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Fixing an Aching Back

How to Keep Your Back Pain-Free

You're not alone if you suffer from back pain. Eight of 10 Americans experience this problem some time in their lives. The key to avoiding such pain is to prevent it before it starts.

The way you do everyday activities can determine whether you aggravate your back or keep it pain-free.

These suggestions will help you avoid back injuries:

  • Standing. When you stand, hold your head erect, tuck in your chin slightly, keep your shoulders and hips even and hold in your stomach.

    Elevate one foot on a footstool or step, or shift your weight often if you have to stand for long periods of time.

  • Sitting. Sit with your back straight and keep your knees even with your hips. To do this, you may need to adjust your chair height or use a footstool. Make certain the chair supports your lower back, or use a lumbar support or pillow.

    Don't slouch over your desk or lean your head forward. Slouching creates more tension in your back. Get up every hour or so and stretch.

  • Sleeping. Sleep on a firm mattress that provides good support. Place a pillow under your knees if you sleep on your back or between your knees if you sleep on your side. Avoid sleeping on your stomach.

  • Driving. Sit in an upright position; don't recline the seat back. On long drives, take frequent breaks and get out and stretch.


These tips will help you protect your back while doing household chores:

  • Use a long-handled, upright vacuum cleaner or kneel on one knee while using a hand-held vacuum. Don't bend from the waist.

  • Never bend over at the waist to make the bed. Instead, work on each side of the bed or put one knee on the mattress to reach the other side. To tuck in the sheets, kneel on the floor or squat with your knees bent.

  • Kneel down to work in the garden, and change your body positions frequently. Don't twist your body; keep work directly in front of you and close enough so you don't have to reach out for it. Take frequent breaks.


You can also help keep your back healthy by taking these steps to keep your entire body healthy:

  • Quit smoking because it interferes with healthy blood flow to your spine and can lead to muscle spasms.

  • Maintain a healthful weight. Extra weight puts added stress on your back.

  • Adopt healthful eating habits. It's easier to lose weight and keep it off if you consume less fat, sodium and sugar and eat more fruit, vegetables and fiber. Eat plenty of calcium-rich foods because calcium strengthens bones, including those in the spine.


Exercise is important to back health because it helps you lose weight, builds muscle tone and improves circulation and mobility. Strong muscles, especially those in your back, thigh and abdomen, improve the weight-bearing capacity of your spine.

An effective program for back fitness should include:

  • Flexibility exercises, which put your back through a full range of motion.

  • Endurance exercises, such as walking, running, swimming and bicycling, which help increase the blood circulation to your joints and spine.

  • Exercises that strengthen your lower-back, buttock, thigh and stomach muscles. Such exercises help protect your spine and put fewer demands on it.

These exercise safety rules reduce your risk of back injury:

  • Warm up before starting an activity. Warm muscles are less prone to injury.

  • Start your exercise program slowly and increase your fitness level gradually.

  • Avoid unsupported bending. If you lean forward at the waist, bend your knees slightly and tighten your stomach muscles to help support your back.

  • Stop exercising if you feel back pain.


One final technique that can reduce your risk of back pain is stress reduction. When your body is tense, your back is more easily injured. Try relaxation techniques such as deep-breathing or visualization exercises.

How to Lift It Right

Poor lifting technique often causes lower-back pain. The most important rule is to let your legs, not your back, do the lifting.

Other tips to protect your back when you lift include:

  • Stand with your feet 8 to 12 inches apart; keeping your back straight, bend your knees until you're in a squatting position. Never bend at the waist with your legs straight.

  • Keep the object you're lifting directly in front of you and lift straight up. Don't twist to either side.

  • Keep the object close to you, not at arm's length.

  • Reverse the process when you're ready to put the object down.

Additional points to remember:

  • Wait for someone to help you if a load is too heavy for you to lift safely.

  • Push a heavy load instead of pulling it.

  • Be sure your footing is secure before you lift.

  • Don't wear high heels when you're lifting -- doing so increases the pressure on your back.

  • Make sure your path is clear before lifting.

  • Keep your movements as smooth and fluid as possible.

  • Don't lift heavy objects over your head. Use a step stool or have someone give you a hand.

When to See the Doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if any of these conditions develop:

  • Pain radiates down an arm or leg.

  • Your arms or legs are numb, feel tingly or weak.

  • You have difficulty with bladder or bowel movements.

  • A backache doesn't improve despite your best self-care efforts.

Self-Treating a Painful Back

Back pain can come on suddenly, as you bend down to pick up the morning paper, or gradually, after you've spent an hour raking in the garden.

The following self-treatments should provide relief.


A day or two of bed rest may help if your pain is intense and movement is painful. Lie flat on your back with a pillow under your knees or lie curled on your side with a pillow between your knees. Staying in bed longer than 48 hours could delay your recovery; the faster you can return to your normal routine the better.


Take aspirin or ibuprofen immediately after straining your back. These over-the-counter medications will reduce the inflammation in your back and help ease your pain. Follow label directions.


Apply ice to the injured area of your back for the first 48 hours. Ice massage will prevent swelling and relieve pain.

For an at-home ice massage: Fill small paper cups with water and place them in your freezer. When the water is frozen, tear off enough paper from a cup to expose an inch or so of ice. While you lie on your side with a pillow between your knees, have someone gently massage the painful part of your back with the ice for five minutes. Repeat two or three times a day.

You can also use a bag of frozen peas or corn or a strong plastic bag or hot-water bottle filled with ice cubes. Wrap the bag or bottle in a towel and place it over the injury. Keep it in place for 20 minutes, then remove.

Start applying heat after 48 hours. Heat increases circulation and relaxes muscle spasms. It can be applied with a hot-water bottle, heating pad, heat lamp or a hot, wet towel. Or you can soak in a hot bath or whirlpool.


Start doing exercises that relax your back muscles as soon as you can move with some comfort. The light workouts will help speed your recovery.

Do the following exercises several times a day if they don't increase your pain. Start slowly and move gently.

  • Pelvic tilt

    Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about a foot from your buttocks. Tighten your abdominal and buttock muscles so that your lower back flattens against the floor. Hold for 10 seconds, then relax. Repeat up to 10 times.

  • Knee-to-chest pulls

    Lie in the pelvic tilt position with one leg out straight on the floor. (Your lower back should be pressed against the floor.) Gently pull your other knee up to your chest using your hands. Repeat up to 10 times, then switch to the other knee and repeat again. Try pulling both knees up, repeating up to 10 more times.

  • Face-down stretch

    Lie face down on a carpeted floor with your arms at your sides or crossed under your chest. Concentrate on relaxing your back muscles while you take several deep breaths.

    If you feel no pain doing this exercise, place your hands out to the side parallel to your shoulders and press up and back. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat.

For More Information

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, call 800-352-9424 or visit

Occupational Safety & Health Administration, call 800-321-OSHA or visit

Texas Back Institute, visit


ATTENTION: Information delivered through Vitality-on-Demand(TM) is the opinion of the sourced authors and organizations. Personal decisions regarding health, diet, exercise or other matters should be made only after consultation with the reader's own medical and professional advisers. This material MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED FOR REDISTRIBUTION without written permission from Vitality®.


© 2011 Krames StayWell 2011. The information in this newsletter is intended to be used as a general guideline and should not replace the advice of your doctor. Always consult your doctor for personal decisions. Models used for illustrative purposes only. Material may not be reproduced without written permission from StayWell Custom Communications.