THE BLOG

You Are Sitting in the Middle of a Back Pain Epidemic

04/30/2013 04:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2013
  • Vijay Vad, M.D. Sports medicine specialist, Hospital for Special Surgery; Faculty member, Weill Cornell Medical College

"I'll sit this one out" is a perfectly good response to the 12th Lady Gaga cover at a wedding or bar mitzvah. "Can I sit in?" is a perfectly acceptable question to ask if you're a jazz musician.

In all other circumstances, sitting is going to be your undoing.

It's no secret that chronic back pain is a huge medical issue -- for individuals who suffer it, for a health care system that suffers with it, for the economy that suffers from it. Back pain is one of the most common reasons for lost days of work and lost productivity, and 30 percent of our long-term disability is from musculoskeletal system issues, out of which 50 percent are from back pain.

And chronic back pain is a very democratic health issue, affecting men and women, athletes and couch potatoes, laborers and CEOs, rural and urban dwellers, those who do the heavy lifting, and those who manage the heavy lifters.

We used to say that hard labor was back-breaking work. Well, it turns out that it's not farming or construction today that's back-breaking work -- it's sitting that's the real back-breaker.

Excessive sitting is the very worst thing you can do to keep your back from being healthy and strong. Chances are that if you've suffered some episode of back pain or endure chronic back pain, it may seem reasonable to "give your back a break" by decreasing physical activity and movement.

But that's exactly the wrong approach! Sitting doesn't take pressure off of your back; in fact, it maximizes pressures on the discs that are the shock absorbers in your spine and minimizes nutrition to the disc. So, prolonged sitting, like at a computer, puts a kind of chokehold on the disc, cutting off the blood supply it needs. This combination of pressure and the concurrent decrease in blood and the nutrients it carries to the discs increases the back's risk of injury.

But there are steps that you can take to reduce back pain in both the immediate moment and for the future.

1. Exercise:

If your day is all about sitting and working at a desk -- especially at a computer -- the greatest gift you can give your back is to stand up every 30 minutes. Set a timer if you can. And if you can take a short walk -- to the water cooler, to the window, to the next office -- that's even better. But you must take pressure off of your back on a regular basis.

Exercise therapy has been shown to have tremendous positive impact on back pain (including Back Rx, which is a program I designed and researched). So do your best to exercise most days of the week.

And finally, walk! If you cannot walk then do the stationary bicycle. Walk anywhere you can for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. You don't need special shoes. Just walk more steps every day. Your back will thank you, over and over again. Walking is one of the best ways to bring nutrition into the discs and keep them healthy. Walking 30 minutes a day does help keep the doctor away.

2. Ergonomics:

Having the correct ergonomic chair is vitally important. Good chairs have come down in price and will save your company sick leave pay in the long run. Make sure your computer set up is done correctly. A good chair is also not a substitute for getting up every 30 minutes to unload the spine.

3. Supplements:

I strongly recommend to my patients with back problems that they take 2,000 mg of mercury-free fish oil since it has natural anti-inflammatory properties for reducing back pain. I also recommend taking 1,000 units of vitamin D daily. Vitamin D deficiency is a big public health epidemic. There is ample clinical evidence that vitamin D helps with back pain and also depression. Plus, vitamin D has inherent anti-inflammatory properties for reducing pain.

Topical cream. Essential fatty acids are anti-inflammatories that penetrate easily via the skin, helping with pain relief. I have found cetylmyristoleate -- which is a form of essential fatty acid also known as CMO cream -- to be very helpful in reducing back pain.

4. Modalities:

Modalities such as heat and cold have been shown to help with back pain. Eight-hour heat patches have been shown to reduce back pain. Similarly, icing the back for 15 minutes after activities has been shown to reduce back pain.

5. Power of Positive Thinking:

Back pain is the ideal example of a mind-body problem. Stress can have a very negative impact on your back health, but doing simple things such as deep breathing during daily walks or keeping a positive outlook will go a long way in reducing back pain.

These powerful self-help back pain tools can empower you to reduce back pain and become active while decreasing your dependency on narcotic medications and the medical system. The result: You will live better in your body!

For more by Vijay Vad, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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