Are Your Daily Habits Causing Your Back Pain?

More patients seek care for back pain than any other complaint other than the common cold.  More than half of people with low back aches report that the pain is severe enough to cause problems in their daily routines.  There is no one single cause of back pain, and often is “several situations combining to create pain” says Todd Sinett, DC and author of The Truth About Back Pain.  The bad news is that many of the causes may be simple things that you do on a regular basis.  The good news is that you can make adjustments in your lifestyle and alleviate many of those factors and thereby, reduce your back pain.  The editors of Prevention magazine have listed 14 things that are common causes of back pain – and how you can correct them in your daily life.

1.You have a long commute.

How much attention do you pay to your posture when driving?  Probably not much.  But slumping in the drivers seat while you sit in traffic twice a day can add up!  Darran W. Marlow, DC, director of the chiropractic division at the Texas Back Institute, advises his patients to think about their driving posture.  “Be sure you sit at a 90-degree angle, close to the wheel so you don’t have to stretch,” he says. “Extending your leg puts your back in a compromised position, but many people don’t even realize they’re doing it.”

2. You have an office type job.

Like driving, when people are sitting at a desk working, few are thinking about their posture.  Sitting creates “40% more pressure on your spine than standing.”  Add some tension from work deadlines and office politics and you have a recipe for pain.    Take the time for stretching breaks – they give your body and your mind a moment to relax and refocus.  Also, sitting at a 135 degree angle reduces compression of spinal discs, so lean back slightly from time to time.  Do this when you stop to read something, when you take a phone call or when a co-worker stops by to collaborate on a project.  This lets you give your back a break without taking away work time.  It is important to have an ergonomic work station.  Does your chair provide adequate support for your back?  Can you look straight forward to your computer screen?  (See more tips for setting up an ergonomic workstation at here.)

Try to stand up every half hour.  Get a glass of water, check in with a coworker on a joint task, retrieve papers from a printer or other location in the office, or simply stand and stretch for a moment.

3. You don’t take enough down time.

Realize that stress truly does contribute to back pain.  When stressed, the body tightens up – including the muscles in the neck and back.  If those muscles do not get a chance to relax, they will cause pain over time.  Sometimes, simply acknowledging that stress may be causing pain is enough for some people to begin to relax.  Self care, having a plan to calm down and relax daily, is important, but does not have to be elaborate or expensive.  Individuals should select strategies that work for them.   A few possible options are exercise, reading, sewing, participating in arts, and having social time with friends or loved ones.   Another strategy that many find helpful is music.  An Austrian study found that patients with herniated discs who listened to music along with medical care and exercise for 3 weeks, had pain levels that were over 40% less than the patients who received the same treatment without music.   “Music helps reduce stress hormones and muscular tension,” says researcher Franz Wendtner, a psychologist at the General Hospital of Salzburg.

4. You skip the gym.

Studies have shown that many people reduce activity levels when back pain strikes.  However, this may delay healing or even make the condition worse.  While strenuous activity may not be recommended for a period of time to allow for healing, many patients actually benefit from some exercise, especially walking which helps alleviate stiffness.   Talk to your chiropractor about ways for you to keep moving at an appropriate level while you heal.  If you are working with a trainer or taking an exercise class, share your doctor’s directives with your trainer/teacher so they can help you modify activities as appropriate.  Even strenuous exercise can often be modified to accommodate an injury.

5. Your mattress is really old.

How old is your mattress?  According to the National Sleep Foundation, while a good mattress may last as long as 9-10 years, you should consider replacing it after 5-7 years if you are not sleeping well or if you are experiencing back pain.  One study out of Oklahoma State University showed that most people who replaced their mattress after 5 years reported better sleep and decreased back pain.  Spanish researchers found that sleeping on a medium-firm mattress were more likely to report decreased back pain than those who slept on firmer mattresses.  You can also help your back by utilizing an extra pillow during the night.  If you sleep on your back, place it under your knees.  If you sleep on your side, place it between your knees.  And if you sleep on your stomach, place it beneath your stomach and hips.

6. You don’t do yoga.

Most exercise will combat back pain due to the increased circulation and lower stress levels.  However, yoga is exceptionally good for those with back pain.  Yoga is low impact and does not require intense cardiovascular strain making it great for beginners.  With its combination of deep breathing, relaxation, stretching and strength, it may help with both emotional and structural triggers of back pain.  Yoga classes are available at many gyms, civic centers, private studios and other community gathering spots.  If you are new to yoga or experiencing pain, it’s not a good idea to start with videos on your own.  Going to a class with a trained instructor who can watch to ensure you are doing the movements properly and who can modify them if needed is a better approach.  Just arrive a few minutes early so you can discuss your pain and/or injury with the instructor before the class starts.

7. You’re a crunch addict.

Sit-ups and crunches are some of the more common exercises, known even to young school children.  And while it’s true that a strong core will help protect your back and prevent injury, crunches don’t work the muscles that stabilize the back.  In fact, if not done properly, they can actually cause more back pain than they prevent.  This is not to say they shouldn’t be done.  When performed properly, and as a part of a larger workout that includes other core muscles such as the transverse abdominus crunches can be very beneficial.

8. You don’t eat a well-balanced diet.

Research has shown that a diet that is good for your heart, weight and blood sugar, is also good for your back.  Finnish research found that people with back pain were also more likely to have clogged arteries to the spine.   Good circulation brings nutrients to the spine and removes waste.  Proper nutrition is vital to exchange process.  Without this exchange of nutrients and waste, inflammation can result, triggering pain signals to the brain.  A healthy diet will help reduce inflammation.  In The Truth about Back Pain, Dr. Sinnett advises avoiding caffeine and processed foods.   Instead, drink plenty of water, and eat more whole grains, soy, nuts and seeds, protein (chicken, fish, and lean meat), vegetables, and fruit.

9. You carry a heavy purse, briefcase, or backpack.

While weight bearing exercise is great for the body, it shouldn’t come from simply lifting your purse or briefcase.  Carrying bags that are too heavy regularly can actually cause problems not unlike sports injury!  The reason is that the heavy weight can cause the shoulders to be imbalanced which pulls at the spine.  The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) suggests that your bag, even when fully loaded, should not weigh more than 10% of your body weight.  To alleviate the stress on your back, carry the lightest bag you can.  Alternate shoulders rather than always carrying it on the same arm.  Consider leaving some things in a separate bag in the car.

10. Your bike does not fit you properly.

Bicycling is a great low impact sport enjoyed by many.  If you get a sore back, you may not need to give up the sport, but merely adjust your equipment.  A local bike shop or bike club may be able to help you or refer you to someone who can make the proper adjustments.  One study found that by simply adjusting the front tip of the saddle down about 10-15 degrees, pressure was relieved off the lower spine and pelvis and 72% of the participant’s reported their pain went away while another 20% reported a significant improvement.

11. You love high heels.

High heels, as well as flip-flops and other backless shoes, while popular, can lead to foot instability, which in turn may cause back pain.  This is not to say those shoes should not be worn at all, but more supportive shoes should be used when walking long distances.   Lehigh University researchers found that switching people with back pain to lightweight, flexible shoes with simple cushions, 80% reported significant relief within a year.

12. You ignore the pain.

Researchers from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine found that attempting to block out pain could actually make it worse.  Focusing on the pain can cause muscles to tighten even more which, over time, can intensify the pain.  Lead researcher john Burns, PhD stated: “If you have a back spasm, describe the pain to yourself—if it’s burning or throbbing—and remind yourself that it will pass.”

13. You watch too much TV.

Just as office workers need to get away from their desk and move around during the day, the same holds true for watching TV.  Since one tends to be more relaxed when watching TV, they may be more prone to hunching over creating pressure on their back.   Too much “screen time” of this nature can cause back pain even in children and teens.  A Norwegian study found teens who sat at a TV or computer for 15 hours a week or more were three times as likely to have low back pain as their more active peers.  Rather than “looking” for something to watch, take a walk, exercise or meet a friend.  Limit your screen time to the shows you actually want to see.  Then, rather than fast-forwarding commercials, stretch or do some strength exercises during that time to prevent muscle strain from sitting too long.  This is especially important for children and teens whose spine is still developing.

14. You hold a grudge.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center studied patients with chronic low back pain.  They discovered that the people “who practiced forgiveness experienced less anger, resentment, depression—and aches. ‘Our emotions, muscle tension, and thoughts can directly influence the strength of our pain signals,’ says researcher James W. Carson, PhD.”  This forgiveness is not a one time, saying “I forgive you” then continuing to think about the wrong that was done.  Instead it involves choosing to be understanding towards one that has wronged you rather than holding on to the anger and resentment.
There are many potential causes of back pain.  While some involve moderate to severe acute injuries, many are cumulative effects of various small injuries and lifestyle factors.  Regular visits with your chiropractor can help keep things in check.  Making small lifestyle changes in your day to day life can help reduce pain, prevent injury and improve your overall health.  Your doctor can also assist you in determining which factors are affecting your health and how you can combat those issues.  Find a doctor of chiropractic near you at