Preventing Lower Back Problems
Karl Knopf, EdD
Low back pain is one of the most common health problems, second only to the common cold for doctor visits. Often, the cause is multi-factorial and may even result from bad habits. Some causes of low back pain include:
- Muscle spasms caused by over-use, poor body mechanics, and/or postural imbalances.
- Rupture of a disc that protrudes against a nerve.
- Spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the space around the nerve outlet.
- Arthritis of the spine and facet joints.
- Some more serious conditions such as tumors, aneurysms, spinal fractures and infections.
Since the cause is so varied, it is important to see a medical doctor for proper diagnosis. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience leg pain or backache along with the following, red flags:
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Leg or foot pain accompanied with weakness or numbness.
- Fever that accompanies low back pain.
- Severe pain brought on by an injury.
The lower area of the spine takes most of the body’s load when standing or sitting. That, combined with poor posture, tight hamstrings and weak abdominal muscles, sets the stage for chronic lower back problems. Many people are surprised to learn that some back issues can be resolved satisfactorily with proper body mechanics, corrective exercises, developing core strength, and maintaining an ideal body weight. The following are common-sense tips to help prevent lower back problems:
- Proper biomechanics with regard to activities of daily living. What you do today, can hurt you later in life. Do not sit too long, get up often. Never stay in one position too long, place one leg on a stool when standing for a long time. When sitting, try to keep your knees higher than your hips.
- Lift heavy loads correctly. Divide large loads into more manageable loads and ask for help.
Don’t think to bending your knees or wearing a back brace is a silver bullet to protect your back. Be aware of the danger zones – lifting anything below your knees or above your shoulders represent high risk areas
- Push, rather than pull, heavy loads.
- When twisting, always move your hips and shoulders as you turn to the side. Avoid bending over and twisting such as with the “windmill exercise”. Use caution when twisting vigorously, such as when playing golf.
- Avoid exercises that place a heavy load or compression on the spine, such as old-fashioned full sit-ups, straight leg lifts and military presses.
- Engage in low-impact activities, such as water exercise and/or swimming.
- Manage your weight. One of the most important things to keep excess load off your low back is to avoid excess body fat, especially in the abdominal area.
- Stay strong. Strong muscles act like the guide wires that support a sapling tree; the muscles support and protect the spine from the front, side and back.
- Find the right balance. Tone lax muscles (e.g., abdominals) and stretch tight muscles (e.g., hamstrings).
- Relax your back. Learning to relax the back muscles is as important as exercising the muscles. For example, lie on your back and put your feet up on a wall or on a chair.
Remember that prevention is always better than treatment! Adopt a pro-active role in the care and treatment of your lower back. I have written several books published by Ulysses Press that you may find helpful in keeping your back strong, flexible and healthy.
- Make the Pool Your Gym
- Foam Roller Workbook
- Trigger Point Therapy with the Foam Roller
- Therapy Ball Workbook
- Core Strength for 50+
Dr. Karl Knopf has been involved in health and fitness for over 45 years, working in almost every aspect of the industry – from personal trainer and therapist to consultant. While at Foothill College, he was the Director of the Fitness Therapy Program, a teacher of adaptive PE, and recognized with several awards for teaching excellence. For 15 years, Dr. Knopf served as the President and Founder of Fitness Educators Of Older Adults. He has authored many articles, has written over 20 books, and has been a frequent guest on the Sit and Be Fit television show.