7 Ways You're Hurting Your Back Without Knowing It

Even thumbing through your social media feed could be making it worse.

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Low back pain is a common disorder in the US; approximately 80 percent of Americans experience low back pain at least once in their lifetime. This can partly be attributed to accidents like slipping on ice or falling during a run. But often sprains and strains are the result of lifestyle habits that don’t do your back any favors. Bending down to lift a heavy box, leaning over to pick up your kids or constantly looking down to thumb through the social feed on 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,” where one thing 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. Here are ways to give your lifestyle habits a makeover to prevent back pain in every area of your life.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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. Here are some easy ways to prevent back pain no matter where you are.

At your 9 to 5: Hunching over your monitor 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 fully supported flat on the floor or on a footrest. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Most desk chairs don’t support the natural curve of your lower back, so 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.

In the sky: 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.

While driving: Adjust the seat so that it supports your back—avoid slumping over the wheel. Pileggi suggests keeping your knees level and parallel to take the pressure off your lower back muscles. Consider placing a pillow behind the curve in your lower back to support those muscles.

Get up every half hour

3 / 8 Get up every half hour

Stretching your back throughout the day can help prevent back-related strains. At home, try easy moves like laying on your back and pulling one knee into your chest. Hold the stretch for five to 10 seconds. Alternate knees; repeat five times on each side. If you prefer a group setting to release back tension, try a yoga class.

At work, it’s also important to give your back a break and stretch and move your joints throughout the day. Researchers suggest 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. Dr. Pileggi says this is the optimal anatomical position for sleep because gravity keeps your spine and body centered. Place a pillow under your knees to take the pressure off of your spine.

Sleeping on your side. When you sleep on your side, eventually gravity takes over. “I tell everyone to hug a pillow if you sleep on your side,” says Pileggi. “That will prevent gravity from having you roll forward onto your stomach, which can really hurt the lower back,” he adds. Keeping a pillow in between your bent knees can also help.

Sleeping on your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach places unnatural pressure on your neck and compresses your spine. “It will actually cause a lot of pain, especially in the hips, lower back and mid back,” he adds. Avoid sleeping on your stomach as much as possible.

Besides how you sleep, what you sleep on can have a major impact on the way your back feels in the a.m. While there is no evidence 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.

Maintain a healthy posture

5 / 8 Maintain a healthy posture

Remember your mother saying “don’t slouch” when you were a kid? Turns out she was on the right track. 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 the correct posture while walking or standing might seem insignificant, but it can actually help you in the long run. When standing, keep your feet shoulder width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Your body weight should mostly be 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 two to four inches away. Reach behind your back and feel for about one hand’s thickness of space between the arch of your back and the wall. If there’s too much of a gap you might need to work on tightening and engaging your core. When you walk away from the wall, you ideally want to keep your corrected posture by keeping your abs pulled in and 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 at the gym, always be sure to maintain the correct form for that specific workout. For example, you shouldn’t hunch over or lean on the elliptical during your cardio session. If you’re unsure of the proper form, consider asking a trainer or other staff member at the gym for help.

If you’re working out with weights, be sure to 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. And never lift a weight or other equipment that’s too heavy. It’s also important to use proper form when strength training. Working out with dumbbells that are too heavy can throw you off balance or cause you to arch your back, which may lead to strains and other back problems.

Keep your phone at eye level

8 / 8 Keep your phone at eye level

The average American adult spends about two hours and 51 minutes on their phone each day, according to comScore media. Constantly hunching over to text, check email, play games and more could strain your neck, cause pain and eventually take a toll on your lower back.

Pileggi urges cell phone users to avoid looking straight down, especially while using their phones. Instead, “raise your phone so that it’s at eye level,” he says. When you look down, you’re prone to keeping your chin tucked in and your neck bent down. People also have a tendency to round their shoulders. Instead, keep your chin slightly raised so that you’re reading without leaning forward. “It's a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it prevents that discomfort in the lower and upper back and the neck region,” says Pileggi.

Given the amount of time we spend using technology—and assuming that it’s only likely to increase—these are good habits to adapt now, before long-term damage is done.

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