March 21, 2017

Back Pain? What's Good for the Heart is Good for the Spine

If you’re wondering what is causing your aching back, the answer is probably you.

“Most spine pain is a lifestyle issue,’’ said Dr. James Leonard, co-director of the UW Health Spine Center. “It reflects on how we’re approaching life.’’

While your gene pool, structural issues or injury can all lead to pain and discomfort in your back, the majority of those who endure pain can enhance their lifestyle by following one simple rule.

“What’s good for the heart is good for the spine,’’ said Leonard.

In other words, exercise and keeping your weight under control are two key factors that go a long way in ensuring a healthy spine.

“An individual who sits a lot on the job, they don’t get nutrition to the tissues because the body is not moving,’’ said Leonard, “and it sets individuals up for spine pain problems.”

“You have to take a break, move around and stretch out,” Leonard adds. “You have to get oxygen to the tissues, and pump the muscles in your legs to get rid of fluids in your legs.’’

Extra Weight and Back Pain

As for those few extra pounds you’ve been meaning to shed, consider this: “I tell my patients if you lose one pound, it takes four pounds of compression off your hips and knees,” Leonard says.

“So that is a big factor. I also tell them, if you’re at a certain high level of weight, you’re not a candidate for doing other procedures because your weight will inhibit your healing,” Leonard said, adding that if a person’s body mass index is too high, the results of spine surgery are likely to be much poorer. “Total body conditioning is a big part of it.”

Simply sitting in a position with your muscles tensed can lead to discomfort and cause headaches that can come from the spine. Leonard’s solution, in part, is to be self-aware.

“The No.1 thing you have to be looking at is what brings on your pain,” Leonard says. “What makes it better? What makes it worse? So you develop that awareness of what you can tolerate. It’s an individual thing. You can’t make a rule that applies to everybody.”

The Role of Sleep in Your Aches and Pains

Getting a good night’s rest also does a body good – and that includes your spine.

“If (patients) are not sleeping well at night, I have to help them correct that,” Leonard said. “Because unless we sleep well, unless we get into the deeper stages of sleep, our body does not create the proteins that help us heal. So you know many times yourself if you’ve been up for hours on end, how you ache and you feel cranky all over, it’s really multiplied when you have a spine issue.”

Yet there are those for whom help is needed beyond adjustments geared toward a healthy lifestyle. Leonard said reasons to see your doctor include:

  • Numbness in the legs that gets worse over time

  • Difficulty with bowel or bladder control

  • Weakness or numbness in the arms

“The concern would be compression of the spinal nerve or the spinal cord itself,” Leonard said. “And we’d want to get pressure off of that so there would be no permanent damage. That would be more of a surgical type of situation.”

How Medications Help – and Don’t

But what if your goal is to avoid surgery - yet you can’t exercise because of your back pain?

“As a general rule, when someone has a real acute pain problem and they really can’t exercise, you would tend to rely on passive treatment – such as heat (or ice), applied for 20-30 minutes at a time (microwavable gel packs are excellent ) or massage, or medication,” Leonard said. “As the problem tends to resolve itself more, the emphasis should be a more active approach – such as mild stretching exercises, walking or specific exercises a therapist may show you how to do.”

Anti-inflammatories or pain medications are other options, but Leonard stressed that medication merely controls the symptoms.

“They do not do anything about the underlying problem – the problem causing the pain is still there. All the medication does is mask the symptoms.”

Which brings us back to the beginning: The best way to keep back problems at bay is to live a healthy lifestyle.

“Studies have shown the most effective exercise is aerobic exercise,” Leonard says. “It means getting out and moving and delivering oxygen to the tissues. That’s where the real emphasis should be over the long term.”

Stress and Pain

Stress does not cause pain, but it can make it worse. Realizing the tension we hold our muscles in and finding ways to relax can improve circulation and relieve physical stress on tissues. Mindfulness techniques, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, can be very beneficial for spine pain if practiced regularly.

Yoga, Qigong and Tai Chi Classes at UW Health

UW Health offers a variety of classes for all skill levels. Whether you are looking for  a specific type of yoga such as Kundalini or Kripalu, or even the unique challenge of aerial yoga, there is a class for your needs. View all Yoga, Tai Chi and QiGong classes

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