Believe it or not, back pain is the number one cause of disability in the world. Experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point, and as many as 20% of people who experience sudden back pain will go on to develop long-term problems at one year. You don’t have to be part of that 80%, though — you can help yourself avoid the most common causes of spine problems through simple lifestyle changes.
Check your posture
Your spine is made up of vertebrae and discs that sit like pearls on a necklace, with natural dips and curves. If the way you sit and stand doesn’t support those curves, then you can damage your spinal nerves over time. Just sitting can increase the load on your spine’s delicate discs by 40% and focusing on a screen can cause your neck to lose its natural curve. Check your posture and adjust it regularly and avoid spending long periods of time sitting down. If you work at a computer, raise your monitor so you don’t need to look downward to see it. This will help keep you from slouching and make it easier to maintain the natural curve of your cervical spine.
Check your sleeping position
Ideally, everyone would sleep on their backs with a supportive mattress and a pillow that cradles their neck and head in the proper anatomical fashion. Unfortunately, a lot of people just can’t sleep like that, no matter how hard they try. If you’re a side sleeper, use a pillow designed to keep your neck level with your spine — neither thick enough to bend it upwards, or thin enough to make it droop. Place a pillow between your knees to keep your thighs parallel, taking some of the strain off of your hips and lower back. If at all possible, avoid sleeping on your stomach. This can compress your lower back, leading to morning pain and stiffness.
Exercise every day
Exercise has multiple benefits for your spine. It can help you lose excess weight, taking some of the pressure off of all of your joints. It strengthens your core muscles, supporting your spine. It also increases your circulation, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to your entire body. There’s only one caveat here: You have to use the proper form. Improper form increases the likelihood of injury. If you’re not sure if you’re using good form, consult an expert. Otherwise, stick to simple exercises like walking, running, or swimming. Swimming in warm water is especially helpful, since it provides gentle resistance and reduces stress on your spine and other joints.
Lift with your knees, not your back
Bending forward from the waist to lift a heavy object is a quick way to get a lower back injury. Instead, bend your knees and keep your back straight. Lead with your hips while lifting and keep your chest forward. Don’t hunch your back. If you do, it’s a sign that you are using your back to lift more than you should.
If you smoke, quit
Smoking has a lot of negative health effects, particularly on your cardiovascular system. Smoking may damage the nucleus of the cells of the spinal discs, as well as the delicate blood vessels that feed them. There’s also evidence that it can interfere with bone metabolism, triggering a loss of bone density. A meta-analysis of over 50 studies found that people who smoked were at a higher risk of bone fractures, including fractures of the spine. Quitting smoking can be tough, but it’s worth it. Even long-term smokers reduced their risk of fractures and spinal problems once they stopped.
You only get one spine, so it’s important to take care of it. All of the nerves that travel through your body pass through your spine at some point, and spinal problems can cause pain, numbness, and other issues in places you might never expect. Whether you have chronic back pain, an acute injury, or no back pain at all, these tips can help you improve and maintain your spinal health.