How to look after your back

Emma Mitchell
Physiotherapist at Bupa UK
05 October 2022
Next review due October 2025

It’s easy to take your back for granted, until it starts to hurt or feel stiff. Back pain and discomfort can affect everything from sleep to your activity levels, so it’s important to try and prevent any issues developing. Here, I’ll explore what you can do to prevent back pain or stiffness in future, and share my top tips for avoiding a back injury.

physiotherapist helping a patient with lower back pain

What causes back issues?

Many things can affect your back health, from your age to your lifestyle. It’s very common to have back discomfort - four out of five people will have it at least once in their lives. If, like many people, you spend a lot of time sitting down because of computer work and travel, your back can become weak. This may lead you to have pain.

Also, if you spend a lot of time sitting down you may find that you have poor posture, which can contribute to back issues. But there are also less obvious factors that can cause back pain or discomfort such as how stressed you are and how well you sleep at night.

How to prevent back pain

Because so many different things can affect your back, it’s helpful to take a holistic approach to prevent any issues. One of the most important things you can do is to try and strengthen your back.

Having a stronger back can make daily life easier and may reduce your chance of pain. Doing strength training sessions twice a week is a good place to start. Aim to include back strengthening exercises such as bridges, planks, as well as weightlifting.

Having a strong core is also a key part of looking after your back. This is because your deep abdominal muscles work to support your back, so keeping your core strong can take the pressure off your back muscles. Exercises to work your core include Pilates and yoga.

You could also make some of the lifestyle changes listed below.

  • Avoid sitting down for too long as this can cause stiffness in your lower back.
  • Try to move around every 30 minutes or so and consider alternating between standing and sitting.
  • When you do sit, aim to keep your spine straight, with your shoulders back.
  • Manage your stress, as when you’re under pressure you can get tension in your lower back.
  • Try yoga, meditation, or regular warm baths.
  • Try some gentle mobilising back exercises (such as the yoga move cat/cow) after travelling or sitting down for a long while.

5 tips for preventing a back injury

It’s easy to injure your back through exercising or daily the activities of daily life. Here are my top five tips for reducing your risk of getting a back injury.

1) Take care when you lift heavy items

Try to keep your back as straight as possible when lifting heavy items. Ideally, try to share the load with someone else to reduce the strain to your back. But if you feel you can lift the item, then bend your knees into a squat position and tuck your tummy muscles in towards your spine. Then, keep the item close to your body as you stand up.

2) Avoid lots of high impact, twisting exercises

Staying active is important but it can be easy to overdo it. Be careful when doing lots of repetitive movements such as gardening or DIY, as this can lead to overuse of the same back muscles. Instead, mix up your movements and take breaks. Also be mindful of how much high impact activity such as jumping and running you do. Try to include some lower impact exercises such as swimming and walking too.

3) Choose a healthy sleeping position

Lying flat on your back to sleep may be the best for avoiding issues. This is because it allows for the ideal alignment of your spine during the night. Placing a pillow under your knees in this position can also help to keep any pressure off your lower back.

4) Be careful when carrying heavy bags

Carrying your bag in your hand instead of over the shoulder can reduce strain on your spine. If you can, split the weight between two bags so you can take one in each hand. If you do need to carry the bag on your body, try to switch sides regularly to avoid overworking one side of your back. Also, consider using a rucksack with wide straps which can spread the weight more evenly across your back muscles.

5) Get more rest and relaxation

Good sleep is essential for your health. It can help your body to repair from an injury and can also make you less sensitive to pain. Getting enough sleep is likely to make you feel more like being active, which in turn can support your back health. We know that people with anxiety and depression tend to report more aches and pains. So, looking after your mental health is another way to take care of your back too.

How to look after your back as you age

On top of the risk of back issues from exercise or injury, back problems can also become more likely as you get older. This is because over time the discs in your spine can start to wear away, making your back more vulnerable to damage. For some people, spinal arthritis can develop. This is where inflammation of the joints in the spine causes pain and mobility issues.

Maintaining a healthy weight as you get older can help to reduce the strain on your joints, including your back. So, eating the right number of calories for your age and gender is important. Staying active and reducing added sugars can also help to reduce the amount of inflammation in your body.

If you are worried about back pain or stiffness, then see a doctor for further support and treatment if necessary.

If you have a muscle, bone or joint problem, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get advice from a physiotherapist usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Emma Mitchell
Emma Mitchell
Physiotherapist at Bupa UK

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