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7 Everyday Ways to Prevent Back Pain

Making small tweaks to the way you sit, sleep and use your phone can make a difference.

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Low back pain is a common complaint in the United States. It is the one of the most common reasons people visit the doctor. This can partly be attributed to accidents like slipping on ice or falling during a run. But sprains and strains are often the result of lifestyle habits that don’t do your back any favors. Bending down to lift heavy boxes, leaning over to pick up your kids or constantly looking down at your phone can all put unnecessary pressure on your spine.

Frank Pileggi, PhD, a physiologist specializing in corrective muscle therapy at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Burlington, New Jersey, refers to back pain as “the old domino effect.” In other words, one thing often leads to another.

If you have back pain, it can affect your posture or quality of sleep if you can’t get into a comfortable position. Thankfully, though, there are a number of ways to improve your habits to help prevent back pain.

Medically reviewed in September 2020. Updated in January 2021.

Adjust your seat

2 / 8 Adjust your seat

The way you sit—whether it’s in a car, at work or on a plane—plays a role in the way your back feels.

At work: Hunching over your computer for hours at a time can put undue stress on your spine. When sitting on your desk chair, keep your elbows close to the body and your feet flat and fully supported on the floor or a footrest. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor. If your desk chair doesn’t support the natural curve of your lower back, use a pillow for lumbar support. And move your monitor so that it’s eye level to avoid putting your neck in an unnatural position. If you need to sit for a long time, periodically get up and walk around to relieve muscle tension.

While driving: Adjust the seat so that it is as close to the steering wheel as possible while still feeling comfortable. Consider a back support to minimize low back strain. Your knees should be slightly higher than your hips.

In the air: Traveling by plane? For optimal spinal alignment, place a pillow behind your back just above your beltline and another pillow across the gap between your neck and headrest. Keep your feet slightly elevated by resting your feet on top of your small tote or luggage.

Get up every half hour

3 / 8 Get up every half hour

Stretching your back throughout the day can help prevent strain. At home, try easy moves like lying on your back and pulling one knee into your chest. Hold the stretch for five to 10 seconds, then switch knees. Repeat five times on each side. If you prefer a more structured setting to release back tension, try a yoga class.

At work, it’s also important to give your back a break and to stretch and move your joints throughout the day. Experts recommend getting up every 30 minutes for maximal health benefits.

Avoid sleeping on your stomach

4 / 8 Avoid sleeping on your stomach

We spend up to one third of our lives asleep. It should come as no surprise that the way you sleep impacts the way your back feels when you wake up. These common positions can help—or hurt—your back.

Sleeping on your back: Many experts advise that this is the optimal anatomical position because gravity keeps your spine and body centered. Place a pillow under your knees to take pressure off of your spine. You might also try a small, rolled towel under your lower back for more support. Be sure to support your neck with a pillow.

Sleeping on your side: When you sleep on your side, try keeping a pillow between your bent knees.

Sleeping on your stomach: Sleeping on your stomach places unnatural pressure on your neck and compresses your spine. It may even cause pain in the hips, lower back and middle back, Pileggi notes. Avoid this position as much as possible. If you do sleep this way, reduce the strain on your back by placing a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen. Use a head pillow that doesn't place strain on your back or sleep without a pillow.

What you sleep on can also have an impact on the way your back feels. While there is no research proving that one type of mattress is better than another, listen to your body. If you wake up with recurring back pain, it may be a sign that you need to replace your mattress. Usually, more support is better for people with back issues.

Maintain a healthy posture

5 / 8 Maintain a healthy posture

Did your mother tell you not to slouch when you were a kid? Turns out she was right. If you disrupt the natural curvature of your spine by slinking down or slouching, you put added stress on the muscles and ligaments in your back that work to keep you balanced.

Maintaining good posture while walking or standing might seem insignificant, but it can help you in the long run. When standing, keep your feet shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in your knees. Your body weight should be mostly on the balls of your feet. Press your shoulders back and stand as straight as possible. Pull in your abs; your core muscles can help you maintain good posture whether standing or in motion.

Try the wall test

6 / 8 Try the wall test

There’s an easy way to check your posture. Stand against a wall with your heels about 2 to 4 inches away and your head, shoulders and rear touching the wall. Place your hand behind the small of your back with your palm against the wall. Feel for the space between the arch of your back and the wall; it should be about the thickness of your hand. If there’s a wider gap, you might need to work on engaging your core to straighten your back a bit. If there's not much of a gap, gently arch your back to lend a little space.

When you walk away from the wall, try to maintain this corrected posture with your neck and head centered over your spine.

Work out safely

7 / 8 Work out safely

 

Preventing back injury during exercise comes down to proper form. Whether you’re on the treadmill, elliptical or in a class, be sure to maintain the correct posture for that workout. For example, you shouldn’t hunch over or lean on the elliptical. If you’re unsure of the proper form, consult a trainer for help.

If you’re using weights, lift them properly off the rack. Keep your back and spine straight and bend at the knees. Hold the equipment close to your body and lift with your leg muscles as you stand up. Never lift a weight that’s too heavy. It’s important to use proper form when strength training. Working out with dumbbells that are too heavy, for example, can throw you off balance or cause you to arch your back, which may lead to strains and other problems.

Keep your phone at eye level

8 / 8 Keep your phone at eye level

The average American adult spends nearly three hours on their phone each day, according to comScore media. Constantly hunching over to send text messages and check your social feeds could strain your neck, cause pain and eventually take a toll on your lower back.

When using your phone, try to avoid looking straight down at it. This posture causes your chin to tuck in, your neck to bend forward and your shoulders to become rounded. Instead, raise your phone so that it’s at eye level and keep your chin slightly raised so that you’re reading without leaning forward. It may take a little getting used to, says Pileggi, but using your phone in this way may help prevent discomfort and injury to the lower and upper back and the neck down the road.

Sources:

Mayo Clinic. “Back Pain." Published August 21, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. "Back pain at work: Preventing pain and injury." Published May 22, 2019.
American Chiropractic Association. "Preventing Travel Aches and Strains."
Daniel K. Park, MD. "Preventing Back Pain at Work and at Home." American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Published February 2017.
Cleveland Clinic. Health Essentials. "Back, Side or Stomach: Which Sleep Position Is Best for You?" Published June 15, 2016.
Eric Suni. "How to Sleep With Lower Back Pain." Sleep Foundation. Published October 2, 2020.
Cleveland Clinic. Health Essentials. "Is Your Smartphone Causing Your Neck Pain? Published October 19, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. "Good Posture Tips." Published January 22, 2016.

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