It is second only to stress on the list of reasons for long-term absence from work, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Four out of five of us will suffer from it at some point in our lives, yet few of us take active steps to prevent it until it is too late. But as a generation of workers prone to sitting hunched over a computer for hours on end, we have never been at such a high risk of developing back pain.
You often hear people talk about “trapped nerves” or “slipped discs” but these labels are almost always incorrectly applied – by far the most common cause of a bad back is muscular damage. Robin Lansman, a back expert and member of the British Osteopathic Association, outlines some of the most common triggers and gives some hints on how to stay upright and pain free.
WATCH OUT FOR UNEXPECTED TRIGGERS
Many activities strain your back without you even thinking. Cycle commuters are particularly prone to back pain as the rotation to look over your shoulder when turning right can be quite intensive. Make sure you warm yourself up, especially if you have been sitting immobile for a period before you undertake exercise.
STRETCH – BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Lots of people these days go to classes that are very stretch-intensive, like yoga. When doing these, you should bear in mind that your body takes a while to warm up. Always stretch slowly. Hold a stretch and wait – never stretch against pain, you will just cause yourself damage.
WATCH YOUR POSTURE
Sitting in the same position for hours is the main culprit here – always try to get up to relieve tension after working at a computer. This is even more relevant if you’re using a laptop, which can be very intensive for your back.
BE CAREFUL AT THE GYM
Lots of City people use the gym as a way of taking some of the stress out of their day. This can mean really hitting the equipment – but this can be counter-productive and even damaging. While working out is great for your overall health, if you are using the equipment too vigorously or too fast, you can create tension in your back. If you’re carrying extra tension, it makes you more prone to pulling the muscles in your back, which can cause pain. Even if you are getting the technique right, you need to make sure you ease your body into a workout.
SEE A SPECIALIST
A natural reaction to back pain is to see a GP – but a GP won’t be trained to spot the same things as an osteopath. There are a few relatively simple exercises I can perform to quickly evaluate whether a patient might require surgery or just needs to work on muscle strength.
GET A GOOD MATTRESS
An expensive mattress is a worthwhile expenditure. Medium-firm is best. You can help yourself out by trying to change positions, thereby taking pressure off particular muscles. Pillows are also an important consideration – as a rule of thumb, a pillow should be as wide and dense as the length from your ear to your shoulder. Water pillows are great as you can let water out to get the perfect size. It is a myth that sleeping without a pillow is better for you – this can be just as bad as sleeping with too many.
• Robin Lansman is the principal osteopath at the BodyBackUp Osteopathy & Sports Injury Clinic (bodybackup.co.uk). He is a council member of the British Osteopathic Association.