Back problems are affecting most people in the developed world; if not directly, indirectly; and if not now, at some stage in life.
If back muscles are not used properly and regularly, they weaken, lose flexibility and atrophy if not used for extended periods.
However, many of the muscles of the back, while they would have been used in the past, are today inactive for long periods of time, because of our lack of varied exercise or sedentary lifestyle. These muscles can come under stress if a person sustains a back injury, if new activities are performed that place them under considerable load or if they are stretched beyond their limited flexibility. Muscles may themselves become herniated, or may be damaged by other tissues becoming herniated. It is important that the back muscles are specifically targeted in exercises to ensure they remain strong and healthy.
Whatever the cause of back pain, the result is typically the following cascade of symptoms:
- Spasm of the larger back muscles
- Disuse atrophy as the person tries to avoid painful movements
- Stress on adjacent muscles that are subconsciously used in place of the injured/painful or weakened muscles, either because they are used in inappropriate ways, or under inappropriate forces. For example, muscles may be used to brace the back, or to compensate for injured muscles, they may be used to provide spinal support and posture when they are not designed for this purpose.
- Increasing pain, resulting in further, chronic misuse of back muscles
- Chronic pain as the weaken and injured muscles struggle to maintain basic posture and function
- Limited spinal mobility
A starting point to develop more of an understanding of human anatomy and physiology may be a course - see HUMAN BIOLOGY 1A (ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY) BSC101.
MAINTAINING BASIC BACK HEALTH
There are a number of facets to preventative back care. Some you may be familiar with include:
The redesign of common furniture, tools, working positions etc to reduce chronic stress on the back and joints.
- Do not hold telephone receiver between the head and shoulder
- Reposition computer screens, desk and chair heights. Screens should be approximately 15-30 degrees down from head height
- Ergonomic office chairs (kneel down)
- Sit on the edge of chairs that can’t be adjusted
- Move your car seat closer to the steering wheel
- Lift weights correctly, do not bend from the hips and haul the weight up, bend you knees and raise the weight using your leg muscles and a neutral back (slightly arched above the buttocks)
- Vacuum to your side and slightly behind you instead of out in front (you will hunch your back this way)
- Try to avoid standing hunched over the kitchen sink, stove, ironing board etc, and stand with legs wider apart and tuck buttocks in
- Change babies on a high change table, where you can keep your back straight, not on a low bench or bed
- Purchase and use ergonomic variants of tools if working in the gardening or building industries in particular. There are a range of simple ergonomic products on the market for home handymen also, designed to either correcting lifting movements and/or preventing repetitive strain injuries.
Maintaining correct posture means the muscles designed for posture will be correctly used, and will remain strong. You will avoid using other muscles incorrectly when you are standing or sitting, which can result in muscle pain and inflammation.
- Correct posture – also known as the neutral position. There will be a small natural arch in the lumbar spine, weight is carried evenly by both legs, chin and head are held back slightly and rib cage is lengthened by holding shoulders back slightly. Where the lumbar arch is exaggerated a person is said to have “hollow” or “sway” back. The opposite extreme, where the lumbar arch is lost and the upper thoracic spine arches (hunch back) a person is said to have “rounded” back
- Pregnancy – posture will change slightly due to the extra weight in the abdomen. Women must also be extremely careful as the hormone relaxin, released in pregnancy affects ligaments, making them lax. This can cause ligament injuries.
Muscles are made up of protein, a critical nutrient in the diet that can be supplied by eating red meat, poultry, eggs, fish and tofu. Inadequate protein intake will affect muscle development, maintenance and growth (hence why body builders take protein supplements). Inadequate calorie intake (carbohydrate or fat) means the body will, as a last resort burn protein to produce energy. The emaciated appearance of anorexics, for example, is due to their starving body being forced to dismantle and burn up muscle tissue. On the opposite side of the coin, overeating leading to obesity is also bad for your back. The spine, along with the other joints in the body have to carry your weight. If you have a ‘beer belly’ you spine has to try and balance out this extra load, and the back muscles, are also strained. Proper posture requires more effort, and the body has to work much harder to perform simple activities.
Learn more about nutrition with HUMAN NUTRITION I BRE102
Abdominal Muscle Strength
The back is supported in part by the large abdominal muscles. The obliques, for example, wrap right around from the spine to the abdomen. Maintaining abdominal strength and tone will assist in maintaining correct posture and spinal support, while reducing the likelihood of injury. Abdominals can be exercised using Pilates in particular, as well as yoga. Exercises such as sit ups (crunches) lower leg lifts and any exercises where you need to ‘brace’ the torso.
Learn more about the biology of muscles with MUSCLES AND MOVEMENT (HUMAN BIOLOGY II BSC202)
Correct Lifting Technique
A large proportion of back injuries are the result of poor lifting technique. You should never attempt to lift a weight more than 20 kg (approx 50 lb) without assistance. When you do need to lift something, ensure you are close to it with your feet are firmly planted with a wide stance. Bend down to the object by bending your knees (not bending the torso!) and keep your back straight. Grasp the object, tighten your abdominal muscles and then raise the weight using your leg muscles. Stand up slowly and smoothly, and do not twist. Hold the object close to your torso, with your arms bent and proceed to walk slowly. Lower the object in the same manner, tightening your abdominal muscles and bending your knees with your back straight.
Exercise Ideas for People with Bad Backs
Consider exercising in water. When you exercise in water (e.g. swimming, deep water running, aquafitness), you can reduce the sudden impact affects that exercise might normally cause; and for someone with a bad back, this can sometimes bring brilliant improvements.
Aqua Fitness eBook
Fitness Leaders Certificate Course
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