5 simple ways to help protect your spine

Aching back? Here’s how to help keep it strong and healthy as you age.

Getting older comes with lots of rewards, from a bit of wisdom to a ton of great experiences. But for many, growing older also comes with an aching back: According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 80% of those over 65 have a condition known as spinal osteoarthritis. 

Here’s what happens: our spines start out like a well-constructed tower of building blocks — think of each vertebra as a block nestled between shock-absorbing discs. But as our bodies age, those building blocks can experience wear and tear, causing back pain. 

“The spine is made up of multiple joints, which can wear out just like your knees or your hips,” says Jeffrey Wang, M.D., a spinal surgeon, codirector of the University of Southern California Spine Center and president of the North American Spine Society.

That natural wear and tear is known as degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis (OA). It affects roughly 27 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. For some, OA may cause mild discomfort and stiffness in the knees, hips, hands and back. For others, the result can be acute, even chronic, back pain. 

Dr. Wang’s advice? “Don’t freak out. Understand that it’s very common,” he says. 

When it comes to back pain, you can’t turn back the clock. But there are things you can do to help prevent flare-ups and better manage nagging aches. Start with these five strategies:

1. Jump-start your health

Everything’s connected, so focus on living an all-around healthy life. Your heart health is especially important, says Dr. Wang. 

“If you’re healthy cardiovascular-wise,” he says, “you get more blood flow to the spine.” So talk to your doctor about what you can do to keep your ticker strong, from keeping your blood pressure in check to controlling your weight. 

Consider following a heart-healthy eating plan like a Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Both eating plans focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil, nuts and avocados.

2. Stand up straight

Your mother was right: good posture is important for lots of reasons, including a healthy back. Your spine muscles are always working, whether you’re sitting, standing, bending or moving. 

Because of all that activity, maintaining good posture throughout your day helps you avoid placing too much stress on your spine. Even if you have arthritis, keeping your core muscles strong can help support your spine and ease back problems. 

Here are some helpful posture tips so you can check your own position:  

  • Don’t slouch. Ideally, you should lean back slightly in your chair. Draw your shoulder muscles back, keep your feet flat on the floor and check that your butt is touching the back of the chair. Equally important: Get up and walk around every hour. 
  • Stand in a line. The posture pros at the National Spine Health Foundation say that the key to good posture is to maintain a neutral spine. Each time you stand up, think about lifting your chin slightly and keeping your ears, shoulders, hips and knees in one neat line.
  • Avoid the “iHunch”. When researchers in Hong Kong looked into the health effects of smartphone use, they found that 70% of adults who use smartphones and other electronic devices reported musculoskeletal pain. The solution: Don’t lean over to look at your smartphone — that can throw your back out of alignment, especially if you’re on your phone for long periods of time. Instead, lift your device to eye level. 

3. Strengthen your core

That means all of the muscles in your torso — your hips, belly, back and chest. Together, they stabilize your spine and protect it from injury, so keeping your core strong can help keep your back healthy and pain-free. 

Research published in 2018 in the Journal of Biomechanics suggests that a strong core can drastically decrease the risk of lower-back pain. Your best strategy: At least one core exercise daily. 

Try this version of the classic crunch that puts less stress on your lower back: 

The curl-up

  • Lie flat on your back with your right knee bent and your right foot resting flat on the floor, and extend your left leg. 
  • Slide your hands under your lower back for support, then raise your elbows slightly off the floor.
  • Brace your core and keep it engaged for the entire move.
  • Squeeze your abs to raise your head and shoulders an inch or two off the floor, keeping your spine neutral.
  • Hold for 10 seconds, then lower your shoulders back to the floor.
  • Complete 10 to 12 repetitions, then switch legs and repeat. 
  • Aim to complete two to three sets.

In addition to the curl-up exercise above, check out the 4 surprising health benefits of strength training.

4. Stop smoking

You know smoking is bad for your lungs. Turns out, it’s also bad for your back. There’s a strong correlation between nicotine products and worsening arthritis symptoms, according to a study from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

But quitting can help. In the study, people who quit smoking experienced big drops in their arthritis pain levels, compared to those who continued to smoke. 

If you’d like help quitting, talk to your doctor. Or visit Smokefree.gov to find a number of tools and resources to help you get started.

5. Do what feels good

If heat, ice, stretching, acupuncture or massages help with the pain, continue putting them to good use. There’s actually good evidence that these types of complementary therapies have a useful place in an overall treatment plan for managing ongoing pain. Read all about it in 8 natural ways to help ease chronic pain.

Dr. Wang says that these methods work particularly well to help you feel better in the moment. But, he adds, they won’t replace the need for strengthening exercises and for keeping an eye on your waistline as a way to help prevent pain flare-ups.

Finally, remember that back pain doesn’t need to be part of aging. When pain lasts more than a few days, see your doctor to discuss options and rule out other conditions that may be causing the discomfort.

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