Keep moving to avoid and relieve back pain

Physical activity is vital for overall health, including for a healthy spine. Most people can avoid chronic back or neck pain by maintaining an active lifestyle and making a few simple posture changes.  

But what if you’re already experiencing neck or back pain? Is it too late to make a change? For most people, it’s never too late to improve spine health.  

Need a spine health check up? Schedule an visit with an orthopaedic specialist today!

I often see patients who come in with sudden, severe neck and back pain. It often flares up unexpectedly, such as when performing household chores. These patients often worry that they’ve damaged their spines. But in the vast majority of cases, physical therapy and sometimes non-narcotic medication will provide neck and back pain relief.

Let’s take a look at how a healthy spine works and why physical therapy is so effective to help you recuperate from and prevent future back pain.

Supporting your spine

Maintaining a healthy spine depends upon strengthening the muscles that bear its weight. The muscles around your back (often called “core” muscles) take some of the load off the spine’s lumbar vertebrae. These five large bones provide a supporting frame for the spine, but they aren’t made to hold its weight.

People experience back pain when their core muscles are too weak to support the lumbar vertebrae. If these vertebrae and the joints surrounding them bear too much weight over time, it can accelerate arthritis of the lower back, resulting in the sudden, intense pain I described earlier.    

It’s important to exercise the core muscles around your abdomen and lower back to stay strong. Many back problems are caused by inactivity and smoking.  

Inactivity and spine health

Americans spend an average of nearly eight hours per day sitting. Given that most adults have desk jobs, that number isn’t too surprising. But prolonged periods of sedentary behavior can have surprisingly severe effects on your health, so much so that this group of conditions has been given a name: “sitting disease.” Sitting disease increases your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, cancer and more. And it also affects your spine.  

Did you know... “Americans spend an average of nearly eight hours per day sitting.”

When you’re sitting, your core muscles aren’t being worked. They sit dormant, becoming weaker the less they’re used. Making this problem worse is the fact that many people have poor sitting posture. Slouching can make it more difficult for the core muscles to bear weight and causes issues with spinal problems over time.  

Sedentary lifestyles are a common theme among my neck and back pain patients. When you’re younger, you can live an inactive life for years without back pain. But those years are silently taking a toll on your spine.  

If you must sit for most of the day, you can take proactive steps to guard against future back troubles. And if you already have back pain, these techniques are especially important to prevent it from getting worse.  

Developing healthy spine habits  

You can keep your spine healthy and avoid serious back pain by making a habit of exercising and stretching. I tell my patients they need to make core muscle exercises a part of their daily routine, just like brushing your teeth. Strengthening the core muscles helps keep your spine healthy. It’s that simple. Some exercises that I recommend include modified planks, the “superman” stretch or yoga. You may need to exercise a specific subset of core muscles depending on your condition, so ask your physical therapist or doctor which exercises you can perform to improve your spine health.  

If you sit at work, consider getting a standing desk. My patients rave about how much better their backs feel after they start using one. According to a growing body of research, reducing your sedentary time with a standing desk can also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity, help you focus and avoid feeling tired while improving your mood at work.  

When you do sit, make sure to use proper posture. Keep your back straight and shoulders back. This posture helps maintain the natural curvature of the spine. You also should change your sitting position regularly, and get up to move around at least once per hour.    

sitting posture correction
A healthy sitting posture. Your head to kneecaps should make less of a letter C and more of a letter L.

You should be on your way to a healthier spine if you stick to these habits. But if you’re still experiencing pain, or your pain begins to radiate into your arms or legs, you could have a back condition that requires more intensive treatment.  

If you have back pain, or sit for long periods of time, don’t wait for the problem to get worse. Be proactive about your spine health – you’ll feel the benefits of being flexible and active, and enjoy years free of back pain.  

Request an appointment to discuss physical therapy options or call 202-877-6000 to learn more.

Neck and Back Pain Basics: What You Need to Know

Tune in to the full podcast interview with Dr. Tannous.

Neck and back pain are leading causes of disability in the United States. Fortunately for those who suffer, there is an increasing number of treatments available, ranging from non-surgical therapies to state-of-the-art, minimally invasive procedures.

The first step, experts say, is pinpointing the exact cause of the problem.

“The source can range from herniated discs and compression fractures to strains, sprains or plain old arthritis,” says Oliver Tannous, MD, an orthopaedic spine surgeon specializing in state-of-the-art, minimally invasive and motion preservation techniques at MedStar Orthopaedic Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.  “But regardless of the cause, one thing is pretty much the same: Patients are often in debilitating pain, and unable to do the things they want, like pick up their grandchildren or drive to the store. It affects their overall happiness and quality of life.”

Different diagnoses and symptoms require different treatment plans. Dr. Tannous believes the journey to a pain-free state should start with the most conservative interventions possible.

“Since a sprained muscle explains acute neck or back problems for the majority of patients, I’ll first recommend physical therapy, or prescribe anti-inflammatory medication,” he says. “It is remarkable how a short course of physical therapy can improve strength, flexibility, and posture and often this is all it takes to get better.”

For those who still experience pain, interventional pain management techniques such as steroid injections or facet joint ablations often do the trick. Surgery is only considered after less invasive treatments have been tried, and failed. Even then, there’s good news.

“Spine surgery today is vastly different than it was 10 to15 years ago,” Dr. Tannous explains. “We use advanced surgical techniques, requiring smaller incisions, and resulting in shorter hospital stays, faster recovery, less post-surgical pain and, ultimately, better outcomes.” 

Recent advances in surgical techniques include cervical (neck) disc replacement using a mobile implant rather than fusion to preserve range of motion in the neck. When a fusion is needed, it can now be done with incisions an inch and a half long. For older patients with compression fractures that don’t resolve on their own, another new treatment uses a needle rather than surgery to inject cement directly into the spine, often eliminating pain immediately. And, for disc herniation, the minimally invasive approach Dr. Tannous employs uses tubes, requiring only tiny incisions.

With so many new technologies available, people needn’t suffer from back pain, limit their quality of life, or worry about treatment.

“We’re in this together,” says Dr. Tannous. “My job is to find a way to solve your problem in the best way possible—with or without surgery.”

Tune in to the full podcast interview with Dr. Tannous.