Health

Five Ways to Get Out Of Back Pain

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MAYBE IT started when you were deadlifting. Maybe it began with a bad hit you took playing football years ago. Alas, you think, it could just be a symptom of getting older. Whatever the reason, your back hurts, and now it’s affecting your workouts, your everyday movement, and your quality of life.

At least you’re not alone. According to research from the Mayo Clinic, 80% of people will develop lower-back pain in their lifetime. It’s the leading cause of absenteeism at work and costs the U.S. economy upwards of $200 billion annually (two-thirds of which is the result of lost wages and productivity).

The solution, however, may be simpler than it seems, and closer than you think.

Relieve Back Pain and Improve Spine Health with Backbridge

Relieve Back Pain and Improve Spine Health with Backbridge

Relieve Back Pain and Improve Spine Health with Backbridge
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“The vast majority of us have too much forward posture,” says Todd Sinett, DC, a New York City-based chiropractor and founder of Tru Whole Care. That is, we’ve developed the hunched, round-shouldered body position our mothers warned us would happen if we didn’t sit up straight. Doctors like Sinett call this excessive flexion, or a flexion-extension imbalance, referring to the spine getting conditioned to remain in an overly flexed state. (In our defense, though, we’re living in a world of laptops and smart phones that encourage us to stay in this posture for long periods—hence the problem.)

“I’ve seen this problem in the out-of-shape executive who’s always hunched over his computer and phone,” says Sinett, “but I also see it in the elite athlete. In fact, the better-looking the person’s abs, the more likely they are to have a flexion-extension imbalance.”

You see, popular ab exercises like situps and crunches and their variations will strengthen your core, but they’ll also reinforce that rounded spinal posture (think about the shape your body makes when you do them—you’re curling your spine into a C-shape).

“Your core becomes over-contracted and shortened when it needs to be stretched and lengthened to get the balance back,” says Sinett.

The answer, then, is to stretch your core muscles, strengthen them with exercises that won’t round your spine, and make other adjustments to your day-to-day life that will get you healthier overall.

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Here are five things Dr. Sinett recommends you do to get out of back pain.

1. Stretch Your Hip Flexors and Piriformis

Your hip flexor muscles work to raise your leg up in front of you, but they originate on the lumbar spine. Chronic sitting makes them tight, causing them to pull the spine out of alignment and create pain. Stretching the hip flexors will help to restore length and may bring you some relief.

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Step 1. Kneel on the floor with one knee down and the other bent 90 degrees, foot flat. Tuck your tailbone under so that your pelvis is parallel to the floor—this will prevent your lower back from arching excessively when you perform the stretch.

Step 2. Brace your core and gently shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch on the front of the hip. Sinett recommends holding the stretch for 30 seconds. Do three sets on each side.

Your piriformis muscle lies under your glutes and rotates your thighbone externally, as well as raises it out to the side. Like the hip flexors, the piriformis can get tight from sitting, and that may cause it to compress the sciatic nerve, leading to lower-back pain that radiates down into the legs. Sinett offers the figure-four stretch to lengthen the piriformis.

Figure-Four Stretch

Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor, bend both knees, and cross one leg over the other so your legs form a number-four shape.

Step 2. Wrap your hands behind the uncrossed leg, and gently pull it toward you until you feel a stretch on the side of your hip in the crossed leg. Sinett says to hold the stretch 30 seconds and repeat for three sets on both sides.

2. Strengthen Your Core (The Right Way)

“The best core exercises are those that have you stabilize your spine with your abs,” says Sinett. That means planks, side planks, dead bugs, etc.—moves that have you holding your torso and hips in alignment, and progressing to where you keep the position while your arms and legs move. A good and underutilized example, Sinett says, is the bird dog.

Bird Dog

Step 1. Get on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Tuck your tailbone so that your pelvis is perpendicular to your spine, draw your ribs down, and brace your core.

Step 2. Extend your right arm and left leg at the same time while maintaining your tight core. Don’t let your back arch. (Think about reaching forward with the arm and leg, not just raising them up.) Lower back down, and repeat on the opposite side. Each arm and leg raise is one rep. Do three sets of 12 on each side.

3. Try the Backbridge™

Sinnet designed his own piece of corrective equipment called the Backbridge (incidentally, a 2022 MHL Home Gym award winner). Consisting of a set of stackable, crescent-shaped foam cushions, when you lie back on the Backbridge, it stretches the muscles on the front of your body—including your core—thereby helping to realign your spine and fix your flexion-extension imbalance.

“The Backbridge is perfect for active, fit guys,” says Sinett. “I actually created it after working with a lady fitness model. She looked like the pinnacle of health but had terrible back, neck, and shoulder pain. All the ab work she was doing put her in excessive flexion, so I had her lay on her back over a big exercise ball, and immediately she felt better.” Seeking something more stable and progressive than a Swiss ball, Sinett invented the Backbridge, available at shop.menshealth.com.

Start at whichever level feels comfortable (there are five available elevations in the set), and lie back on the Backbridge for two minutes in the morning and two more in the evening. Progress at your own pace, but Sinett says it usually takes about a month to jump to the next level.

4. Get Up and Move More

Since most lower-back pain can be attributed to bad posture caused by too much sitting, it stands to reason that getting off your duff more often can be therapeutic by itself, and research shows as much. A 2019 meta-analysis concluded that simple walking was effective for reducing back pain. Sinett recommends 15–20 minutes a day. Apart from countering the effects of a seated posture, walking can be a great stress reducer, and emotional distress, Sinett says, is an overlooked contributor to back pain of all kinds.

“You can also meditate, do yoga, or box,” says Sinett. Anything that helps you work out frustrations can help your lower back.

When you are sitting and working, be mindful of your posture. Sinett says to keep your head neutral, rather than reaching forward toward your screen. Position your monitor high enough so that it’s straight in front of your face—then you won’t have to look down to see it. “Try to do your texting with your phone held at eye level,” says Sinett.

If you have the Backbridge, you can strap it to your chair to prevent you from slouching while at your desk.

5. Eat Better

“Foods that upset the digestive system can upset the muscular system,” says Sinett. “A lot of back pain comes from inflammation and the irritation that it causes.” Indeed, a 2021 study suggests that cleaning up your diet can reduce this inflammation and take some stress off the back.

“Lay off sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated beverages,” says Sinett. Even sparkling water can be problematic, as it produces gas that can put pressure on the spine.

Many doctors recommend losing weight to help alleviate back pain, but Sinett argues that carrying extra pounds isn’t really the culprit. “I agree that obesity relates to higher levels of back pain, but I think it has more to do with the habits that create obesity than the weight itself,” he says. “Losing 20 pounds will take 20 pounds of pressure off the spine, but spines are pretty strong. People who are heavy tend to be people who sit a lot, eat badly, and suffer under a lot of emotional stress. It’s those factors rather than the weight itself that’s causing the issue. Live a healthier lifestyle, and your back is going to feel a lot better.”

You’ll probably lose weight too.

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