An aching back is not a pleasant feeling, yet it is more common a problem than we realise. In Singapore alone, a study found approximately 60 to 90% of the population experience lower back pain at some point in their life. It can be triggered by vigorous activity or even just sleeping in the wrong position.
The back and spine support a lot of your body weight and we use it for most tasks, even sleeping. You might initially think nothing of it, but you will soon come to realise that it can interfere with your personal and work life, and can even become a chronic problem. You also should realise that not all backaches are the same. A bad case of pain and stiffness can in fact be attributed to a condition known as cervical spondylosis.
What is Cervical Spondylosis?
As you age, wear and tear can affect the spinal discs in your neck. These discs dehydrate and shrink, becoming stiffer and causing changes to the bones and joints of the neck. This condition is known as cervical spondylosis or cervical osteoarthritis.
Causes and Symptoms
Cervical spondylosis usually occurs in middle-aged and older individuals, but it is becoming increasingly common among younger people as well. As bones and cartilage deteriorate, changes in your backbone and spine give rise to spondylosis. These changes include:
- Dehydrated spinal discs: Essentially the cushioning between the vertebrae of your spine starts to dry, leading shrinkage. This causes more friction between the bones of the vertebrae.
- Bone Spurs: The deterioration of the discs and cartilage can cause your spine to create more bone in an effort to strengthen the spine, resulting in bony protrusions, or bone spurs, along the bones of the neck. These can pinch into your spinal cord.
- Stiff Ligaments: The cords of connective tissue between your bones are known as ligaments. These can stiffen with age, which means that you become less flexible.
- Herniated Discs: This happens when the external portion of your spinal discs crack, resulting in bulging, or herniated, discs, which can then place pressure on your spinal cord and nerves.
Symptoms do not occur for most people but when they do, they can be quite a painful experience. The most common ones are pain and stiffness in the neck and lower back. In severe cases, cervical spondylosis leads to the constricting of the space necessary by the spinal cord and the nerve roots that pass through the spine to the body. When this happens, you might experience more acute symptoms, including tingling, numbness and weakness in your limbs and extremities, poor coordination and trouble walking and poor bladder or bowel control. Should you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Managing Back Pain
Regardless the cause, you should remedy pain in the lower back before it develops into something more severe and chronic. Here are a few simple ways to manage the pain at home:
1. Ice, Then Heat
If your back pain is the result of an injury, icing it for the first 24 to 48 hours can help reduce inflammation and alleviate some of the pain, as heating it could aggravate the inflammation. After 48 hours, heating it would be better if you cannot withstand the cold. Ensure you do not exceed 20 minutes regardless of whether you choose to heat or cool so as not to irritate your skin.
2. Strengthen your Back
A strong back can help circumvent future episodes of back pain. Focus on exercises that strengthen your lower back muscles and improve flexibility. Here are some simple exercises for you to try:
While you’re lying on your back with your arms flat on the floor, bend your knees. Ensure your pelvis and tailbone are rotated down, push your lower back down and squeeze your core. With your legs, arms and shoulder for support, slowly lift your midsection off the ground and hold for ten seconds. Lower to starting position slowly, and relax your core. Repeat this five times.
Lie face down on the floor and tuck your toes into the ground with your elbows flat on either side of you. Squeeze your core muscles and raise your body off the floor in an elevated position. Your core should be tight throughout, while your butt is lifted as the same level as your shoulders so as to prevent pressure on your lower back. Hold it for ten seconds, then lower to start and repeat five times. You can hold the position for longer as you get stronger.
Bent-Over Reverse Fly
With your feet hip-width apart, knees bent slightly (make sure they’re not locked), and hips forward. Place your arms on your side with palms facing in and look forward. Raise your arms to form a “T”, parallel to the floor, without locking your elbows. Your back and shoulder muscles should be engaged, shoulder blades squeezed fully, your chest is up. Put your arms back down and repeat for 15 reps.
3. Sleep with a pillow under your knees
As strange as it sounds, sleeping actually puts pressure on your back. Use a pillow under your knees to raise your legs as this relieves the pressure on your back. Ensure that your legs are not too high; you should feel the tension your back ease while still feeling comfortable.
Stretching keeps your spine and back strong and flexible. Doing it daily can bolster the spine, loosen muscles, and increase flexibility to offer serious relief from back pain. Check out our article on The Importance of Stretching for more stretching tips. In the meantime, here are some specifically for your back:
Get on all fours, keeping the knees hip-width apart. Arch your back with your belly button toward the spine. Relax your muscles and let your tummy sag toward the floor (but your bellybutton should still be tucked in). Bring yourself back to starting position and repeat three to five times.
Start by kneeling on the mat with your knees slightly wide apart. Lower your hips to your heels and place your forehead on the floor. Your torso should be on top of your thighs. Lengthen your spine, place your arms in front of you and press your palms down. Breathe and hold for 15 to 20 seconds.
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat, with your arms by the side. Arch the lower back and thrust your stomach out. Hold it for five seconds. Return to start position and continue for 10 reps.
Lie on the floor, bending your knees, feet flat on the ground. Your shoulders should be firmly on the floor while you roll both bent knees to one side. Hold for five to ten seconds then return to start. Do the same for the other side.
Knee to Chest Stretch
Lie on the floor, bending your knees, feet flat on the ground. Use your hands to draw one knee toward the chest for five seconds. Ensure your core is tight and push your spine into the floor. Return to the start and repeat with the other side.
5. Increase Vitamin D and Calcium
Back pain can also be due to osteoporosis, especially for women. To counter the debilitating effects of it, strengthen your bones by consuming more calcium and vitamin D, which enhances the absorption of calcium. Calcium can be found in dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese, milk and leafy greens; while egg yolks, liver and fatty fish are rich in Vitamin D.
6. Wear Comfortable Shoes
This means wearing shoes that are low-heeled. As much as high heels can make you look like a million bucks, they can also put an unnecessary stress on your back while you’re standing or walking. Wearing lower heels, less than one-inch in height, reduces this tension.
7. Posture Awareness
Slouching and hunching when we walk, slumping over the desk, we tend to be unaware of when our posture becomes bad. Poor posture strains your back and can modify the structure of the spine. Good posture protects your spine from damage, ensuring that it is healthy and functioning properly. Try to avoid rounding your shoulders or bending sideways when standing. Bear these in mind even when seated, especially if you do so for hours on end. Your chair should support your back and your knees should be a little higher than your hips when seated.
8. Avoid Heavy Lifting
Heavy lifting, or lifting incorrectly, can cause your back to be placed in awkward positions. This includes carrying suitcases, a bag of groceries, a laptop bag or even having a heavy necklace hanging around your neck. If you do need to carry something heavy, spread the weight on both sides of your body or shift the weight from one arm to other when necessary. Opt for a bag with wheels or a grocery trolley for heavier loads.
Don’t ignore back pain. Little changes daily together with stretches and back strengthening exercises can make a lot of difference.
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