Hints to Help Keep Your Back Healthy

Low back pain is one of the most common conditions in the United States. Over the course of a lifetime, eight in 10 Americans will have at least one episode of back pain.*

Backaches — common causes

Low back pain can result from wear and tear over time. But certain actions or motions can also contribute to back discomfort and injuries. These may include:

  • Heavy lifting
  • Twisting at the waist while lifting or holding a heavy load
  • Reaching and lifting
  • Lifting or carrying objects with awkward or odd shapes
  • Working or sleeping in awkward positions
  • Sitting or standing too long in one position
  • Poor posture

How the back works

A spine consists of small bones called vertebrae. They are stacked to form a column. Vertebrae are held together by ligaments, and muscles are attached to the vertebrae by tendons. A cushion, or disk, sits between each vertebra. The spinal cord runs through the column — and nerves branch out through spaces between the vertebrae.

The lower back holds most of the body’s weight. Stress is placed on your back every time you bend over, lift something heavy or sit leaning forward. While standing, bending or moving, even minor problems with bones, muscles, ligaments or tendons can cause lower back pain. Disks may then irritate nerves from the spinal cord and cause pain.

Sudden back injuries can be caused by a tear or strain in ligaments and muscles. Back pain may also come from injuries that break down disks or that cause muscle spasms.

3 steps to help protect your back

Consider these three tips to help protect your spine and avoid back trouble:

1. Lift safely. When possible, use lift-assist devices for heavier objects. When you can’t avoid lifting, try to reduce the amount of pressure placed on the back. In general, bend your knees to allow your legs to do most of the work.

Here are a few more detailed tips for proper lifting:

  • Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Tighten your core muscles — and bend at the knees, not the waist.
  • Get a firm grip. And keep objects close to your body as you lift and carry.
  • Lift by straightening the legs. This keeps pressure off your back.
  • Don’t twist at the waist when carrying objects. Turn your feet first.

2. Sleep better. A poor sleeping position can create back stress. The best sleeping positions are usually:

  • On your side with knees slightly bent
  • On your back with a pillow under knees

3. Get fit. Regular exercise can improve overall fitness and may lower the likelihood of back problems and injury. A well-rounded program includes aerobic, strength and flexibility exercises.

For a healthy back, your core muscles are especially important. Strong core muscles support the spine and improve posture, balance and stability.

Yoga and Pilates offer good core workouts. Each uses the body as its own form of resistance. Do you have trouble doing certain exercises because of back discomfort? Swimming, walking or bicycling may be good options for you.

For safety’s sake, always check with your doctor before you increase your activity level. And ask what types of activities are best for you.

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What to do next

Get medical help right away if your back hurts and you also have:

  • Weakness in your legs or a loss of sensation in your groin or rectal area
  • A loss of bowel or bladder control — or trouble urinating
  • Signs of an infection, such as fever or chills

*Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed June 2017

© 2017 United HealthCare Services, Inc.