|This morning, you probably didn’t think twice about slinging a work tote over your shoulder or picking your sneakers up off the floor. But there may come a time when one of those simple motions will trigger a backache bad enough to cause you to call in sick, see a doctor, or at the very least, take a few painkillers. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, four out of five women will develop a back injury at some point in their lives. But with a few simple changes, you can prevent yourself from becoming a statistic. The trick, says Douglas Chang, M.D., chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, is separating the misconceptions from the facts. We asked Chang and other experts to set the record straight on how to best prevent and heal aches and pains.MYTH #1 Lifting heavy objects will strain your back.
FACT Most injuries are caused not by what you pick up, but how you do it. The proper form: Squat, keeping your back straight. Grab the object, bring it close to your body, then stand; your thigh and butt muscles should do the lifting.
Just grabbing a pen off the floor? It’s still important to be careful, because simply twisting the wrong way can harm your back. “One of the worst moves is bending over to the side while staying seated with your feet planted on the floor,” says Rahul Shah, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon in Winter Park, Florida. “Twisting your back in two directions at once may strain the disks that cushion your spinal vertebrae.” This repetitive trauma builds up over the years and can weaken your spine. “If your back is already vulnerable,” says Shah, “the wrong movement could easily trigger an injury.”
MYTH #2 Sitting up straight keeps your spine in line.
What’s a woman to do? Adjust your posture a few times a day, recommends Shah. “Lean back in your chair with your feet on the ground and make sure there’s a slight curve in your lower back.” That way, he explains, you’ll distribute your body weight more evenly, as your shoulders and upper back muscles will take some of the pressure off your spine. If you often find yourself slouching at your desk at the end of the workday, consider using a cushion to support your lower back and keep your spine in alignment.
What may be even more important than sitting correctly is taking frequent breaks from your desk throughout the day. To boost circulation in your back muscles and lessen fatigue, stand up every half hour and take a five-minute stroll or stretch every hour. Do some of your work while standing up to give your spine a little reprieve. Take a phone call on your feet, or place a report on top of a waist-high filing cabinet so you can stand and read it.
MYTH #3 Most exercise is hard on your back.
Still, it’s important not to do too much. Overexerting yourself—by lifting too-heavy weights or stretching past the point of comfort—is a surefire way to injure your back. To protect yourself while working out: Warm up with at least 15 minutes of light cardio to increase blood flow to back muscles. Next, observe your form in the mirror when lifting weights. Your back should always be straight, whether you’re working your biceps or your legs. Finally, avoid overstretching or bouncing; those movements jar the spine and muscles.
MYTH #4 Back pain is always caused by an injury.
So the next time you feel the pressure rising, make a point to work at least half an hour of relaxation into your day no matter how frenzied you feel. A hot bath or shower is one of the best ways to decompress, because heat can relax your back muscle fibers. To boost the benefits even more, use lavender-scented bath beads or soap: In a Japanese study, people who sniffed the calming scent had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Your back already in knots? Get a massage. Find a massage therapist near you through the American Massage Therapy Association.
MYTH #5 Alternative treatments don’t work.
MYTH #6 A super firm mattress is best for your back.
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