Sitting on a sofa. Using a laptop. Putting your back out is scarily easy
00:29 GMT, 7 August 2012
Millions of us hunch over our desks every day and move far less than we should, leading to back, neck and shoulder pain.
But there are many other everyday movements we don’t give a second thought to that can wreak havoc on these areas over time.
‘The body is like a car — it doesn’t just suddenly break down,’ says Adam Dallison, a private osteopath from Surrey.
Many modern sofas are too low and too deep. Recliners are more comfortable – and are likely to be better for the back
‘With a car, things niggle for a while beforehand and become fragile.
'The human body is exactly the same. It’s the innocuous, repetitive actions that can tip you over the edge into developing injuries.’
Here, the experts reveal the common culprits — and how to minimise their effects on your body.
COOKING A ROAST
One of the most common mistakes we make is thinking of our backs only when we lift something heavy, says Mr Dallison.
‘You’re actually more likely to injure it getting a roast out of the oven or picking something off the floor.’
We should always bend our knees when we pick something up, regardless of its weight, he says.
‘Even something simple such as opening a sash window can cause damage because you’re usually leaning over something and the back is forced into an unnatural position.’
Tim Allardyce, of the British Osteopathic Association, says lifting while twisting can also increase pressure on the spine’s discs, and as a result they degenerate over time.
A classic lift-and-twist injury is getting luggage out of the boot.
Mr Allardyce says: ‘If you’re lifting something, keep straight on, do not twist, and keep the load as close to your body as you can to reduce pressure on the spine.’
DRIVING WITH CHILDREN
Long car journeys with children aren’t just a test of your endurance — leaning back to talk to them can play havoc with your neck muscles, too, putting strain on one side, says Mr Dallison.
Reaching for things on the back seat can also strain the rotator-cuff muscles in the shoulder.
Sammy Margo, of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, says another car‑related problem is that many seats are bowl-shaped and slope back, which causes us to slump.
‘Slumping exerts the maximum amount of pressure on the discs,’ she says.
‘It also stretches the muscles, nerves and ligaments in the back, causing pain.’
She suggests using the headrest while driving to ensure good posture.
Mr Allardyce adds that you should sit straight with your bottom pushed back in the seat.
He also suggests a McKenzie back support, a cushion that nestles into the lower back, encouraging you to sit with your lower spine curved inwards. It can be attached to chairs or car seats.
If you’re prone to a bad back on long journeys, stop and stretch your legs every hour or so, he adds.
‘This will take pressure off the back, which is pushed into an unnatural position for too long.’
'It's the innocuous, repetitive actions that can tip you over the edge into developing injuries,' says Adam Dallison, a private osteopath
Smokers, especially younger ones, are 31 per cent more likely to suffer lower back pain than people who have never smoked, according to Finnish research in the American Journal of Medicine.
Smoking impairs circulation, so less blood may reach the spine and nourish the discs and joints.
Chemicals in cigarettes also reduce bone density, which can lead to osteoporosis, which often affects the spine.
Other Finnish research has found that smoking accelerates the degeneration of discs.
SITTING ON A COMFY SOFA
Many modern sofas are too low and too deep, says Ms Margo.
‘Your spine ends up in a C-shape, with the discs, muscles and ligaments of the lower back stretched. Use extra cushions so you’re not sitting so far back.’
Recliners are more comfortable — and are likely to be better for the back, she adds.
Pay attention, too, to how many pillows you have in bed, says Mr Allardyce.
Sleeping in the wrong position can be as damaging as walking with a slouch.
Too many pillows tilt your head forwards and too few tilt it back, both of which put strain on the neck and upper spine.
The support you need depends on your sleep position, your weight and the density of the mattress. Ensure your neck and spine are in a straight line.
Generally, if you sleep on your side you need two pillows, and if you’re on your back you need one, says Mr Allardyce.
‘For those with broad shoulders, use thicker pillows and, most importantly, make sure it feels comfortable for you.’
Ms Margo says you should avoid lying on your front as your head is turned, causing an asymmetrical strain on the neck.
‘A large proportion of people with neck problems are front sleepers,’ she says.
‘I wish I could get the world to sleep on its back, which is the best position.’
IGNORING YOUR MUFFIN TOP
Excess fat around the middle means your back isn’t getting enough support from your abdominal muscles, says Ms Margo.
‘The abdominal muscles are supposed to support the lower back and give it stability. But an overhanging belly will pull the back into an arched position.’
‘Another problem is that with empire-line tops and dresses being so fashionable, we can simply cover up the muffin top rather than deal with it.’
She says for a flatter stomach don’t bother with sit-ups: try running, cycling and swimming, which are thought to burn fat here more effectively.
USING A LAPTOP
Using a laptop’s touchpad rather than a mouse is bad news for your neck and shoulders, says Mr Allardyce.
‘With the touchpad you have to move your hands inwards and across your body to use it, which makes your shoulders and neck very tight. With a mouse, your arms are in the correct position.’
Using a laptop's touchpad rather than a mouse is bad news for your neck and shoulders
Mobile phones are a problem too, says Ms Margo. They are getting smaller and we’re craning our necks to see the screens.
For calls you should invest in a headset.
If not, Ms Margo says: ‘The side where you hold the phone will have compressed nerves, while the muscles and discs on the other side will be stretched.’
If you have underlying back pain or stiffness, you could be causing further problems when you bend over the sink to brush your teeth or bend to put on shoes, says Mr Allardyce.
Repetitive forward bending weakens the back of the discs, so they are more likely to bulge, which can lead to a disc prolapse.
‘This applies to many household tasks such as picking things off the floor, loading the dishwasher, gardening and vacuuming,’ he adds.
‘To counteract this, lie on your front and read a book for five to ten minutes, leaning on your forearms.
'It’s a great way to extend the spine but it might feel uncomfortable at first because the back isn’t used to that position.
‘If you get any pain while lying on your front, you should consult your doctor or osteopath.
‘And when brushing your teeth, bend the knees slightly to keep the spine straight.’