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December 5, 2006 > Maintaining a Healthy Spine

Maintaining a Healthy Spine

by Washington Hospital

According to the National Institutes for Health, back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading reason for absence from work. Nearly everyone suffers from back pain at some point, in fact. Nevertheless, a lot of back pain can be prevented by maintaining a healthy spine and learning proper “body mechanics.”

“Maintaining a healthy spine is something that should begin early in life, but it’s never too late to begin caring for your back,” says neurosurgeon Dr. Desmond Erasmus, medical director of the Spine Program at Washington Hospital. “Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to exercise regularly. It doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise to make a difference. Even walking at a brisk pace for 45 minutes to an hour, three times a week can help increase your muscle strength and flexibility.”

Dr. Erasmus offers a variety of other tips for maintaining a healthy spine:

  1. Follow a healthy, nutritious diet with adequate protein for building muscles and plenty of calcium. Avoid “empty” calories that can cause weight gain and obesity, which can put a strain on your lower back.

  2. Don’t try to lift objects that are too heavy for you. When you must lift something, use proper lifting techniques, bending at the knees rather than the waist and keeping your back straight.

  3. Avoid repetitive bending and twisting, which can strain the lower back.

  4. When working at a computer or in another sedentary job, be sure to take regular breaks, getting up at least every 45 minutes to walk around and stretch for five minutes or more.

  5. Pay attention to your posture when both sitting and standing. Don’t slouch or slump.

  6. If you must stand for long periods of time while working, try to have one foot in a slightly elevated position and move around a bit while standing as much as possible.

  7. Those who work in a sitting position should have a well-designed chair with adjustable height, comfortable armrests and plenty of back support. You may want to consult a professional who can evaluate your workstation and design it so that you don’t strain your back or neck.

  8. When working on a computer, put reading materials at eye level, rather than flat on a desk.

  9. Keep well hydrated, drinking plenty of water and other fluids. The discs between the vertebrae in your spine need to be well hydrated to cushion and support your back.

“If you do strain your back, give your body time to heal itself before seeking treatments such as chiropractic adjustments,” Dr. Erasmus says. “Back strains cause a tightening of the muscles and spasms, and most minor strains will heal themselves within two to 14 days. In the meantime, avoid activities that will cause additional straining. You also can take over-the-counter medications to ease the pain and reduce inflammation. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is generally preferred because it is less harsh on the stomach than other medicines, but you also can use ibuprophen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve).”

For sudden, severe back strains, Dr. Erasmus suggests using an ice pack on the affected area.

“It doesn’t have to be an elaborate, store-bought ice pack,” he says. “Something as simple as a bag of frozen peas will work. Icing will reduce bleeding into the strained area and alleviate pain, too. Apply the ice pack for about an hour, then take it off for a while and reapply it again. Do this repeatedly for 24 to 48 hours. After 48 hours, you can graduate to applying heat to the area, such as a warm towel, a heating pad or a warm bath. We don’t usually recommend using back braces, because they can weaken your back muscles, but sometimes they might be necessary.”

If your back pain continues for more than a week, Dr. Erasmus recommends consulting a physician. “You also should see a doctor right away – either your regular physician or a doctor in an urgent care clinic or emergency room – if you experience severe back pain or weakness or numbness in an extremity,” he notes. “That might indicate that a nerve is under pressure or has been injured.”

For more information about the Spine Program at Washington Hospital, please call Health Connection at (800) 963-7070.

InHealth, A Washington Hospital Channel is currently airing “Minimally Invasive Back Surgery” on Comcast Channel 78. In this program, Dr. Erasmus and Dr. Jan Henstorf, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spine surgery at Washington Hospital, discuss the structure of the spine and various causes of back pain, as well as several advanced surgical procedures to correct spinal problems.

The InHealth program schedule is published weekly in the Tri-City Voice. You also may visit the Washington Hospital Web site at, click on “For Our Community” and then select “InHealth Channel” from the drop-down menu. Or you can call (800) 963-7070 for more information.
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