Whether it’s a dull ache or a sharp, shooting sensation that travels down your leg, back pain makes getting through the day harder. About 39% of adults said low back pain “affected their ability to engage in daily tasks,” according to a survey by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
What’s more, women with back problems experience slightly higher pain levels than men, according to The Journal of Pain. On a pain scale of 1 to 10, women reported an average of 6.03, while men averaged 5.53.
Treating back pain can be expensive and difficult, so your best protection is to stay healthy and prevent it from occurring, says E. Kano Mayer, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health in Ohio.
For example, “extra weight puts you out of balance,” so staying trim will reduce the strain, he explains. So will regular exercise, including strength and core training.
Avoid cigarettes, he says, because they promote degeneration of discs in your spine.
“Smoking seems to injure those cells that would ordinarily help repair an injury in the back,” Dr. Mayer says.
Other activities can exacerbate back problems, such as carrying a heavy purse or even lifting your tote.Here are doctor-recommended ways to avoid the 10 most common back-busters.
Back problem cause #1: Sitting for long periods
Whether you’re in the office or at home in front of the TV, sitting for too long can damage your back. About 54% of people with low back pain spend most of their workday sitting, according to the APTA survey.
That’s because “sitting actually puts 40% more pressure on discs in the low back than standing,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, P.T., chief of physical therapy at Harvard University Health Services in Cambridge, Mass.
If you slouch on the sofa or hunch over a computer, you put even more stress on your back, adds James Wyss, M.D., P.T., a physiatrist (rehabilitation specialist) at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
“When you slouch for too long, the muscles that support your spine get fatigued,” he explains. “This puts more stress on the underlying structures: the discs, ligaments and joints.”
Get back pain relief: First, properly set up your workstation, Dr. Wyss says. Get a chair with good lumbar support and adjust it so you can sit in a “90-90” position – with a 90-degree angle between your trunk and hips, as well as a 90-degree angle between your knees and the floor, he says.
Wilmarth advises against sitting on a soft couch at home. When possible, choose a firmer chair or recliner, which will offer more support for your spine.
No matter where you’re sitting, “get up every 30 minutes just to stand and stretch,” she says.
“Stand up, pull your belly button in and just reverse the seated, possibly slouched, position you’ve been in,” Dr. Wyss adds.
At your desk, do small exercises to loosen your shoulders and neck.
“Circle the shoulder backward to loosen your blades and open the front of your chest,” Wilmarth says.
Also, shrug your shoulders up, then slowly release them while exhaling.
“While you sit, your shoulders will creep up; this will relax them into a better position,” she explains. Back problem cause #2: Holding a heavy purse
Carrying too much weight on one side of your body pulls you into an asymmetrical position, Wilmarth says.
“It pulls the muscles on one side and makes it harder for you to stay balanced,” she says. “It tends to torque your neck and upper and lower back.”
Get back pain relief: Never carry more than 20% of your body weight on your back and shoulders, advises Jeffrey Goldstein, M.D., director of spine service at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City.
Ideally, you should use a backpack to tote your things. Though it can pull on straps and add pressure to the shoulders, it distributes weight more evenly across your back, he says.
But when you carry a purse, avoid large ones – people tend to fill up the available space, Wilmarth says.
“The bigger they are, the heavier they get,” she notes.
If you have a large bag, go through it periodically and remove items you don’t need, Dr. Goldstein says.
Also, alternate the side you carry it on, Wilmarth adds.
“It will be hard to do [this] at first, but your body will get used to it,” she says. “It helps to balance you out.”Back problem cause #3: Lifting grocery bags
If you overfill the bag or carry more than one at a time, you’re lifting more weight than your back can handle, Wilmarth says.
Get back pain relief: Pack bags lightly, and make more than one trip to carry groceries into the house, Wilmarth suggests.
If you’re carrying plastic bags, don’t bring them all at once on one arm. This can cause one side to tip or tighten, increasing your chance of injury, Wilmarth says. Instead, carry them close to your body.
“If you hold them out [from your body], you’ll put more strain on your back,” she says.
Also, use proper back-saving techniques to lift bags out of the car: “Slide the bag as close to you as possible,” Wilmarth says.
Then bend your hips and knees, lean in and lift the bag, using leg and abdominal muscles to rise.
When turning away from the car, pivot your whole body from your feet; don’t twist from your back.
Back problem cause #4: Doing laundry
Most people lift wet clothes out of the washer and then twist and bend to put them in the dryer. This twisting motion puts a lot of stress on the lower back, Wilmarth says.
Get back pain relief: Instead, put a laundry basket on top of the dryer and transfer the wet clothes into it. Then carefully – holding the basket close to your body and bending from the knees – lower the basket to the floor. Squat and put the clothes in the dryer.
If you have a lot of wet, heavy laundry, transfer small amounts at a time. Back problem cause #5: Lifting a baby
When you bend from the waist to lift a child off the floor, you put pressure on your lower spine and risk pulling back muscles, Dr. Goldstein says.
Get back pain relief: Squat down to the floor and hold the child close to your body, he says. Then carefully stand up, using your legs and stomach muscles to do the work.
Avoid carrying your child on one hip, Wilmarth advises.
“That tends to torque the hip and pelvis,” which puts pressure on the lower spine, she says.
It’s best to use a front carrier, which spreads the baby’s weight evenly across your body. If you must carry the baby on your hip, Wilmarth suggests occasionally switching sides to equalize the strain.
Back problem cause #6: Multi-tasking while on the phone
If you cradle the phone between your head and shoulders while on the computer or cleaning the house, you “really tighten the muscles on that side,” Wilmarth says.
You also compress the vertebrae, she says, which can lead to inflammation. The result: tightness, numbness and tingling symptoms in your arm.
Get back pain relief: Use a headset, speaker phone or Bluetooth device, Dr. Goldstein suggests. That keeps your head and neck in a neutral position and your hands free.
When holding the phone to your ear, keep your head and neck as straight as possible, he says. Switch hands occasionally, so you don’t spend too much time leaning to one side. Back problem cause #7: Sleeping on your stomach
When you sleep on your stomach and turn your head to breathe, the rest of the spine twists too, Dr. Wyss explains.
Also, discs in your spine are filled with fluid, which replenishes at night. Sleeping in positions that compress the discs doesn’t allow fluid to move into them. It may put pressure on all the structures in your back: muscles, ligaments, fascia (connective tissues) and discs, Dr. Wyss says.
Get back pain relief: Sleep on a moderately firm mattress, Wilmarth says.
“If the mattress is too soft, your body will sag,” she says.
Then find a comfortable position to keep your spine neutral – either on your side or back. In both positions, keep your knees bent to relax your hip flexors (a group of muscles that connect the hip to the thigh bone) and take pressure off your spine, Dr. Wyss says.
If you’re on your back, put a pillow under the knees. Side sleeper? Keep a pillow between your knees or use a full-length body pillow. Back problem cause #8: Poor posture
When you slouch, hunch or tilt to one side, you put more pressure on the muscles and ligaments in your back, as well as the vertebrae, which can compress discs in your spine, Wilmarth says.
Get back pain relief: Do exercises to build abdominal stability and strength, she suggests.
“This will allow you to keep your spine in a neutral position,” she says. “Start with a simple isometric exercise: Just tighten the abdominals and hold for five seconds.”
If you have any back pain, check with a physical therapist before starting a more aggressive strengthening program, she advises.
During the day, check your posture periodically. “While standing, look in the mirror: You should see your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles all in a straight line,” Wilmarth says.
Back problem cause #9: Wearing high heels
Wearing heels “changes the way you walk and puts more stress on your low back,” as well as on the ankles and knees, Dr. Goldstein says.
Get back pain relief: When possible, wear flat shoes or ones with lower heels, he suggests.
If you’re struggling to balance in your shoes, the heel is probably too high. Avoid stilettos or heels that are over 5 inches, he says. Back problem cause #10: Moving too quickly in the morning
“Many of my patients injure themselves first thing in the morning,” Wyss says.
That’s because spinal discs, which have been replenished with fluid during the night, are fuller in the morning, causing added pressure on them, he says.
When you move the wrong way, the extra pressure can be just enough to trigger a tear or rupture in the disc, Wyss explains.
Get back pain relief: “Allow your body to wake up” and don’t make sudden movements or immediately plunge into housework or exercise, Wyss says.
“Give yourself at least 15 minutes just to move around and warm up before you start doing things,” he adds.
Also, do warm-up stretches before starting vigorous exercise, Dr. Goldstein advises. Spend at least 10-15 minutes stretching, he says. When weight training, opt for more repetitions and a lower weight.
“This puts less stress on your spine,” he says.
For more information and expert advice, visit Lifescript’s Pain Management Health Center. How Bad Is Your Back Pain?
So your back hurts? Take our back pain quiz to see how severe it really is. You may need to see a doctor but have just been avoiding it, thinking it will get better. On the other hand, your back pain may be more normal than you suspect. Find out where your back pain ranks in this back pain quiz.