It’s almost as if modern life puts a bullseye on the lower back. Thanks in part to our largely sedentary lifestyles, lower back injuries are Americans’ most common cause of pain.
About four in five Americans will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation physical therapist Sheila Klausner says too much sitting is often part of the problem.
“Every single human body needs to walk, to bend, to rotate,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic athlete or a great grandmother. You need to move.”
To see why inactivity is a problem, Klausner imagines the spine as a bridge. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments are like the guidewires that keep the bridge upright.
Just as muscles strengthen when used, they weaken when ignored.
“People are sitting at a computer all day long,” she said. “If you’re sitting in a poor posture and an unsupportive chair, your muscles adapt, getting tight and weak.”
The result, then, whether you’re going for a run or just bending over to tie your shoes, is too often lower back injury, usually a strain or a sprain.
And there’s some evidence the problem is getting worse.
In one study, the occurrence of serious lower back pain more than doubled between 1992 and 2006.
In that time, the prescription of opioid medications and injections has also risen dramatically. Physical therapists like Klausner suggest an alternative.
“Physical therapy is able to come up with a diagnosis of what’s mechanically wrong,” she said. Chemicals will mask pain, but won’t correct the underlying problem.
“That’s the essence of what physical therapy does, it helps people understand and respect pain but also deal with pain,” Klausner said.
Promoting the strength and flexibility of the two largest muscles in the body — the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus — goes a long way toward promoting spine health.
Klausner’s advice to prevent lower back injury is all about strengthening the guidewires to your spine.
- If a standing desk is available to you, use it. “It’ll engage your muscles and your circulation and allows for your body to actively hold you upright,” Klausner says.
- Take a walk. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, sitting at a desk for hours at a time can lead to injury.
- Avoid “text neck.” Hold your smartphone up rather than letting your neck hang down.
- Don’t stretch cold. Get your body temperature up a bit, then prepare your spine to move in a full arc of motion.
For those with pain, rest is often a poor prescription.
“Twenty years ago, you heard it a lot,” Klausner says. “Fortunately, now it’s not common practice.”
Instead, her advice is to try to continue your normal activities.
Build body awareness
Being aware of your body — are your muscles being activated or surrendering to gravity — is one theme of Klausner’s advice. But for most people this awareness does not come naturally.
For many of us, our awareness of posture is limited to occasionally sitting up straight at a desk before unconsciously slouching back down minutes later.
“Our brains are so busy with other things,” Klausner says, that little mental energy is left over for body awareness.
She finds yoga to be a wonderful way to build awareness of your body and how it moves.
“Yoga can help you learn relaxation and how to strengthen and stretch your body,” she says. Meditation or relaxation works for some people, as well.
A physical therapist at the Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation can teach you about your body and empower you to help it heal. Moreover, the team includes expertise from across the many disciplines it takes to support the whole you.
To schedule an appointment, call (407) 303-8080 or visit fhsportsmed.com/schedule-appointment.