Does it seem like everyone you know (maybe even you) is having back problems? Unfortunately, this is becoming one of the most common reasons that people apply for disability. Most types of back pain are caused by recreational, occupational or due to a sedentary lifestyle. One of the most common causes is weakening of the lower back muscles and imbalance with the abdominals. You can think of lower back muscles as pulleys that keep your spine straight. They pull the spine backwards like when you straighten up after tying your shoes. The abdominal muscles do the opposite, they pull you forward. When you are leaning forward while using a laptop computer, tablet, or seated at the dinner table, you will generally use the abdominals. You also lean forward if you have extra weight in the abdomen from obesity or being pregnant. Ever wonder why you see pregnant women standing up now and then, stretching up with their arms and leaning back? Now think about how much in the day you do these “abdominal” curling forward-type positions compared to the “straightening up” movements. As a result, the lower back muscles tend to wither away or in medical terms, “atrophy”. When muscles atrophy they are more susceptible to tears and sprains which can cause severe pain. Our spines are pretty much all going to be “C-shaped” within the next century!
I recommend that we all should pay more attention to our lower back and spinal muscles. Unfortunately, “abs of steel” are more coveted than “spine of steel”. By the way, strengthening your abs till you get a “six pack” but neglecting your back is a sure-fire way to end up with back pain. Strong abs will throw off the balance between the back “flexors” which are mainly the abdominal muscles, and the back “extensors” which are the back muscles.
Here are some stretches that I recommend for everyone who sits at a desk, car, train, or sofa for a combined time of more than 6 hours each day. Hold each pose for 5 seconds. If you can do 10 minutes of these exercises in the morning and the evening, you will notice your posture will be better, you will have less back/neck pain. In my office, I have a yoga mat next to my desk so that if I feel tension in the back, I can immediately stretch out and start feeling better.
Many of my favorite stretches are derived from Yoga, so if you have ever taken a Yoga class you may recognize some of them.
Cobra Pose/Child Pose– For the Cobra pose, hold your head up straight and avoid bending upward. Your eyes should be facing forward. For the Child pose, imagine someone is pulling your head gently and your spine lengthening one by one down to your tailbone.
Cat/Camel Stretch– While on all fours, imagine your belly button hitting the ceiling arching the back (Cat), hold for 5 seconds. Then, imagine your belly button trying to hit the floor (Camel)
Bird Dog/Superman Stretch– For beginners, I would pick the bird dog stretch. With one knee on the ground, lift the other leg up and the opposite arm. Hold for 5 seconds. For the Superman stretch, you will lie on the ground doing the same. If you consistently do the Superman stretch everyday for a few weeks, you may be able to lift all four limbs off at once!
Chicken Pose– This is something you can do at your desk and I recommend doing this at least every hour.Sit up straight in your chair. Raise your hands above your head. Lower them down so your forearms are now at 90 degrees with your shoulder. Turn your hands so your palms face outward as if you were trying to push the walls apart. Think about your shoulder blades coming together as if you are being folded in half, and opening up your chest and lungs. Spread your fingers out like a fan, fully extended. Tilt your head slightly up and push your neck back slightly. Drop your jaw and let it totally relax. Hold this position for a full 10 seconds, taking deep breaths. With each exhale concentrate on loosening the muscles in the neck, lower back, raising your head to the ceiling, and lengthening the spine. If you are concerned about how this might look at the office, you may want to omit the jaw lowering position.