Most of us get back pain at some point in our lives. It may be due to a sports-related injury, an accident, or a congenital condition such as scoliosis. But most of the time, back pain develops during the course of day-to-day life. Repetitive activities at work or home, such as sitting at a computer or lifting and carrying, may produce tension and muscle tightness that result in a backache. Fortunately, there's a lot we can do to prevent this sort of problem. General physical fitness and a healthy weight are important. But one surprisingly simple strategy can go a long way: Paying attention to your posture.
The basics of posture
Posture is the way you hold your body while standing, sitting, or performing tasks like lifting, bending, pulling, or reaching. If your posture is good, the bones of the spine — the vertebrae — are correctly aligned.
The back has three natural curves: a slight forward curve in the neck (cervical curve), a slight backward curve in the upper back (thoracic curve) and a slight forward curve in the low back (lumbar curve). When these curves are in proper alignment, the spine, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles are in balance, and body weight is evenly distributed. The payoff is less stress and strain on muscles, joints, and ligaments, and a reduced risk for back, neck, and shoulder pain. Some of the classic signs of poor posture are a potbelly, rounded shoulders, and a jutted-out neck and chin (known as a forward head position).
Help yourself to good posture
You can improve your posture by practicing some imagery and a few easy exercises.
- Imagery. Think of a straight line passing through your body from ceiling to floor (your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should be even and line up vertically). Now imagine that a strong cord attached to your breastbone is pulling your chest and rib cage upward, making you taller.
- Chin tuck. Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Keep your shoulders relaxed and down. Hold your head upright. Pull your chin in toward your neck.
- Shoulder blade squeeze. Sit up straight in a chair with your hands resting on your thighs. Keep your shoulders down and your chin level. Slowly draw your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Abdominal pull-in. Stand or sit. Inhale; then exhale slowly to a count of five, pulling your lower abdominal muscles up and in, as if moving your belly button toward your backbone.
- Upper-body stretch. Stand facing a corner with your arms raised, hands flat against the walls, elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot ahead of the other. Bending your forward knee, exhale as you lean your body toward the corner. Keep your back straight and your chest and head up.
More tips for maintaining good posture
Many simple lifestyle choices can help improve your posture and reduce back pain.
- Be mindful of your posture throughout the day, and realign yourself regularly.
- To prevent muscle fatigue, avoid staying in one position for a long time.
- When standing for long periods try resting one foot on a low ledge, stool, or box.
- Hold reading material at eye level.
- Sleep on a firm, comfortable mattress.
- Exercise regularly to promote strong abdominal and back muscles.
- If you prefer slow, gentle, physical activity, try t'ai chi or aquatic exercises to improve your posture, strength, and balance.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Wear comfortable shoes that offer good support.
- If you have any concerns about your posture, consider a session with a physical therapist trained to evaluate posture.
February 2006 update