Chances are you don’t think a lot about the health of your spine, at least until you end up with a bad case of neck or back pain. There’s nothing like a little pain to make you take notice and, hopefully, take preventive action! Like the rest of your body, your spine needs a little TLC. What is your spine exactly – and why is it so prone toward problems if you don’t treat it right?
Your spinal column is the bony structure, made up of 33 bones called vertebrae, that cover and protect your spinal cord and protect it from injury. The vertebrae are separated from each other by discs that help cushion and protect the bones each time you move your spine. In addition, ligaments, bands of connective tissue, link the vertebrae to each other and the vertebrae are also covered by tendons and muscles. The ligaments help protect the joints while tendons and muscles stabilize the spinal column and allow the spinal column to move.
All in all, your spinal column helps support your body weight and keep your body stable. So, maintaining its integrity is no less important than protecting other organs in your body from injury. Yet, most of us have habits that are hard on our spines. If you ignore these habits repeatedly, you could end up with a debilitating spinal issue.
In fact, back and neck pain are already two of the most common causes of pain and disability. But, we can lower our risk of these problems by keeping our spinal column healthy. Here are some common habits that can spell trouble for your spine.
Spine Problems: Wearing High Heels Frequently
Do you love wearing a pair of sky-high heels? Yes, they make your legs look longer, but they also throw your spine out of balance and that’s not a good trade-off. When you slip on that stylish, little pair of stilettos, the alignment of your spine changes.
Normally, your spine has a gentle “S” shaped curvature. But, when you slip on a pair of high heels, this curvature becomes more pronounced as your lower back shifts forward, accentuating the curvature in the lower back. This happens because high heels place more pressure on the balls of your feet. Your back shifts forward to compensate.
As you can see, wearing high heels alters the alignment of your spine in an unhealthy way. Over time, this can put pressure on the nerves that run through your spinal cord and cause back pain and sciatica, pain and numbness due to compression of nerves in the lower back region. If you wear high heels frequently, it creates additional wear and tear on the discs in your spine as well as the joints in your knees. The spinal canal can, over time, narrow, and place pressure on the nerves, a condition called stenosis.
Spine Problems: Texting Too Much
The popularity of handheld devices has created a new orthopedic epidemic commonly known as “text neck.” When you stare at the screen on your smartphone, you bend your neck down closer to your chest. This places your neck in an unnatural and unhealthy state of curvature.
Your head weighs more than you think, somewhere between ten to twelve pounds. As you tilt your head forward more, the force your head places on your spine increases. When you bend your head down to your chest, that force increases to around 60 pounds.
Ideally, you want your head in a neutral position as much as possible and that’s where your ears line up with your shoulders. The widespread use of handheld devices has changed that and is creating chronic neck and upper back problems.
Spine Problems: Sitting Too Much
Sitting places more pressure on your spine than standing, and most of us use poor posture when we sit. When you sit, you may be hunched over in front of a computer monitor. Sitting compresses the discs in your back more than standing and it’s even worse when you sit with poor posture. This places extra stress on the discs that cushion the vertebrae in your spine as well as spinal muscles and ligaments. Plus, sitting too often tightens your hip flexors while the antagonist muscles, the glutes, and hamstrings lengthen and weaken. Muscle imbalances like this are a setup for injury.
The obvious way to mitigate this risk is to sit less. If that’s not possible, practice sitting with good posture in your chair. Make sure your monitor isn’t too high. Ideally, you want your monitor to be around 15 degrees below the horizontal line, so you’re looking down just slightly. This position tends to be less tiring on the neck and upper back. Make sure your chair has good lumbar support and you’re sitting in it upright rather than leaning forward.
To release tight hip flexors related to sitting too much, include a series of hip flexor stretches in your fitness routine. Also, focus on strengthening the opposing muscles, your glutes and hamstrings to compensate for the lack of stimulation they get when you sit.
Spine Problems: Lifting Things Incorrectly
Most of us lift heavy items, like boxes, incorrectly and lifting inappropriately is one of the fastest ways to end up with back pain. The two common mistakes people make when lifting a box off the floor is not bending their knees and twisting their body as they lift. Both can be damaging to your back and spine.
When lifting something, get close to the object. When you get close to the object, the object is nearer to your center of gravity. This means you don’t have to exert as much force to lift it. Once you’re close to what you’re lifting, bend your knees and up in a straight line without twisting your body in one direction or another. When you set the item back down, bend your knees again. Practice doing this correctly, so it becomes a habit.
Spine Problems: Letting Your Weight Climb
Obesity and weight gain aren’t just bad for your health, they’re harmful to your spine. Studies show that obesity is linked with degeneration of the discs that lie between each vertebra in the spinal column. This primarily affects the discs in the lumbar region, the lower part of the back. Fortunately, weight training, aerobic exercise, and smart dietary choices can help you keep your weight under control.
The Bottom Line
Don’t ignore the health of your spine! Now, you know some of the most common habits that harm your spine and trigger back and neck pain. If you strength train and stretch regularly, you’ll lower your risk of back pain and injury, but be sure to train the muscles in your back and the muscles that stabilize your spine as well. Also, try to identify and correct any muscle imbalances that might predispose your spine to injury.
The health of your back, neck, and spine is critical and you might not think a lot about it until you experience back pain or a spinal problem. Take action before that happens and treat your spine with the extra care it deserves.
Spinal Health Institute. “How High Heels Affect Your Body”
Ergonomics Plus. “Office Ergonomics: A Six-Point Checklist to Correctly Position Your Computer Monitor”
PLOS One. “Association of Abdominal Obesity with Lumbar Disc Degeneration – A Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study”
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