Stretch Yourself! (And Stave Off Low Back Pain)

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Here’s a little multiple choice quiz for you. A chair:
A. Is a stable raised surface to sit on, typically supported by four legs.
B. Was considered a symbol of privilege and dignity in ancient Egypt.
C. Can be a major contributor to low back pain.
D. All of the above.

If you answered “All of the above,” you are correct! If your back is aching, you might not think of your chair as the culprit. But sitting in one for more than an hour at a time without stretching or taking a break can contribute to lower back pain.

As an osteopathic physician, I find that nearly 20% of my patient visits are focused on helping patients with lower back pain. The national statistics are equally dramatic: About 80 percent of people have at least one episode of low back pain during their lifetime. More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 experience frequent or recurring back pain, and lower back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45.

But here’s the good news: Remaining active by engaging in low impact activities that don’t worsen your symptoms (such as walking or gentle yoga), and engaging in a consistent stretching/strengthening program can reduce pain and prevent future occurrences of pain.

A simple daily (yes, daily!) program that stretches and strengthens your core and trains your posture can go a long way toward decreasing pain and restoring function. Here’s why: When you sit in a chair for prolonged periods, your leg and hip muscles (specifically the hip flexors and hamstrings) often become tight while your core abdominal muscles become weak. This type of imbalance is frequently at the root of low back pain. (After all, you need a flexible and healthy core to support your lower back and tightness in the legs can lead to structural misalignments and muscular tension up the chain that affect your lower back.) Since we introduce strain daily, it’s vital to stretch and strengthen daily. A consistent routine is the most effective way to prevent tension from building up.

I recommend 15 to 45 minutes of stretches and exercises per day. But if that sounds like too much to begin with, try incorporating five-minute stretch breaks throughout your day. Set a timer to remind yourself to get up every hour and stretch. You can’t throw out your chair, but you can learn to work with it–by having the awareness to get up, stretch, and pay attention to how you feel throughout the day, you can learn to respond in ways that stave off pain and suffering for good.

Here are four stretches you can do at your desk throughout your day:

Side Stretch
Hip Flexor Stretch
Hamstring Stretch
Low Back Lengthener

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.