Is your back pain-free during your holiday? Then maybe your everyday routines are causing your problems, says Tim Hutchful of the British Chiropractic Association
Neck pain: Your less-than-smartphone
Tim says: ‘Bending your head over your tablet or smartphone strains the muscles in the neck. Do this for hours on end and your body will start to adopt this hunched position. The average human head weighs about 12lb but, for every single inch your head is angled forward, another 10lb is added.
‘So if you continually bend your head three inches that adds an alarming 42lb to the neck. It’s no wonder that an unguarded movement, such as a sneeze, can cause a whiplash injury!’
‘Keep the body in a neutral position at all times. Have your ears at an equal distance from your shoulders and your chin neither up nor down. Place your tablet higher up – and prop it up rather than using it flat – to improve posture.’
‘At night, use just one supportive pillow that allows you to maintain a neutral position while you’re sleeping. Snoozing with too many pillows can create an unnatural alignment, adding further strain to the neck.’
Shoulder pain: Bags of problems
Tim says: ‘Carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder, in one hand or in the crook of your arm not only adds load to one side of the body but the muscles on the other side have to strain to counterbalance the unevenness.
‘In Africa, heavy loads are carried on the head while, in China, a shoulder beam is used to distribute weight evenly on both sides of the body like a seesaw.’
‘Spread the load. Choose a rucksack or carry your bag across your body. And, rather than carrying one heavy shopping bag, divide the weight equally with a bag in each hand.’
‘Take time out mid-morning and afternoon to sit with your hands in your lap and gently pull your shoulder blades up, then back and down, away from your ears. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times.’
Upper back: Support squad
Tim says: ‘Four in five women wear the wrong-size bra, a recent study found. But if the breast weight isn’t properly supported, the muscles in your neck and thoracic spine (upper back) constrict to carry the load, while bras that fit too tightly can restrict blood flow and dig into the middle of the spine putting pressure on the nerves in the back.
‘Bras are like suspension bridges. You need a well-engineered bra so your shoulders don’t do all the work.’
‘Get a professional bra fitting and make sure you adjust the straps properly. It’s the difference between carrying a bowling ball in a bag where it fits snugly or in a box where it moves around freely, making it more difficult to carry.’
‘Make sure you have a bra fitting every six months as the shape and size of breasts change constantly. And always choose wide straps across the back of your bra and on the shoulders for extra support, unless you have small breasts.’
Middle back: Don’t twist again
Tim says: ‘It’s that ‘straw to break the camel’s back’ again. Middle back pain is caused by ‘sit and twist’ actions where the top and bottom parts of the spine meet (the thoracolumbar junction).
‘So, reaching for your bag in the back seat of the car or sitting sideways on so you have to twist your spine to watch TV or talk to someone are common triggers.’
‘If you’re watching television, sit so the screen is directly in front of you. Visiting someone in a hospital bed? Move the visitor’s chair so you can face each other comfortably.’
‘Try to avoid twisting when getting out of the car. Open the door, turn your whole body towards it, then lower your feet to the ground and stand up. This avoids awkwardly rotating your spine.’
Lower Back: Sitting on a problem
Tim says: ‘Contrary to popular opinion, sitting doesn’t ‘take the load off’. Research has found that people who do desk jobs suffer more back pain than those working in manual jobs where lots of lifting is involved – because sitting causes up to twice as much pressure on discs on the spine as standing.
‘Using your joints and spine strengthens them, reducing risk of injury. But inactivity weakens them, which makes you more prone to problems.’
‘Take breaks from sitting to relieve the tension in your lower back. Walk around for two minutes at least once an hour, and aim for a neutral spine when sitting, where everything is in line. Sit at the back of the chair, relax your shoulders and put your feet flat on the floor.’
‘When sitting and working at your desk, make sure your eyes are in line with the top of your computer screen and your elbows level on the desk. Visit chiropractic-uk.co.uk/for-everyone-5-posture-111-ms.aspx for more advice on how to maintain the best posture at your workstation.’
Sciatica-type pain: Too much of the high life
Tim says: ‘The term sciatica actually refers to a herniated disc but, like ‘the flu’, it is often used inappropriately. However, a burning pain in the buttock area and the tops of the legs is commonly caused by not elongating our spines – leaning back – enough.
‘Wearing high heels alters the angle of the spine as your heel doesn’t meet the ground. You are forced to bend slightly forwards and this tightens the hamstrings and calf muscles.’
‘Always try to vary your choice of footwear and the height of the heels so that the leg muscles are stretched in all positions. And stretch the calf muscles if they are feeling tight.’
‘Try standing on a stair with your heel hanging off the edge and hold on to a bannister, then slowly move your heel up and down to stretch and strengthen the calves and Achilles tendon.’
What to watch for at every age
In Your Thirties
Pregnancy, breastfeeding, and lifting and carrying babies and toddlers all put stress on the back. Staying active and maintaining fitness levels during pregnancy will keep a check on weight gain, while using supportive pillows to breastfeed will help you avoid bending forwards.
In Your Forties
Work-related posture and lax abdominal, core and pelvic-floor muscles are common culprits. Reassess your workstation and lifting practices. Strengthen core muscles and perfect posture by taking up Pilates.
In Your Fifties
Loss of fitness and weight gain put added pressure on the spine, joints and muscles – while the menopause can cause demineralisation of the bones, leading to osteoporosis. Lose weight if you need to. Eat a calcium-rich diet and do weight-bearing exercise to keep bones and joints strong.
In Your Sixties And Beyond
Degeneration of the joints and discs can affect the back just as it does other joints in the body.
‘Being active is essential. Choose a routine that includes weight training for muscles and bones and aerobic activity for heart health. Gentle stretching can improve flexibility and help with stiffness. Over-the-counter medication can help with pain and inflammation.