Your spine is one of the most important parts of your body. It gives your body structure and support and helps you stand, sit and move. It’s also prone to injury: That’s why neck and back pain are so common.
“There are three ways we can hurt our spines,” says UNC Health orthopedic spine surgeon Nael Shanti, MD. “The first is repetitive overuse. For example, people use poor posture when they sit at their computers for years. The second is doing something that gets us into trouble by putting a strain on the spine—for example, twisting your back when bending to pick something up. Third is just genetics that may make us more susceptible to an injury or gradual decline.”
The good news is there are steps you can take to improve the strength of your spine to prevent and relieve painful neck and back injuries. Here are five tips to keep your spine strong and injury-free.
1. Pay attention to your posture.
If you sit at a desk for several hours a day and have poor posture, eventually you’re going to have pain in the neck, back or both.
“Slouching while sitting feels comfortable for us, but it’s actually a very poor position for your lower back and puts a lot of strain on your muscles in the back of your neck,” Dr. Shanti says.
Make sure you have your back against a firm surface.
“Try to find a chair that supports your posture. You always want your back to be upright and supported,” Dr. Shanti says. “Sometimes putting a rolled-up towel, tennis balls or socks with tennis balls (inside them) at our lower back offers support and helps prevent slouching in your seat.”
Also be mindful of not slouching when you stand.
“Push your shoulders back and slightly tuck your chin, which is the optimal posture for your neck,” Dr. Shanti says.
2. Don’t sit for long periods.
Sitting for a long time can aggravate your neck and lower back, Dr. Shanti says.
“I always advise patients not to do a lot of sitting if they can help it. A standing desk is nice if their employer gives that as an option,” Dr. Shanti says.
If you have a desk job that requires you to sit for hours each day, set an alarm to get up and stretch or walk around at least once an hour. You can also walk while on phone calls, have walking meetings if your co-workers are on board or take a walk at lunchtime.
3. Adjust your monitor.
Pay attention to how your computer monitor is positioned.
“We want things to be in neutral eye-gaze level—not looking up too much, not looking down too much,” Dr. Shanti says.
Whether you’re looking at a computer screen or phone or reading in bed, try to look straight ahead as much as possible.
“That’s a better postural position for your neck,” Dr. Shanti says.
4. Eat well, get plenty of exercise and don’t smoke.
The same general health precautions we take to stay healthy also help protect our spines.
“Being in shape, having a good diet and trying to control our weight is always helpful,” Dr. Shanti says. “The healthier we are, the less susceptible we are to spine issues.”
Healthy foods provide nutrients, vitamins and minerals to keep us strong and well. Eat a varied diet that focuses on high-quality foods such as whole grains, nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The more colorful your plate is, the better.
Aim to do moderate exercise for 150 minutes a week, which is 30 minutes a day five days a week. Examples of moderate exercise include jogging, swimming and walking at a brisk pace.
Cigarette smoking has been shown to accelerate degeneration of the spine, Dr. Shanti says—another reason to quit nicotine.
5. Strengthen your core.
A good, stable core, especially as you age, can help prevent back pain.
“As we get older, we’re more susceptible to weakness in our abdominal muscles,” Dr. Shanti says. “As the abdominal muscles weaken, your lower back tends to compensate, which can cause lower back issues.”
Strength training, either with weights or your body weight, and yoga are effective for strengthening your core. Yoga has the added benefit of including stretching, which improves flexibility.
“The more flexible we are, the less pulling and tightness we put on our muscles and less likely we are to injure ourselves,” Dr. Shanti says. “We should stay flexible as much as we can because that can help offset the stress we put on our lower backs.”
If you are experiencing spine pain, talk with your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.