Quite exhausted from the autumn term, you have now arrived in the festive season, with rest and good times in store, but possibly also hours of cooking, entertaining, tidying and decorating the house, long car journeys, etc. We all take the required sitting, bending, twisting and lifting movements for granted … until our back starts to hurt. To prevent your back pain from getting worse over the holiday season, this back pain survival guide is a reminder of how to keep your back safe. The last thing you want is a relapse into an acute back-pain episode you so slowly recovered from. This blog aims to show you the safer ways of moving while doing daily tasks. My guess is that you know all this already, but the difficulty is to actually change the familiar ways of doing things and embrace better back-health habits.
When your back muscles are painful or tight, forward bending can put an added strain on the lower back. Twisting movements can be tricky for some and a combination of the two is a definite no-no. I explain this to my students, but immediately after a session I see unconscious habits creeping in as they bend down to pick up their bag and put shoes on. Putting the advice into action, i.e. slowing down and becoming aware of how you do things, is the hardest step. After a few weeks of greater vigilance, the new ways of e.g. picking things off the floor and filling the dishwasher have developed into new and better habits. While it is better to avoid certain movements in daily life, this does not mean that we can never do any forward bending or twisting again, but they are better left to a session of controlled and therapeutic yoga (or similar exercise).
The back pain survival guide for the festive season:
How to lower the body to the floor
Until you have back pain, you have no idea how many times you lower your body to the floor: to pick things up, to stroke a dog, to tie your shoes, to clean the floor, to fill the dishwasher or washing machine, to take something out of a low cabinet, to feed the dog, and the list goes on and on. So it is very important to do this in a way that is safe for your lower back, using the legs instead of bending forward with a rounded back. It is especially coming up from this position that can be strenuous for the lower back. Squatting with a straight back is a useful alternative and has the added bonus of strengthening the legs. To learn more about squatting, please read this previous blog. Another way to lower your body to the floor is to take a step forward and place the back knee down, while keeping the upper body upright. This may also be helpful if one knee is painful.
As bending forward is one of the hazardous movements for the lower back, we have to use the strength in our legs to lift. This means lowering your body to the floor by squatting or by bringing one knee down. The aim is to keep the back upright. Bring whatever you need to lift close to the body and keep the back upright as you come up, again using the strength of your legs.
Cooking sometimes involves bending forward over the oven, and lifting a heavy pot. This slight forward bend is taxing for the lower back. If you place one foot on a low stool or a pile of (sturdy) books, your weight will partially be on the higher foot as you lean forward, and thus spare your lower back.
With acute back pain, reaching up to a high cupboard (or to the highest branch of a Christmas tree), with only one arm, may cause a sudden increase in pain. If you must reach, try doing this with both arms at the same time, so the spine lengthens evenly on both sides.
Sitting and driving
One of the worst things you can do for your back is slouching. I have discussed slouching more at length in this blog, and driving in this previous writing. To recap: avoid rounding your spine for long periods of time. The muscles become weak and the intervertebral discs are squeezed along the front of the spine. This weakens your back and endangers the vertebrae and intervertebral discs. Instead, keep you back in a neutral position, siting on the centre of the sitting bones, supporting the lumbar area and stacking the shoulders over the centre of the hips.
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Last but not least in this back pain survival guide: lie down
When your back is fragile or painful, occasional breaks can speed up the recovery or at least reduce the pain. Lying down on the back with your legs bent (most likely) or straight if that feels better, is very important to heal your back. In a different relation to gravity, the muscles can relax and tightness gets a chance to release. Leave a yoga mat in a corner with maybe some props (such as a cushion for the head, a bolster and blanket). A few times per day, especially if the day is busy or stressful, lie down to rest your back and observe your breathing. You have a good excuse, so tell everyone to wait while you rest on your back for five minutes (at least!).
I wish you all a lovely festive time and end of the year. May your back feel free and all your movements easy in 2019!