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Winter Back Troubles

Monday, November 30, 2015

After an absolutely glorious fall, the first snowflakes are in the air. Shoveling and sloshing through snow and slush are right around the corner and with it, more than a few sore backs.  For most of us, shoveling, building snow forts, and trudging through snow piles will cause a few aches and pains that will go away simply with a bit of rest.  Unfortunately, many Americans are not so lucky and suffer from chronic back pain.  According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 80% of Americans will suffer from lower back pain during their lifetime with 20% of those cases developing into chronic back pain. In addition, the National Institutes of Health indicate that it is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days.  The magnitude of the burden from low back pain has grown worse in recent years. In 1990, a study ranking the most burdensome conditions in the U.S. in terms of mortality or poor health as a result of disease put low back pain in sixth place; in 2010, low back pain jumped to third place, with only ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ranking higher.  

Most folks will suffer with acute back pain that lasts from a few days to a few weeks and resolves itself with rest.  Some, however, will suffer with chronic back pain which is defined as pain that persists for 12 weeks or longer, even after an initial injury or underlying cause of acute low back pain has been treated.  Acute lower back pain is generally mechanical in nature, meaning the components of the back (the spine, muscle, intervertebral discs, and nerves) are somehow disrupted and not fitting together and moving correctly.  A few examples of mechanical causes of back pain are:  sprains and strains (sprains are caused by overstretching or tearing ligaments, and strains are tears in tendon or muscle), disc degeneration, ruptured or herniated discs, sciatica, a traumatic injury, spinal stenosis, or spinal irregularities.  

Everyone is somewhat at risk for back problems, however, there are several factors that elevate your risk for low back pain, including:  

Age – As people grow older, loss of bone strength can lead to fractures, and at the same time, muscle elasticity and tone decrease.  Most people start to notice back pain between the ages of 30 and 50.

Fitness level – Back pain is more common among people who are not physically fit.   Studies show that low-impact aerobic exercise and core strengthening exercise is beneficial to the back.

Pregnancy – Pelvic changes and alternations in the weight load on the body cause back issues during pregnancy.  This is usually resolved after delivery.

Weight gain – Being overweight, obese, or quickly gaining weight can put stress on the back and lead to low back pain.

Genetics – Some forms of arthritis cause immobility of the spine and pain.

Occupational risk factors – Jobs that require heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or twisting can lead to injury and pain. Desk jobs can also lead to pain, especially if you have poor posture or sit all day in a chair putting pressure on the lower spine.

Mental health factors – Stress, depression, and anxiety can all influence muscle tension, focus on pain, and perception of pain.

Backpack overload – The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that a child’s backpack should weigh no more than 15- 20 percent of the child’s body weight.  Overloaded backpacks cause strain and muscle fatigue.

Despite the risk factors, there are ways to keep one’s back healthy.  The key is consistent exercise that increases strength and flexibility. Walking, swimming, or stationary bike riding 30 minutes daily can help keep the back in shape.  In addition, stretching, standing and sitting tall (avoid slouching), wearing comfortable, low-heeled shoes, and lifting from the knees while keeping a straight back all can aid in back health.  Furthermore, maintaining good nutrition is important not only for weight management but for bone health.   A diet rich in calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D helps to promote new bone growth.  One final note, smoking increases the risk of osteoporosis and impedes healing.  It also reduces blood flow to the lower spine, which can contribute to spinal disc degeneration.  

As you head out to shovel those first inches of snow, keep in mind, a healthy back is a year round affair.  Exercising, stretching, maintaining good posture, and eating right all play a huge role is keeping us upright and pain free.   For more information about back health including how to lift objects properly and stretch, go to the North American Spine Society website at:   

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at or 585-335-4327.  

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