We’ve Got Your Back
Back pain can diminish your quality of life. Here is an intro to the structure of your back and 18 ways to protect it and keep it healthy, flexible, and strong.
If you’ve ever experienced back pain, you’re not alone. According to the American Chiropractic Association, roughly 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives.1 In fact, back pain is the third most common reason for visits to the doctor, and one of the most frequent reasons for missed work.2 Why? Because your back is a complicated structure of muscles, ligaments, joints, and bones, which makes it very susceptible to injury.3
From a persistent dull ache to a sudden sharp pang, back pain can affect people of all ages and result from a variety of causes, including sprains, accidental injuries, disease, arthritis, or being overweight or sedentary.4 Even simply picking up a light object off the ground can cause pain in your back if it isn't functioning properly.5
Back pain can diminish your quality of life, prevent you from doing your job or attending social activities, and keep you from completing everyday tasks. But taking care of your back now will give you pain relief in the present, lower your chances of experiencing back pain later, and improve your overall well being.
Here is an intro to the structure of your back to help you better understand how it works, thirteen ways to protect your back, and five workouts to keep your back healthy, flexible, and strong.
Structure of Your Back
Your back consists of your spine and spinal cord and several different muscles, ligaments, and nerves. These structures work together to support your body, enable a range of flexible movements, protect vital organs, and send messages from your brain to the rest of your body.6
Let’s take a quick look at a few of those structures.
Your spine is composed of thirty-three bones (vertebrae). Facet joints connect these vertebrae together to form your spinal canal, protecting your spinal cord. Fluid supports the free movement of the facet joints, and a disk between each vertebra cushions these bones from any shocks. There are also two main ligaments (tough, flexible bands of fibrous connecting tissue that join two bones or cartilages) that connect and support the spine from the neck to the lower back.
Your spine consists of five sections:
- Cervical spine: Running from your neck to your upper back, the cervical spine is the top part of your spine. It consists of seven vertebrae, protects the nerves that connect to your brain, supports the weight of your head, and permits your head to move freely.
- Thoracic spine: Consisting of twelve vertebrae, the thoracic spine connects the cervical spine (above) and the lumbar spine (below). It is the middle part of your spine and plays a major role in keeping your body stable and upright.
- Lumbar spine: Made up of the five largest vertebrae and supporting most of your body’s weight, the lumbar spine is in the lower part of your back.
- Sacrum: Joining to the hip bones, the sacrum is the bottom part of the spine and has five vertebrae that are fused together
- Coccyx: Also known as the tailbone, the coccyx is the base of your spine. It consists of just four fused vertebrae and attaches to ligaments and muscles around the pelvis.
Your spinal cord
Running from your neck to your lower back, your spinal cord consists of nerves that carry messages to and from the brain. Believe it or not, your spinal cord not only helps you move but also . . .
- have an awareness of your limbs
- feel hot and cold sensations
- regulate your body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate
- urinate and have bowel movements7
And, just like your spine has five sections, your spinal cord has five sections of corresponding spinal nerves:
- cervical nerves
- thoracic nerves
- lumbar nerves
- sacral nerves
- coccygeal nerves
Muscles in your back
Your back is made up of three different muscle groups: extrinsic (superficial) muscles, intermediate muscles, and intrinsic muscles.
Your extrinsic back muscles—trapezius, latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae, and rhomboids—make it possible for you to move your limbs. These are probably the muscles that come to mind when you think of back muscles. Your intermediate back muscles—serratus posterior inferior and serratus posterior superior—help you breath and connect to the ribs. Your intrinsic back muscles are the deep muscles that allow you to rotate and bend.
14 Ways to Protect Your Back
Your nervous system (your brain, spinal cord, and nerves) is your body’s master communication system, so keeping your spine properly aligned and your back healthy is incredibly important to your overall wellness.
Here are thirteen effective ways to take care of your back, starting today.
1. Maintain a healthy weight
Carrying extra weight, especially around your middle, can shift your center of gravity, putting strain on—and causing pain in—your lower back. Staying within ten pounds of your ideal weight may help manage back pain.8
2. Eat a balanced diet
Focus on eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods, including lean protein, veggies, smart carbs (sweet potatoes, squash, brown rice, quinoa, fruit), and healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts). Try to eat less processed foods and drink less alcohol and fewer sweet drinks.
3. Get regular exercise—and make sure you warm up
According to experts, regular physical activity allows the discs in your spine to receive nutrition9 and can help ease inflammation and muscle tension10 in the back. Exercise also stretches, strengthens, and repairs muscles that support your back, such as the abdominal muscles.11 Before you engage in any physical activity, make sure you warm up. This will gradually raise your body temperature, increase the blood flow to your muscles, help reduce muscle soreness, and less your risk of injury.12
Stretching on a regular basis can help you maintain a good range of motion and normal joint function,13 and staying flexible reduces the risk of injury. While stretching your back is important, stretching other muscles, too, can promote a healthy back. For example, stretching your hamstrings helps relieve stress on your lower back.14
Get in the habit of beginning your day with a few invigorating stretches. Not sure where to start? Try a short Pietra Fitness class, like Sunrise Stretch, or a longer stretch sesh, like Live! from Home: Morning Glory. These Gentle classes will help you not only loosen up your body but also feel more focused. calmer and more relaxed.
Winding down at the end of the night with light stretching can improve your sleep. Gentle Pietra Fitness classes, such as Night Prayers, will calm your nervous system and help you relieve any tension you may be holding in your body—especially in your shoulders and neck—from the day.
5. Avoid prolonged periods of inactivity or bed rest
Lengthy sedentary periods or staying in one position for too long can cause stiffness and lack of mobility and flexibility in your back. Furthermore, when you don’t move or exercise on a regular basis, the discs in your spine become malnourished and degenerated.15
6. Maintain proper posture
According to MedlinePlus, “the key to good posture is the position of your spine. Your spine has three natural curves—at your neck, mid back, and low back. Correct posture should maintain these curves, but not increase them.”16
To stand in good posture, pretend you’re standing tall against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and your weight mostly distributed on the balls of your feet.17 Your head should be straight and your ears should be over the middle of your shoulders. Roll your shoulders back so they are over your hips, and let your arms hang naturally at your sides. Pull your navel toward your spine, and don’t let your butt or hips stick out. If you must stand for a prolonged period of time, rest one foot on a stool and switch feet every five to fifteen minutes.18
When seated, sit all the way back in your chair. If your chair doesn’t have a low-back support, place a small, rolled-up towel or lumbar cushion behind you to maintain your spine’s natural curve. Bend your knees and keep them at the same height or a little higher than your hips. (Prop your feet up on footstool if needed.)
7. Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes
High-heeled shoes can shift your center of gravity, placing unnecessary strain on your lower back.19 Either opt for a one-inch heel or bring a pair of low-heeled shoes to change into if you begin to experience any discomfort.
8. Pay attention to your sleeping position and mattress
If you currently experience back pain, some doctors suggest sleeping on your side with your knees slightly pulled up toward your chest.20 You can also use pillows for support, placing one under your knees and another under your lower back when you sleep on your back. If you get the best night’s rest sleeping on your stomach (which can be very hard on your back), place a pillow under your hips. To minimize any unnatural curve in your spine, stick with a medium-firm mattress.21
9. Lift smart
When lifting an object, do not lift with your back. Instead, bend your knees and squat. Engage your abdominal muscles and hold the object close to your body as you stand up, lifting with your knees. It’s also important not to twist your body when you’re lifting. And, if you have the option, push heavy objects rather than pull them.22
10. Quit smoking
Smoking impairs the flow of blood throughout your body. When nutrient-containing blood can’t get to your spinal tissues, they become deprived of oxygen and nourishment,23 leading to malnutrition, degeneration, and back pain.
11. Ditch the tight clothing
You may be surprised to learn that too-tight clothing can interfere with bending, sitting, or walking,24 which can cause or aggravate back pain.
12. Stay hydrated
The discs in your spine are very vulnerable to loss of hydration. When these discs become dehydrated, they begin to shrink, making you more susceptible to herniated discs, bulging discs, and other painful disc conditions.25 Drinking enough water is important to maintaining soft tissue elasticity and fluidity in your joints.
13. See a chiropractor
Chiropractors are experts at diagnosing, treating, and preventing back pain, so it’s no wonder that back pain is one of the most common reasons why people see a chiropractor.26 And with a growing emphasis on quality care and cost-effective and drug-free treatments, chiropractic is receiving increased attention.27 Through non-invasive, hands-on adjustments of your spine (spinal manipulation), a chiropractor can safely relieve your back pain, help your body heal naturally, and improve your overall quality of life—all without the use of drugs.
5 Workouts to Keep Your Back Healthy
Practicing Pietra Fitness is a great way to keep all the muscles in your body strong and flexible. While all Pietra Fitness classes incorporate postures, stretches, and exercises that safely strengthen and release tension in your back, here are five workouts that specifically target your back muscles.
1. Back BeneFIT
When your back muscles are tight and weak, everyday movements can be difficult and painful. Increase your range of motion and safely stretch and strengthen not only your back but also your shoulders with twists, bends, chest openers, forward folds, and other simple movements in this 30-minute Gentle class.
2. Sedentary Rx
Focus: Back & Hips
Sitting—whether at a desk, in front of a computer, or in the car—for extended periods of time day after day can cause the muscles and tendons in your back and hips to become tight and sore. Sedentary Rx is a soothing remedy. By targeting these tense areas, this 42-minute workout will not only open up your back, neck, shoulders, chest, hips, and inner thighs but also make them stronger.
3. Tone & Twist
Twists are great for strengthening the muscles up and down your spine, improving your posture, and increasing your flexibility so you can perform everyday movements with ease. In this 27-minute class, you’ll perform several safe and effective twists that will work and stretch your entire core while engaging other muscles in your body for stability. You will also do pushups and hold postures that stretch your chest, legs, and hips.
Focus: Angle Pose / Side Body
Increase your spinal mobility and get your body feeling better with this 30-minute workout. As the title suggests, you can expect to find yourself in several angle pose variations, providing safe, feel-good twists for your spine. You will also perform postures that help you release tension in your neck, strengthen your core and upper back, stretch your hips and hamstrings, and activate the muscles in your legs, arms and shoulders.
5. TOB: Back
If you’re looking for a 30-minute back routine that not only stretches and strengthens your back but also works your entire body, this is your ideal class. After a short warm up that immediately activates the muscles in your back and stretches the sides of your body, you will do a unique shoulder series to increase stability in your shoulders and then fire up your legs with squats. Planks, side planks, chest lifts, lat pull-downs, reverse planks, and other exercises will recruit every muscle in your body. Wind down with postures that stretch your chest, inner thighs, hip flexors, and hamstrings to leave you feeling fit, flexible, and fabulous.