Back pain will affect most people at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organization. It is responsible for an estimated 149 million missed work days in the United States every year, and between lost wages, lower productivity and medical bills it costs the US economy between $100 and $200 billion per year.
One of the most common causes of back pain is a herniated disc. In each vertebra, or backbone, there is a disc in the center that acts as a cushion. When the jellylike inner layer of the disc punches through the hard outer layer, this is called a herniation. If the herniation presses on the spinal cord or a nearby nerve root, it can cause pain, tingling, numbness or weakness.
Herniated discs can lead to a condition called sciatica. The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body. It starts in the buttocks, but the nerve roots that eventually become the sciatic nerve originate in the lumbar spine (lower back). A herniated disc can press on these nerve roots, causing sciatica.
Luckily, herniated discs and sciatica are both preventable and treatable. Strength exercises, flexibility training and some preventive measures can go a long way in keeping your back safe, strong and healthy.
Strengthen Your Core
A strong core and lower back will help keep your intervertebral discs safe. The core is not just the abdominal muscles—it encompasses most of the torso, including several back muscles.
Perhaps the best and safest core exercise is the plank. This exercise works just about every muscle in the core, including the:
- Recuts abdominis, what’s commonly thought of as the abs
- Obliques, muscles on the side of the core
- Erector spinae, muscles that stabilize the spine
- Transverse abdominis, a deep core muscle
…and more. It is a simple exercise to perform:
- Get into the top of the pushup position
- Keep your spine straight and your navel pulled in
- Hold for 10 to 30 seconds
- Repeat three to five times
A variation of the plank is supporting yourself on your elbows and forearms instead of the palms of your hands.
Side planks, too, are excellent neutral core exercises. Like the standard plank, the side plank relies on holding a position. In this case, you will be on one palm (or elbow for variation) with your shoulders perpendicular to the ground, your torso facing a wall instead of the floor and one leg stacked atop the other.
This exercise mainly targets the obliques on the side of your core, though other muscles such as deep core muscles, back muscles and muscles that move the hips are also worked.
Bird dogs are another useful exercise for strengthening the core muscles and stabilizing the spine. To perform this exercise:
- Get on all fours
- Keep the back flat
- Slowly extend your left arm and right leg
- Return to all fours
- Slowly extend your right arm and left leg
- Return to all fours and repeat three to five times
You can develop a strong and stable core by performing these three exercises two to three times a week.
Strength is one part of the back pain prevention equation. Flexibility is the other. Having a flexible and mobile body will enable your spine to move safely. Stretches to loosen up the hips, hamstrings, buttocks and lower back can help ease the pain of sciatica and help prevent disc herniation.
The standing forward fold will bring flexibility to your hamstrings, the large muscles on the backs of the thighs. To perform this stretch:
- Keep a slight bend in the knees
- Hinge at the hips and bend forward at the waist
- Try to touch your toes, but if you can’t, place your hands on your shins or thighs
- Keep your spine straight; don’t round your back
To stretch your hips and buttocks, perform the following:
- Lie on your back with your knees up and feet on the floor
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee
- Grasping behind your knee, bring your knee to your chest
- Repeat on the other side
The sphinx stretch is a good one for stretching out the front of your body, including the front of your hips and your abdominals. It is a back extension, so it will also gently mobilize your spine.
- Lie face down with your legs stretched behind you and your arms at your sides
- Raise your upper back and slide your forearms forward
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together
- Keep your neck neutral
- Try to bend more in the upper back than in the lumbar
Preventing Back Pain at Home and Work
Keeping your core strong and your body flexible can help protect your spine. However, you’ll also need to follow best practices when it comes to living and working to keep your back injury-free.
The first consideration is your workspace, especially if you have a sedentary job. Set up your workstation in an ergonomic way to avoid straining your back and potentially incurring a herniated disc.
- Ensure your chair has adequate lumbar support
- Have your computer monitor in front of you and at eye level so you don’t have to strain your neck to see it
- Keep your keyboard close to prevent reaching and straining
- Take frequent breaks to prevent sitting too long—get up and move around or stretch out every half hour or so
For those without desk jobs and people who must lift heavy objects as part of their job, make sure you lift properly. That means using the legs instead of the back. Squat down and grab the object firmly—do not bend over to grab it. Then, rise to a standing position with the object as close to your middle as possible to establish a proper center of gravity. Lifting anything by bending over at the waist is a recipe for disc herniation and back pain.
If you have a herniated disc or sciatica, you have many treatment options both conservative and surgical. Request an appointment with me or any spine specialist at Summit Medical Group Orthopedics to discuss your personalized treatment plan.