Unlike many preventative health measures – cardiovascular health, for example – spine health may be pushed to the backburner until a patient actually experiences back or neck pain. Experts hope to combat this trend and bring awareness to spinal strength and flexibility.
“We want to show people that spinal health is just as important as cardiac health,” said Clinical Neuroscience Educator Louise Hardage, R.N., B.S.N., at the Piedmont Spine Center.
Recent estimates suggest that 75 to 80 percent of Americans will suffer from back pain at some point in their life. But pain is just one indication of injury or strain to your back. And when spinal health is compromised, injured or even ignored, a myriad of conditions can ensue, including soft tissue damage, disc injury, nerve impingement and bone degeneration.
“There are hundreds of muscles in the back, and they work together in a very fine balance. If you put stress on the body asymmetrically, you will develop pain and dysfunction of the spine,” said Roger H. Frankel, M.D., a neurosurgeon at the Piedmont Spine Center.
Many of the patients at the Spine Center have experienced general wear and tear on their spine related to aging, poor ergonomics and even their career path.
“Certain occupations are more prone to spine problems, like construction workers and nurses,” says Hardage. “We are also seeing patients now have problems because of the way their computer station is set up.”
Preventing Spine Injury
There are many things people can do on a daily basis to minimize the risk of developing spine problems later in life.
“Weak core muscles can cause a cascade of events that can result in arthritis, bone spurs and pressure on nerves,” said David Benglis, M.D., a neurosurgeon at the Piedmont Spine Clinic. Those issues can cause severe pain and hinder a patient’s quality of life.
“Because you don’t die from it, patients may not prioritize the health of their spines,” Hardage said. “They learn to manage the acute episodes, but it can become chronic and debilitating. The physical and social costs are extraordinary.”
How do you know when your back pain may be serious?
“Usually we are concerned if there is any weakness in one of the extremities, like the arms or legs, or if there are neurological defects, such as desensitization,” she says. “Most patients recover from acute episodes of back pain without having to see a specialist.”
If you suffer from a back pain episode, see your primary care physician and follow his or her recommendations, such as weight loss or physical therapy, to prevent a chronic problem.
To prevent spine problems in the first place, incorporate the following tips into your life:
- Make exercise a daily ritual – especially exercises that strength core muscles. Studies have shown that yoga and Pilates promote overall spine health and strengthen your core. If you already suffer from back pain, choose low-impact cardiovascular activities, such as elliptical training, swimming and bicycling.
- Maintain good posture whether sitting or standing. Have an ergonomically-friendly workspace and keep your body well-aligned at all times.
- Buy shoes that are balanced, flexible and comfortable. Shoes should cup the heel and support the arch, while cushioning the sole.
- Apply heat therapy to soothe spinal discomfort.
- Purchase a good mattress that provides support for the natural curves and alignment of the spine.
- Buy a pillow that maintains a height of 4 to 6 inches and that properly supports the head and neck.
- Follow a healthy, balanced diet with a focus on calcium and protein.
- Maintain a proper weight. Additional body weight increases the strain on your spine.
- Stop smoking.
- Lift objects carefully by bending at your knees, not your waist.
- Reduce your stress levels. Too much stress can cause your muscles to tighten, which can contribute to irritation in your back and neck.
- Talk with your doctor about conservative treatment options, such as massage therapy, physical therapy and spinal manipulation.
“Prevention is much better than a cure, so if people can take care of their spine every day – not just days when they have back and neck pain – that is the best approach to maintaining spine health,” says Hardage. “Don’t wait for back pain to show up to look after your spine.”
For more information about spine health, visit the Piedmont Spine Center.