According to research, low back pain is one of the most common problems people have – it is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. About 60 to 80% of the adult U.S. population has low back pain, and it is the second most common reason people go to the doctor. Each year 13 million people go to the doctor for chronic back pain. Low back problems affect the spine’s flexibility, stability, and strength, which can cause pain, discomfort and stiffness.
“Many people with lower backaches say symptoms disrupt their daily routines; however, your everyday habits may be the factors causing the pain,” warns Dr. Michael A. Gleiber, a South Florida Board-Certified Orthopedic Spine Surgeon and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Clinical Biomedical Sciences at The Charles E. Schmidt Florida Atlantic University College of Medicine for Spine Surgery. Dr. Gleiber has offices in Boca Raton and Jupiter practicing Concierge Spine Surgery and Spinal Medicine. He is also on staff at The University of Miami Hospital.
Back pain isn’t just about heavy lifting. Below, Dr. Gleiber breaks down everyday habits that cause aches and pains – and how to feel better.
No Smoking Please!
There may be another reason to quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes not only contributes to lung cancer and emphysema, it also leads to back pain and spine problems. “Nicotine restricts blood flow to the discs that cushion your vertebrae and increases the rate of degenerative change,” says Dr. Gleiber. “Cigarette smoking also reduces calcium absorption and prevents new bone growth, leaving smokers with double the risk of an osteoporotic fracture compared with non-smokers.”
Tip: If you can’t quit cold turkey, there are many safe and effective medications that are available to help you quit smoking. And what about electronic cigarettes? Although e-cigarettes contain far fewer chemicals and carcinogens than a burning roll of tobacco, they still contain variable amounts of nicotine and traces of toxic chemicals, including known cancer-causing substances (carcinogens).
Sitting in an office chair for prolonged periods of time can definitely cause low back pain or worsen an existing back problem. The main reason behind this is that sitting, in an office chair or in general, is a static posture that increases stress in the back, shoulders, arms and legs, and in particular, can add large amounts of pressure to the back muscles and spinal discs.
When sitting in an office chair for a long period, the natural tendency for most people is to slouch over or slouch down in the chair, and this posture can overstretch the spinal ligaments and strain the discs and surrounding structures in the spine. Over time, incorrect sitting posture can damage spinal structures and contribute to or worsen back pain.
Tip: Regularly stretching shoulders, hips, and hamstrings will increase your flexibility, offering instant relief and preventing back pain. Dr. Gleiber recommends taking mini-breaks throughout the 9 to 5 workday. “Find opportunities to stand or take a walk to the kitchen. Walk over to your co-workers to chat with them instead of relying on email,” says Dr. Gleiber. “Proper office ergonomics is also important. A simple adjustment to your chair height could be the fix you need to end your back pain; and never hunch over a computer. Focus on aligning your head and neck right above your shoulders and avoid straining forward. Ideally, your mouse should be placed right next to your keyboard so you don’t overreach or twist your shoulder, arm, or wrist when clicking.”
The Not So Fast and the Furious
Driving is a frequent aggravator of lower back pain and can even be the initial cause of pain. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported that the average American spends around 100 hours a year just commuting to and from work. The Harvard Health Watch reported that the average person spends around 101 minutes driving each day. The primary cause of back pain while driving? Bad posture.
“For most people, good posture just isn’t something they think about when driving,” says Dr. Gleiber. “Majority of people put their spine in a position that can cause problems, especially since most people are holding this position for over an hour and a half each day!”
According to Dr. Gleiber, one of the largest causes of back pain is due to the pressure placed on the lumbar curve. The lumber curve consists of five vertebrae in the lower portion of the back. These vertebrae naturally curve towards the stomach. However, when driving for long periods of time, this curve tends to straighten, which puts excessive pressure on the discs. On top of this pressure, the discs and vertebrae are being forced to endure the millions of vibrations from the cars suspension being used to the maximum on the roads of today. This can cause back pain, even after getting out of the car.
Tip: Posture, posture, posture. Many drivers adopt a bad posture while driving, leaning into the wheel and stretching their legs to reach the pedals. “Sit with your bottom all way back in the seat and use the car’s built in lumbar support to provide cushion to your lumbar spine. If you don’t have a lumbar support, roll up a towel and place it in the curve of your low back. It also helps to get as close to the steering wheel as you can without becoming uncomfortable. Being close prevents you from slouching, and also keeps you from straining to reach the pedals.”
Millions of men drive with their wallet in their back pocket and sit on them at their desk at work. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst things you can do for your back. “Back pain and sciatica is often caused by sitting on a thick and heavy wallet that throws your pelvic balance off triggering chronic pain in your back, hips and shoulders,” says Dr. Gleiber.
According to Dr. Gleiber, eventually, you may compress the sciatic nerve – it runs from each side of the spine down through the back of each thigh to the foot – and cause sciatica, searing leg pain and numbness. The piriformis muscle near your glutes may also get aggravated, which can irritate the nerve and trigger lower back and sciatic pain.
Backpacks Can Be a Pain in the Neck (and shoulders) for Kids
In these days of iPads and laptops, online learning and e-books, it seems like a backpack would be unnecessary. But as kids headed back to school this month, they are still loaded down with traditional books, as well as notebooks, binders, folders and calculators. It all adds up and tips the scale in an unhealthy direction. “Unfortunately, most kids are wearing backpacks that are too heavy for them,” says Dr. Gleiber. As a father of two boys, Dr. Gleiber is all too familiar with the problem. “A child’s backpack should weigh no more than about 15% to 20% of his or her body weight. If a child starts complaining about neck, back or shoulder pain, parents should look at the backpack first.”
Bigger Isn’t Always Better: Is Your Over-Sized Handbag Causing Back Pain?
Heavy handbags, computer bags – even dog carriers with a 10-pound pooch inside can cause back pain. “Inside a typical handbag, you may find a phone, iPad, wallet, makeup bag, a bottle of water, book or magazine – maybe an extra pair of shoes,” says Dr. Gleiber. “They seem like little things, but they add weight – up to 10 pounds and carrying all that weight can cause shoulder and neck pain.”
According to Dr. Gleiber, when it comes to fashion, putting extra weight on one side of your body is one of the biggest back pain causes. Any time you carry weight on one side of your body for an extended period of time, it causes your spine to curve, and that leads to back pain symptoms.
Tip: Aim for symmetry. Choose a bag that you can wear diagonally across your body rather than a single-strap bag that rests on one shoulder. “When you can’t avoid using a single-strap bag, be conscious of changing the sides you use to carry it,” advises Dr. Gleiber.