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Published: Sunday February 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday August 15, 2013 MYT 10:32:15 PM

Oh, my woeful back

Faulty body mechanics is one of the leading causes of lower back pain, but regular strengthening exercises can help alleviate the problem.

AT some point in our lives, most of us will experience lower back pain, which interferes with work and daily routines. The dull pain can be annoying and persistent, while the shooting or stabbing pain can leave you with limited mobility for days.

The spine comprises seven cervical (neck region) vertebrae, 12 thoracic (upper back) vertebrae, five lumbar vertebrae (lower back), the sacrum and the coccyx. All these help keep our body erect, so it’s crucial to take care of the spine.

As we age, bone strength, muscle elasticity and muscle tone tend to decrease. The intervertebral discs begin to lose fluid and flexibility, which decreases their ability to cushion the vertebrae.

The causes of lower back pain are aplenty, and it can occur from lifting heavy objects, sports injuries, pottering around the house or in the garden, a sudden jolt such as a car accident, degenerative conditions, or other stresses on spinal bones and tissues.

If the spine becomes overly strained or compressed, a disc may rupture or bulge outward. This rupture may put pressure on one of the more than 50 nerves rooted to the spinal cord that control body movements and transmit signals from the body to the brain.

When these nerve roots become compressed or irritated, it results in back pain.

Too much or too little exercise, combined with the ageing process, also contributes to lower back pain.

However, in the majority of cases, lower back pain is caused by muscle weaknesses and imbalances, including a tight hamstring and lower back muscle groups, tight hip flexor muscles and weak abdominal muscles.

Most incidences of lower back pain can be treated without surgery. While you can take analgesics to relieve pain, apply ice and heat to reduce inflammation, or opt for surgery as the last resort, exercises to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles are probably the best method for a speedy recovery.

One of my students suffered a slipped disc a day before her holiday to Indonesia’s Bintan Island, but thought the excruciating pain was nothing serious. The nagging pain had been there for a while, but like most people, she ignored it, hoping it would go away

On the ferry, she could hardly sit, and once she checked into her hotel room, she collapsed. She was wheeled into the hospital and given opium for a week.

The doctor insisted on surgery, but she flatly refused, and crawled her way to the acupuncturist instead. After a few sessions, the aches miraculously disappeared, but the pain started to radiate along her arm and shoulders.

Something was not right, and not wanting to consult the doctor again, she limped her way to the gym and sought advice. Luckily, she had the foresight to know that exercise could alleviate the pain.

She religiously attended Pilates classes twice a week, struggling at the initial stages. She could barely lift a limb while lying on her stomach, but with determination, encouragement and time, she improved. She also started lifting weights to gain more muscles and strength.

Today, after almost a decade, she’s my model student and often acts as my push-up demonstrator. Not only can she do a 60-minute high-impact aerobic class, she can put many a man (and young boys!) to shame with the amount of weights she lifts.

And ladies and gentlemen, my star student is no youngster but someone in her late 60s, and a granny of three! Popo is always immaculately dressed and continues to inspire others.

“I feel I’m much fitter and stronger now than I was in my youth. I can keep up with the classes, and best of all, I know how to take care of my back,” she says.

Many of my dance students at Universiti Malaya also have lower back problems, and I tell them it’s something they have to live with, as there is a tendency for the pain to recur, especially with the pounding the spine takes while they’re dancing.

I used to tape my bony spine for extra cushioning while I did back flips or rolls on the floor.

When you’re in pain, simple exercises and yoga stretches do wonders for the spine. One way is to lie supine (face up) with knees bent, and slowly bring one knee into the chest and hold for a few seconds before alternating legs. Or, from supine position, put your calves up on a chair or stability ball, with knees bent. Since the lumbar supports the weight of the upper body, this exercise greatly reduces the pressure on the lower back region.

Another easy exercise is to lie in prone position (on your stomach). Lift one leg at a time and hold for a few seconds, alternating sides. Then switch to lifting off one arm at a time.

When you feel stronger, lift the right leg and left arm off the floor before switching sides. As your back strength increases, lift the upper body off the floor and hold. Switch to lifting both legs off the floor. Never lift both arms and legs off at the same time until you get stronger. Make sure the movement is carried out in a gentle and controlled manner, without jerking the limbs.

A yoga move that is good for any level, and serves as an excellent warm-up exercise is the cat-cow. Start in the quadruped position (hands and knees on the floor). Arch your back and look up as you inhale, and contract your belly and tuck your chin in as you exhale. Do about five or six rounds, then sit back on your heels with your arms outstretched to the front (child’s pose) in order to stretch the back.

Here are some handy tips to prevent lower back pain, as suggested by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

  • Use backrests and lumbar support when sitting.
  • Make sure seats offer optimal seating comfort and support.
  • Quit smoking as it reduces blood flow to the lower spine and causes the spinal discs to degenerate.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Change your position from sitting to standing and vice-versa, frequently. Walk around at regular intervals.
  • Don’t slouch when standing or sitting. When standing, keep your weight balanced on your feet. Your back supports weight most easily when curvature is reduced.
  • Adjust table and work stations to comfortable heights.
  • Avoid activities that are clearly associated with previous episodes of pain.
  • Always keep loads close to your body, and use proper techniques when lifting, ie bend the knees and pull in your stomach muscles when lifting or lowering an object.
  • Allow for adequate warm-ups and cool-downs before and after exercise.
  • Always wear protective footwear and avoid exercising for prolonged periods of time on hard surfaces.
  • Strengthen the abdominal and back muscles.
  • Sleep on your side and put a pillow between your knees to reduce any curve in your spine. Always sleep on a firm surface.
  • Maintain proper nutrition and diet to reduce and prevent excessive weight, especially weight around the waistline that taxes lower back muscles. A diet with sufficient daily intake of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D helps to promote new bone growth.
  • Avoid harmful movements such as straight-leg sit-ups.

The writer is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battles gravity and continues to dance, but longs for some bulk and flesh in the right places.

Tags / Keywords: Health, back

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