Everyday Wellness: Back to basics

June 2, 2011

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Back pain is a main cause of work absences, but changing a few habits can make a big difference to your chances of being laid low with a bad back.

Preventing pain

* When you're sitting, try not to cross your legs and make sure you have support in the small of your back (level with your waist -- use a small cushion or roll up a towel or sweater if your chair doesn't provide enough support). The same goes for driving, and make sure your side mirrors are in the right place to prevent twisting your body too much.

* Try always to sit and stand up straight with your feet flat on the floor and your weight evenly spread between them. Hunching your shoulders isn't good for your posture, so relax a bit to get your shoulders square.

* You spend hours lying in bed every night, so the kind of mattress you have and the way you lie are bound to have an effect on your back. Lie on your back on your mattress and slide your hand (palm down) under the small of your back. It should slide in fairly easily -- if you have to squeeze your hand in, your mattress is probably too soft, but if there's a big gap, your mattress is probably too hard. Your pillow should mold around your head, supporting the curve underneath your neck.

* The time you spend on your feet also affects how healthy your back is. Stick with flat, comfortable, well-fitting shoes as much as you can. Even if some occasions call for uncomfortable footwear, why not keep on your sneakers until the last minute? No one will know.

* Losing any extra pounds also will ease the strain on your back, but don't go too far -- being underweight can weaken your bones and affect your long-term back health.

Stretch and strengthen

* Gentle stretching exercises can work wonders for warding off back pain, and they can help to get rid of it when it strikes.

* Strong muscles mean a nice, strong back, and gentle exercises like walking and swimming can help strengthen your back muscles without putting any extra strain on them. Toned core muscles are essential for preventing back pain.

* If you use the gym, include some abdominal and back strengthening exercises in your workout. Get some advice on what exercises to do from a professional, and remember to start slowly and build up.

Posture perfect

* Good posture doesn't mean walking around with books balanced on your head, but getting your posture right when you're standing or lifting heavy objects can make a world of difference for your back.

* Standing tips: Imagine a piece of string is attached to the top of your head pulling your body up straight. Keep your weight spread evenly over both feet and hold your head straight, not tilted or turned to one side. Your shoulders should be square, so you might need to relax and pull them back a bit. Keep your chest forward and hold your stomach muscles in.

* Lifting tips: Think first -- can you really manage the load? Is your path clear? Can anyone or anything help you? When you're ready to lift, stand with your feet planted firmly on the ground shoulder-width apart. Bend at the knees and hips (not your lower back), keep your back straight and tense your stomach muscles for support. Get a good grip on your load with both hands and lift in a smooth movement using your leg muscles. When you're carrying, keep your load close to your body, your head up and your shoulders in line with your hips so you don't twist around.

Source: CIGNA

How Purdue can help

* myCIGNA.com
For additional information on back care and more, visit myCIGNA.com, select the My Health tab and browse the Healthwise online medical encyclopedia.

* WorkLife Programs Offerings
WorkLife Programs offers a variety of help for managing your weight and your stress and staying physically active, which are conducive to a healthy back. To see what's available and register, use your career account and password to log in at the WorkLife Programs home page (www.purdue.edu/worklife), or call 765-494-5461.

* WorkLife Programs Resource Center
WorkLife Programs has a library of materials available for Purdue faculty and staff. You may borrow books, CDs, DVDs, equipment and videos for up to three weeks. Log in with your career account and password on WorkLife's home page (www.purdue.edu/worklife), and then click Resource Center on the left-hand side.