Maybe you were lifting something off the ground. Or you were just trying to get out of bed. It was all so mundane and not physically demanding at all when it happened. But there it was, the pain shooting through your back – a sign that something had gone very wrong.
If you’re lamenting “why me?”, back pain is more common than you think. In fact, some 80 per cent of the adult population has suffered from back pain at one point or another in their lives, according to the Singhealth website. And there are a multitude of everyday situations that can result in a backache.
CNA Lifestyle takes a look at what you can do to minimise hurting yourself.
Your back ought to feel relaxed and pain free after a night's sleep. But that may not be the case, said Dr Tan Seang Beng, orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.
Most people sleep in a curled-up position, and over the course of the night, the lumbar spine stiffens in that pose. “When you suddenly stand up, the spine that is curled up and stiff has to straighten, and that sudden movement causes pain,” he said.
The right mattress provides the right amount of comfort and support.
That’s not to say that sleep doesn’t do the spine any good. “The back muscles relax, and even the [spinal] discs plump up and hydrate overnight. As such, having a good rest is crucial to the health of the spine,” said Dr Tan.
What you can do: For back rejuvenation to happen every night, the mattress you’re sleeping on “needs to be firm in order to provide good support for the spine”, said Dr Tan. Everyone’s level of firmness is different but, like Goldilocks, it should be just right for you and your bed mate: Not too firm and certainly not too soft. For that matter, it is always a good idea to shop for a mattress together.
"The right mattress will provide the individual with the right amount of comfort and support, aiding in proper spinal alignment, and allowing your body to properly heal and rest during the night," said Michelle Ng, Simmons' marketing manager. The right choice will also "cushion your pressure points for relief" as well as play "a major role in the quality of our sleep", she said.
Firmness aside, your bed’s height is another factor to good back health. A bed that is too low puts you in a crouching or squatting position as you get up. “If you have any existing leg or back pain, or you are unable to get up from your bed comfortably, you may be putting additional strain on your body,” said Lian Guojie, principal musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Physio & Sole Clinic.
If you’re in the market for a new bed, here are some tips from Lian when shopping for one: Sit on the edge of the bed – that includes the bed frame and mattress. Your knees should be in line with or slightly lower than your hips. If your knees are above your hips, the bed is too low. If your feet cannot reach the floor comfortably, the bed is too high.
Backaches usually come about when you suddenly exert your back differently from what it is used to, said Esther Tan, principal musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Physio & Sole Clinic. For instance, carrying excessively heavy loads with one hand when grocery shopping can increase the strain on your lower back, she said.
Another common back-hurting mistake that people make is how they pick up their baby from the cot. It doesn’t help that pregnancy changes can weaken abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, making new mothers more prone to backaches, said Tan.
“Sleepless nights, increased bending and lifting, and reduced physical activity levels during pregnancy also increase the chances of developing back pain," she said.
What you can do: A simple trick is to distribute your groceries evenly between both hands, rather than load everything on one hand. You can also consider using a shopping trolley.
Hold your baby close to your body as you stand up and avoid twisting your body while lifting.
Using proper biomechanics when picking up your baby can help to minimise back injuries, said Tan. First, put the side of the cot down. Next, bend at your hips and knees, and use the strength of your legs to straighten back up.
“Hold your baby close to your body as you stand up and avoid twisting your body while lifting,” she said.
READ: Vigorous exercise, even a trek up Everest, may be safe during pregnancy
IN THE OFFICE
You’ve probably heard that sitting at your desk places tremendous strain on your back. But just how much strain is that? “The weight on the lower back constitutes about two-thirds of the body’s weight,” said Dr Tan.
For a 50kg person, the weight on the lower back would be about 30kg, said Dr Tan. But this strain can double when sitting and leaning forward, something which office workers are wont to do when working at their computer. That means the back could be holding a load of 60kg – more than the person’s weight.
According to Lian, the backache that typically comes from sitting for extended periods "is created when we place our spine in the same position or posture for extended periods".
Stretching at your desk should be done every 10 to 15 minutes.
Through movement, your spinal discs are able to soak up the spinal fluid and squeeze it out like a sponge to obtain nutrients and stay healthy, according to spine-health.com. However, the prolonged loading of the spine has been known to push the fluid out of the discs, said Lian.
What you can do: Between stretching at your desk and getting up to walk around, which is a better bet for your back? Make that trip to the pantry, said Lian, because you can get out of the sitting position, and get your spine out of that constantly compressed state.
Take frequent breaks, too, because by the time you feel discomfort or pain, your back muscles are already tired and sore – and your joints and spinal discs are probably overly stressed to the point of causing discomfort, said Dr Tan. “In general, stretching at the desk should be done every 10 to 15 minutes, and a break every hour. The length of the break can be a few minutes long but it should involve some movement such as walking.”
It is not exercising enough – not excessive exercise, as most people might think – that is typically associated with backaches. In fact, exercise helps to keep the back healthy by letting the spinal discs exchange fluids, according to spine-health.com.
Although some cases of back injuries are sustained at the gym or during sports, it’s no excuse to skip the training. As long as you follow the basic rules of proper form, gradual progression and adequate rest, there’s no reason why exercise is bad for you, said Lian.
What you can do: Contrary to what you think – or do – stretching before a workout isn’t the best for your body as a whole. “Holding your stretch for a long duration right before exercise can even be detrimental to your exercise performance, and even increase your chance of injury,” said Lian.
Instead, he recommended warming up with an aerobic activity to “prepare your heart and muscles for exercise” and dynamic stretching to “prepare your muscles for exercise”. The higher the intensity of exercise, said Lian, the more you need to warm up.
Holding your stretch for a long duration right before exercise can be detrimental to your exercise performance.
If the exercise is going to be intensive, warm up by performing movements similar to the exercise but at a lower intensity. “You should find that during the warm-up, you can talk but not sing,” he said.
Follow this up with movements that take your important muscles through the full range instead of performing a static stretch. “For example, do a slow half-squat instead of pulling your foot to your buttocks to stretch,” he said.
DURING A FLIGHT
If even sitting in the most comfortable position for prolonged periods of time is not good enough for your back, according to Tan, then it’s little wonder that flights are often cited as the most backache-inducing situations. The cramped space, restricted legroom and somewhat upright position confine your body to a fixed position for hours.
What you can do: Changing your posture often is one way to seek relief. “The best posture is the next one, the one you’re going to adopt next,” said Tan. Or you can try her stretches: Bring your knees up to your chest and hold. Or rotate your torso to stretch out your low back.
The best posture is the next one, the one you’re going to adopt next.
If your seat (or seat mates) just doesn’t allow for stretching that way, simply sitting tall in your seat every 15 to 20 minutes can also help, said Dr Tan. But for a full-body stretch and muscle activation, you just can’t beat getting up and walking around.
You may already place the provided pillow at your lower back for lumbar support but here’s a pro tip from Dr Tan: Consider using the pillow periodically instead of the entire flight. This will minimise the back from being loaded in the same position for an extended period of time.