Almost every adult has experienced lower back pain. In some cases, the cause is serious and requires medical attention, while in others, making simple lifestyle changes can bring relief and prevent problems. Let’s assume you don’t need medical attention, which raises the question: What can you do to avoid lower back pain and reduce the potential for major lower back problems in the future?
For starters, it’s helpful to understand the primary risk factors, and as always, age takes center stage because advancing years tends to make everything that’s going wrong worse. For example, our upright posture places strain on the middle sections of the body, front and back, and this requires an ongoing minimal level of strength and flexibility. Over time, unless you take steps to avoid it, you get weaker and lose flexibility, leaving the lower back vulnerable.
To make matters worse, as we age, we tend to accumulate excess body fat, especially in the midsection, resulting in the perfect formula for disaster.
So here’s what to know about the causes of lower back pain and how to fight them:
How excess belly fat places stress on lower back muscles
A protruding midsection and lack of strong, flexible muscles can be manifested in what I call the “paper clip syndrome.”
Here’s how it works: a person walks into a room and sees a paper clip on the floor. He bends to retrieve it and his lower back explodes in pain. A paper clip is used to signify that no heavy lifting was involved and the only event was bending over. The key is, the person was poised for disaster and all that was required was a minor effort to trigger it.
Excess belly fat places considerable and relentless stress on the lower back muscles. Why? The body’s anatomy and upright posture results in a natural tendency to lean forward, and it’s the job of lower back muscles to resist the forward lean and keep the body upright. Thus, even under the best conditions, the lower back muscles are constantly being challenged.
A protruding midsection adds to the challenge because additional weight in the front of the body pulls it forward, and the lower back muscles must work harder to keep the body upright.
What’s more, leverage works against the lower back muscles. An increase in abdominal fat of just a few pounds can exert a stress of many times that amount on the lower back muscles to keep the body upright.
Here’s an example: hold a broom by the tip of the handle out in front of you at arm’s length. The broom is light in weight, but the leverage involved greatly increases the effort to hold it. Now, hang a 1-pound weight on the far end of the broom and see the impact. Yes, it’s only 1-pound, but the impact is multiplied times the distance from your hand. In the same way, increased belly fat multiplies the strain on lower back muscles, causing fatigue and making it difficult to sustain the vertebra in alignment. To make matters worse, when you bend from the waist and pick up a weight with your hands, the leverage involved impacts the lower back region many times greater than the weight being lifted.
Alignment problems are made even worse by tight hamstring muscles (on the rear of the upper leg) that attach to the lower pelvis. When they are tight they tug on the pelvis, tilting it, forcing the vertebra into an unnatural position. All these factors combined may expose a disc to danger when you do something as simple as bending to pick up a paper clip.
And, of course, the risk would be many times greater in an industrial setting where workers must lift and carry heavy objects and work in awkward positions.
So here are three things you can do to help your lower back and prevent future issues:
How you can trim your waistline to help your lower back pain
The source of countless health problems is excess abdominal fat, and so it is with lower back problems. The culprit is visceral (deep) abdominal fat that lies beneath the layer of muscle and surrounds the organs.
Men tend to store more visceral abdominal fat than women, which is why men are more prone to lower back problems. But after menopause, the hormonal shift in women favors storage of deep abdominal fat, which means increased risk of lower back problems.
The good news about deep abdominal fat is that it can be easily dislodged from storage and used as fuel. Simply do the right things with your diet and get lots of exercise (like walking) and your waistline will respond.
How core strenghening exercises can help with lower back pain
Exercises to increase the strength of abdominal muscles help stabilize the lower back. But be careful. Sit-ups and leg lifts stress the lower back and are best avoided. Sit-ups are especially stressful on the lower back when you anchor the feet. Slow and deliberate crunches (partial sit-ups) without anchoring the feet can help.
Of all the lower back exercises I have tried, the one I find to be most beneficial is the plank. Planks can be performed in the “pushup” position, or with the weight on the forearms.
Either way, be careful and make sure you do planks correctly. This means staying firm and straight, like a plank of wood from the toes up to strengthen all the core muscle, front and back. Gradually, go longer in the stationary plank position, building up your time.
How hamstring flexibility can help your lower back problems
When my hamstrings are tight, I get pain and stiffness in the lower back. Most folks are familiar with the toe touch as a hamstring exercise. It is, but it’s also very stressful on the lower back.
A much better option is done lying on your back, on the bed or the floor. Bend your right leg, wrap your fingers around your leg just above the knee, and pull the knee toward your chest. Now, still pulling the knee toward your chest, gradually and gently straighten your knee. As you straighten your knee, you will feel an intense hamstring stretch. Go as far as you comfortably can and hold this for 15-30 seconds, then switch legs.
Another option is to hold two seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat 10 times or more. Oftentimes, stretching the hamstrings can provide instant relief to the lower back.
Reach Bryant Stamford, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at firstname.lastname@example.org.