Work smarter with these tips for strengthening and protecting your back from occupational therapist and wellness consultant, Cate Peterson.
Perhaps you are one of the very lucky few who never experience back pain. Lucky you! Back pain afflicts a huge proportion of Australians and has many negative side-effects, particularly for workers in demanding physical jobs requiring regular heavy lifting. Prevention is the best medicine, so take these simple steps and tip the scales in favour of a healthy back.
We often think of our backbone as the source of our pain but it rarely is. The twenty-four bones that make up our backbone do slip and slide a little and usually this is helpful, allowing us to move into the position required. Sometimes we ask our spines to achieve ridiculous positions and then we load them up with a weight that causes them to slip and slid a little too much or we ask them to assume the same position again and again. While the bones themselves don't suffer, this can cause them to squelch the soft discs between them or worse still, to push down on all the nerves that run to and from the spinal cord which is inside the back bone. That's the OUCH!
Here is what you need to do to minimise your risk of back injury:
1. Develop safe lifting practices
A nine year Australia wide project - concluded in 1994 - aimed to achieve consensus across a variety of industry groups and health professionals about how best to lift. The outcomes were phenomenally vague. There is no universally safe way to lift. Each of us is built differently; stronger in some muscles than others and with a unique pattern of limb length and joint mobility.
However, how flexible you are in your spine, hips, shoulders and knees is very important. The greater the movement in these joints the lesser the load on one muscle group and the less pull on your bones. So make a daily practice of stretching out all your bits. If you have no idea where to start, visit a yoga class, look up stretching on the internet, or just experiment with stretching a bit further every day.
2. Strengthen the muscles that support your backbone to prevent the slip and slide
Strong firm muscles will hold your spine in place. There are thousands of exercises that will help you develop this strength but the key to success is to make sure you practice daily. Here is one of those exercises that really works:
Begin by lying face down on the floor. Breathe in, lifting the whole body up into a gentle arch, feeling as little of the body remaining on the ground as possible. Make sure you have squeezed in your stomach muscles. As you breathe in, point the fingers and toes and as you breathe out, flex the fingers and toes. Use this action to rise as high as possible. Repeat up to 20 times with slow breath. If it is at all painful, just lower your body a little.
3. Breathe properly all day and especially when you lift
Every time you breathe in and out it flexes and extends your spine. This keeps your spine healthy and flexible. The pressure from gravity and carrying things compresses your spine. Studies show you can shorten up to two centimetres per day. If your breath is long and strong as opposed to stressed and shallow, this will really help keep your spine happy. When you lift you should ALWAYS breathe out as this decreases the pressure on your spinal discs and helps to prevent you 'popping a disc'.
4. Don't lift when you are tired or thirsty
When you have slept well, the gaps between your vertebrae will have increased and your cerebrospinal fluid, which keeps everything well oiled, will be replenished. Keeping this fluid topped up by drinking enough during the day is also really important. This lubrication of your spinal column will help protect your spine from injury and pain. Remember, drinking alcohol excessively leads to dehydration so don't lift if you have recently been inebriated. And if you know you have a heavy day of lifting ahead of you, get a good night's sleep!