Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist
If you hate your boss, fight a lot with your spouse, or commute for hours, consider yourself a current or soon-to-be member of the bad back club. While improperly lifting heavy objects and repetitive bending are sure ways to irritate your spine, it’s stress at home and work that’ll push you over the edge when it comes to back pain and injury.
The stress hormone cortisol, explains Dr. Michael Bracko, an exercise physiologist and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, can cause muscle dysfunction and painful spasms. When stress is combined with lack of exercise and other physical factors, you’ve created the perfect storm for back pain and injury.
Your best bet, says Bracko, is to minimize the effects of stress. While exercise in general, and strengthening your core in particular, is the best medicine, learning stress-busting techniques such as meditation, developing a healthy hobby, spending time with friends and listening to calming music can also help you manage the stress.
Get your resume ready. Job dissatisfaction can be a huge contributor to back pain. If at all possible, work with your organization to find ways that you can stay happy in your current position and not let job stress get to the point where it affects your health. If you need to stick with an overly stressful job, make sure you stop, get up, and stretch to take care of your back and enjoy a mental and physical breather. If you might want to move on, start the wheels in motion today – the initial steps of a job search can be inspiring and lighten your stress load.
Chill out. Emotional instability caused by stress at home will do a number on more than just your heart – it will tax your body as well. A bad marriage or problems with kids can send your stress level skyrocketing. Find healthy ways to cope and try to take the little sources of drama off your plate. Can’t you delegate a couple of those tasks at the office? Do you really need to make homemade Halloween costumes for your kids? Less is more when it comes to staying emotionally balanced.
Don’t go to bed angry. When you don’t sleep well, your body doesn’t have the chance to recover and repair itself from each day’s efforts. By adding fatigue to the burden of unresolved issues, you will most likely experience more dissatisfaction, more stress, and more angst – emotions that you will take straight to your back. Plus, when you’re fatigued from a restless night, you are less likely to hold yourself in proper posture or be active. Being sedentary and slouching will only increase your chances for back pain and, unfortunately, another poor night’s sleep.
Just say no. Though Happy Hour is known as the ultimate de-stressing event, drinking is not the best way to find total relief. If you depend on drugs and alcohol for relaxation, you won’t sleep properly and will wake up fatigued and unprepared to tackle a new day. Plus, if you grab for the wine bottle every night, you’ll be adding empty calories, which often leads to weight gain. Poor sleep and a couple extra pounds can leave your back begging for mercy. Plus, your body will spend more time trying to recover from that second beer than it will rejuvenating tired muscles.
Beware of bad vibrations. Though we’ve come a long way since the Model T, driving is still a bumpy proposition. Those who drive for a living are all too familiar with the pains of life on the road. Outside stressors such as heavy traffic, other drivers, and crazed kids only add to the risk of herniated discs, sciatica, and general muscle pain. To help ease the burden on your back, use an ergonomic driver’s seat and lumbar support. Also, take breaks every 90-120 minutes to lubricate your spinal discs with exercises that stretch the muscles, including shoulder circles for upper back, slow gentle side bends, and cat/cow poses.
“There’s strong evidence that psychological stress can lead to back pain or back injuries, so we need to manage the bad effects of stress,” emphasizes Bracko. “Exercise is medicine and a great way to reduce negative effects of stress.” Staying active isn’t just for weight loss anymore, it might just help alleviate stress-induced back pain, too.