DEAR DOCTOR K: I have mild back pain. I sit at a desk all day and tend to slouch. My mother says that sitting up straight may help. Is she right?
DEAR READER: I hope it’s true. Otherwise, my mother (like yours) was wrong. And I think it is true.
Most of us get back pain at some point in our lives. It’s usually not caused by an accident. Rather, it develops because, in going about our regular activities, we strain muscles and ligaments in the back that support our spines. This happens during the course of day-to-day life. Repetitive activities at work or home, such as sitting at a computer or lifting and carrying, may produce tension and muscle tightness that result in backache.
Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to prevent back pain. Most of all, it’s important to be physically fit and to maintain a healthy weight. Minding your posture helps, too.
Posture is the way you hold your body while standing, sitting or performing tasks such as lifting or bending. If your posture is good, the bones of your spine align correctly. If your posture is bad and the spinal bones are not in proper alignment, there is extra stress on the muscles and ligaments. They try to correct for the bad posture and become injured from the strain. This is how poor posture can both cause back pain and make it worse. (I’ve put an illustration showing good posture while sitting and standing on my website, AskDoctorK.com.)
Try the following exercises. They can help improve your posture and head off back pain:
— Imagery. Think of a straight line passing through your body from ceiling to floor. Your ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should be even and line up vertically as you stand. Now imagine that a strong cord attached to your breastbone is pulling your chest and rib cage upward, making you taller.
— Shoulder blade squeeze. Sit up straight in a chair with your hands resting on your thighs. Keep your shoulders down and your chin level. Slowly draw your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for a count of five; relax. Repeat three times.
— Upper-body stretch. Stand facing a corner with your arms raised, hands flat against the walls, elbows at shoulder height, with your right foot forward. Bend your right knee, but keep the left knee straight. Keep your back straight and your chest and head up. You should feel a nice stretch across your chest. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. Relax.
Now and then, you’ll meet someone who has perfect posture and hasn’t had to work on it. It’s just comes naturally. Most of us, however, tend to slouch. Our mothers really were right: Good posture not only makes us look better, it also protects us against back pain.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.