Almost everybody gets it. Estimates are that 90% of us suffer back pain at some point in our lives. And we spend approximately $50 billion a year in search of relief. Back pain is second only to the common cold as a cause of lost days at work and it is one of the most common reasons to visit a doctor's office or a hospital's emergency department. “Back pain isn't a specific disease,” says Dr. Brian Bannister, pain management specialist at Atlantic Spine Center. “It's a signal that something has gone wrong in the lower back or pelvic area, most often a muscle spasm or a strain or sprain, which can occur when the muscles and ligaments that support the spine are stretched or torn.”
Most simple back pain will resolve in a couple of weeks with rest, ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. But that relief often doesn't come before days of misery and lost time at work. Fortunately, many of these injuries can be prevented. While the acute injury may appear to have been triggered by unaccustomed movement on the playing field or while lifting a heavy object, it is typically years or even decades of neglect that have weakened the muscles and made injury practically inevitable.
“There is no shortage of good advice on preventing back pain,” says Dr. Bannister. “We should maintain a healthy weight, bend our knees when lifting something heavy, stand and sit up straight, stay active and eat a nutritious diet. These are all important for our backs and for general health. But don't forget the most critical component of a plan for a healthy back is exercises that strengthen the muscles that support the back, particularly the core abdominal muscles.”
Tips for Core Strengthening
Many people associate the abdominal muscles with six-pack abs and aren't aware of the role they play in supporting the spine and keeping us upright. Stabilizing the spine is necessary for movement and for preventing back pain. The abdominal muscles serve as the front anchor of the spine. When they are weak, the muscles of the back have to work harder to provide the necessary support and they become more prone to injury. “Developing stronger core muscles will reduce the likelihood that you will strain your back,” says Dr. Bannister.
Common abdominal exercises that will strengthen the core and help prevent back pain include elbow planks, abdominal crunches and push-ups. Yoga and Pilates are also good for developing core strength as are specific exercises that develop the transversus abdominis, the deepest of the abdominal muscles and one that plays an important role in stabilizing the lower back and pelvis. “Exercises to strengthen the back should be done 2 or 3 times a week,” says Dr. Bannister, “and developing a regimen should be done with the help of a doctor, a physical therapist or a certified trainer, particularly if you've already suffered a back injury.”
Back pain is one of our most common afflictions but it doesn't have to be. The best remedy is one of prevention, including exercises that strengthen the core muscles that support the back. Be good to your back and it will carry you far.