Tips for a healthy spine
After yesterday’s interlude about reflections on the miracle of life, I’m back to looking at the spine! In previous blogs we have explored the structure of the spine and its surrounding musculature. From this we can see that the spine has many functions:
- Protection of the spinal cord and associated nerves
- Reservoir for calcium ions
- Absorbing impact
- Blood supply
- Protection of major organs (ribs attach to the spine)
Movements of the spine include rotation, lateral flexion (left and right), extension (straightening/back bend), and flexion (forward bend) (Figure 10). Rotation occurs in the cervical and thoracic regions but little or no rotation occurs in the lumbar spine. Flexion occurs only in the lumbar and cervical spine – not in the thoracic region (1).
Figure 1: Types of spinal movement
Maintaining optimal spinal health
The National Health Service have reported that back pain is the leading cause of long-term sickness in the United Kingdom; in 2013 it was responsible for more than 15 million lost work days (2). Unsurprisingly, back pain represents a large societal and personal burden but in many cases it could be alleviated or prevented with adequate care.
The role of activity in good spinal health
Bed rest was once recommended for back problems, but it is now known that activity is vital to maintain spinal health. Inactivity actually exacerbates back problems (2). Activity is essential as it strengthens the back, abdominal, and leg muscles. Strong muscles assist us when lifting heavy objects, and also help with mobility and maintaining a good posture (3). During activity, movement of the spine causes the discs to be squeezed and released, keeping them hydrated and healthy (3). Plump discs cushion the vertebrae and offer more protection than thin, dehydrated discs. Thirty minutes exercise each day helps to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine and also maintains flexibility (3). Low impact exercises such as walking, cycling, and swimming are good ways to improve fitness and yoga is especially beneficial as it helps to improve flexibility, strength, and posture (3).
Good posture and spinal health
In earlier blogs, we saw that good posture is necessary to maintain alignment and the four natural curves of the spine. Many of our daily activities can lead to poor posture if we do not take action to prevent it. For example, when carrying shopping or a shoulder bag, you should switch sides regularly to avoid strain on one side of the back (3). When walking, shoes should be comfortable and low-heeled ((3) – stilettos are not good for maintaining spinal health! Even when sleeping, there are postural considerations. It is best to sleep on your side in order to maintain spinal alignment and reduce unnatural curves (3). Mattresses and pillows need to be firm enough to keep the spine in alignment, otherwise our sleep is not restful and we might wake up with an aching neck or back. Kitchen surfaces and work benches should be at a at a comfortable height (3) – but how often do we check this? Everywhere we look there are ways in which we can protect our spinal health!
People who remain seated at a computer for most of the day are particularly prone to back problems. Workstations need to be set up appropriately and employers often undertake ergonomic assessments to make sure their staff are protected as much as possible from spinal issues. Bad posture when seated places strain on the spine. Imagine sitting all day with a bad posture – backache, neck pain, and headaches are likely! You can read about how to find the best way to sit correctly here: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-sit-correctly/. Standing up and walking around, stretching, and changing sitting position regularly are all other essential things to do if you are seated for long periods of time. This helps muscles to rest and recover as well as hydrating the discs (3).
In order to sustain good spinal health, it is important to avoid injury. Warm up properly before exercise and make sure that engage your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles and bend from the hips (not just the knees) when lifting heavy objects (3).
Other things to consider to help support good spinal health include: maintaining a healthy weight, having a nutritious diet (with calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B12, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, bromelain), don’t smoke (smoking reduces blood flow to the lower spine), avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water, having massages, and tailor your activities to your ability (3). And of course…do some Dru Yoga!
Hope you’ve found today’s tips useful! Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at some causes of back pain and how Dru Yoga can help.
- NYU. Muscles [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Jan 17]; available from: http://hjd.med.nyu.edu/spine/patient-education/spine-anatomy/muscles-and-ligaments/muscles
- National Health Service. Back Pain at Work [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2015 Jan 30];Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/workplacehealth/Pages/Backpainatwork.aspx
- Sullivan K, Royal College of General Practitioners. 5-minute Back Relief. London: Collins; 2007.