This prolonged phase of working or sheltering-in-place at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic is probably putting pressure on your back. The causes of poor posture now include longer-than-normal sessions at the computer, hours of watching TV, or just sitting around for longer periods than normal.
It’s time to get up, do some stretching, and some exercises to prevent or alleviate back pain, says Justin Thottam, D.O., physiatrist with the Spine Center at Miami Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida. In a recent Zoom presentation, Back Pain: Prevention, Causes and Treatment (see video below), Dr. Thottam explains how less moving around can be bad for your back, from the cervical spine (the neck) to the lumbar region or lower back.
“We’ve been at home, including myself, more than we’ve been accustomed to,” says Dr. Thottam. “So, I know after using the computer for a while, or watching TV for a while, or being on your phone, everybody starts to slump down a little bit. We’re probably doing it without even knowing it. So, try to be aware of your posture. And when you realize what you’re doing, correct your posture. Do some of the exercises that you can. Do stretching exercises if possible.”
Most back pain can be avoided or minimized if you are active and avoid positions and activities that may increase or cause pain — including lifting heavy objects improperly, bad posture at your computer workstation or sleeping positions on mattresses that contribute to chronic aches or pain.
Regular exercise can help reduce overall strain on the lower back. A commitment to fitness also helps you recover faster from injuries.
Excess weight is a contributor to back pain. To protect your back, it’s important to maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) — a measurement that uses your height and weight to measure your body fat. Excess weight puts more stress on the back. For example, if you are 30 pounds overweight, it’s like carrying a 30-pound weight around all day. That can fatigue your muscles and weaken your back.
The most conventional non-surgical treatments for back pain include hot or cold packs, strengthening exercises, physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen, and low dose courses of steroids.
Orthopedic physicians and fitness trainers agree that regular strength-building exercises should focus on the so-called “core muscles” that make up the abdomen and lower back. Strengthening core muscles can contribute to improved spine health, better protecting amateur athletes or weekend warriors from lumbar stress fractures or other serious back injuries. When these core muscles contract, they stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle — and create a solid base of support. And that’s important for performing everyday activities, not just organized sports.
“By strengthening your core, you essentially strengthening the muscles around your spine,” explains Dr. Thottam. “When those muscles get weak, the more that stress goes onto the lumbar spine or the cervical spine. And that can accelerate the degeneration of discs (which can result in spinal stenosis, or the narrowing of the spinal canal). Muscle weakness also allows for arthritis to advance.”
With everyone justifiably focused on infection protection these days, you’re more likely to forget about the importance of spine health.
“We are born with only one spine,” says Dr. Thottam. “So, the best way to take care of your spine is by preventing anything bad from happening to it. Try everything you can. You can be eating healthy, losing weight, being active, doing home exercises on a daily basis, or even twice or three times a day, if possible. I know it’s a lot to ask and you may not get results right away. But, in the long term, we know it can help patients a lot.”