muscles are associated with lower back and knee pain, Brent Reider, an author and referee for medical and scientific peer review journals and designer of several FDA-cleared medical devices, tells Bustle. If your pelvic floor muscles aren’t keeping all the forces pushing down at your hips in control, your back muscles might try to compensate and strain themselves. You can help tone up your pelvic floor by doing kegel exercises, which involve repeatedly squeezing and releasing the muscles that stop you from peeing. There are several devices, like the Yarlap and Elvie, that can help you with this.
What pretty much all these problems come down to is bad posture. If you’re slouching or straining your back consistently, your discs get moved around and worn down over time, says Dearing. Try to stand the way you would against the wall, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your shoulders back.
Car accidents, sports injuries, falls, and other events are often the straw that breaks the camel’s back — no pun intended — for people with back problems that have been building, says Dearing. You may not feel severe back pain during the accident, but small injuries can worsen over time.
“Emotional stress affects us physically,” says Dearing. “In addition to changing our posture and causing muscles to tighten, it also causes a chemical release of cortisol in our body, which has many damaging effects.”
If you’re dealing with chronic back pain, Wu recommends the cat-cow yoga position or hugging each knee to the opposite shoulder while lying down. She also recommends strengthening your abs and hips. It may not be as fun as kegels, but who says you can’t do both?