Whether from sitting at our desks too much or hunching over our smartphones and tablets, spinal problems are a growing epidemic in our country. Like many health issues, the prevention of spine problems and care of our spines is fairly basic, but it requires us to develop better habits.
The most important aspect of spine care is, and always will be, alignment. Some people use the word posture, but that brings up memories of our parents yelling at us to “STAND UP STRAIGHT!” Spinal alignment is better described as mechanics. The weight of the head needs to be centered atop the neck, not hanging in front of the body. Allowing the equivalent of a ten-pound bowling ball to hang forward creates neck pain which can radiate into the upper back and down the arms. Eventually, poor alignment also will cause the thoracic spine (behind the lungs) to develop a large forward curve. Over an extended period of time, the thoracic vertebrae can literally collapse in the front, becoming wedge-shaped. This can cause pain and balance issues that can lead to falls. It also decreases the area of the chest cavity, limiting the area that the heart and lungs have to work.
You should also address curve reversal. Just as the many joints of the hand stay healthy by repeatedly bending and extending, the spinal joints also need to move in to both flexion and extension. Flexion, or bending, is rarely a problem. We all bend forward thousands of times each day. Learning to safely reverse the curves of the spinal segments is an investment in a healthy spine that will last a lifetime.
Like many parts of our body, strength is a key to keeping the spine healthy. Over time, bones develop spurs, cartilage wears out, but muscles can be maintained forever - remember Jack LaLanne
? The most common reason given for poor posture is that it is exhausting to sit or stand erect. By strengthening the muscles on the back of the body with simple exercise, we can develop greater strength and endurance, and sitting and standing erect can become second nature.
Once your neck and back are on the way toward better health, learning to use them correctly with the right body mechanics will assure full, pain-free function. Keeping the chest (sternum) up and the nose between the toes when lifting is the way to use your spine in a healthy manner. This takes some practice and determination to do things in a way that won’t cause harm, but it is a habit that pays off for a lifetime.
These are the basics of spinal care, but there is a lot more to it that can help you successfully prevent or improve your spinal issues. If you have any questions about these tools, ask your health care provider about visiting a physical therapist. St. Anthony’s provides physical therapists
who can help you lose your back and neck pain.