Timely care can relieve backache, a major cause of disability, globally.

According to a study carried out by medical experts, the leading cause of disability globally is back pain, which is worse than depression. Ignoring a painful back may lead to permanent disability. “A common mistake that people make is to ignore the early symptoms. If back pain is treated at the earliest, it can be cured, but not if it remains untreated for long,” says Dr. Mahesh Maheshwari, a senior orthopaedic surgeon in Mumbai.

Commenting on the scenario in India, Dr. Anurag Awasthi, orthopaedic and joint replacement surgeon, New Delhi, says, “Low back pain is a leading cause of disability in the urban population. It comprises approximately 30 per cent of our patient visits. Most patients belong to the 25-35 year age group. There is another subset of patients in the 50-70 year age group accounting for 5 per cent of out-patient visits. On an average, more than 60 per cent of working young adults would have suffered from low back pain in a year.”

The most common problems witnessed are mechanical back pain, caused by wrong posture. The other problem is discogenic low back pain, which is a spinal disc-related problem. These patients mostly suffer from muscle fatigue with a background of vitamin D deficiency. “Low back pain in the elderly population aged more than 50, is due to degenerative changes and spinal arthritis,” says Dr. Awasthi.

The most frequent complaint is difficulty in bending forward, pain at rest, marked stiffness limiting daily activities, or fatigue after prolonged sitting. But recent research also shows that surprisingly few cases of back pain are a result of serious accident or injury — the vast majority are caused by the cumulative effects of our lifestyle that we tend to ignore. “People will often come to me in pain and say, ‘I just bent down to lift something heavy and my back started aching’. But it’s actually their simple daily habits, the predisposing factor with time, that has aggravated the problem and has led to the weakness,” says Dr. Maheshwari.

Here are a few habits to watch out for.

Workaholic

Sitting and standing put considerable pressure on the lower back. Standing exerts more pressure than lying down or sitting, and is even more strenuous. In fact, researchers believe that a poor sitting posture is a major contributor to lower back pain. Poor standing and lying posture aren’t good for your back either. “In cities, the urban population spends long hours just commuting to and from work. This aggravates lower back pain and can even be the cause of it,” says Dr. Maheshwari.

Sitting in an office chair for long hours in a static posture increases stress on the back, shoulders, arms and legs, and, in particular, can put considerable pressure on the back muscles and spinal discs. Most people slouch in the office chair and incorrect sitting posture, over time, damages the spinal structure or worsens back pain. Get up from your seat and walk up and down for a few minutes, at least once an hour, to improve your posture. Aim for a neutral spine position, in which everything is in line, with no strain spots. Your shoulders should be relaxed, feet firmly on the floor and eyes in line with the middle of your screen. “Repetitive stress in the form of poor posture while sitting affects muscle tone and causes discomfort. Proper office ergonomics is also important, as this will lead to less loss of workforce,” says Dr. Awasthi.

Fashion freaks

Many women love high heels, as they make you feel professional and fashionable. But what they don’t realise is the detrimental effect the footwear has on the rest of their body. Since the lower part has to bend forward, and to compensate for that, the upper body has to lean backwards, the posture is affected. Since your foot is in a downward position, your flexor muscles have to work harder to push the ground for you to move forward. High heels make your feet move in an outward position. “This results in a huge amount of stress and strain, and ultimately pain in the lower back, as it puts the knees, waist and spine in an unusual position,” says Dr. Maheshwari. Make sure your footwear holds your feet firmly in place. Avoid wearing high heels for a long period of time, alternate between mids and flats.

What? Smoking too?

Too much smoking makes your body weak, and one of the chief effects is it contributes to back pain and spine problems. The nicotine in cigarettes restricts blood flow to the discs that cushion your vertebrae and increases the rate of degenerative change. Smoking also reduces calcium absorption and prevents new bone growth, leaving you at risk of developing osteoporosis. The hormones and chemicals that help the body deal with pain are inhibited by smoking — another reason to quit.

Big bag blues

Your back hurts because of your oversized handbag, computer bag, and overstuffed wallet in your pocket. Putting extra weight on one side of your body for an extended period of time causes your spine to curve, and this leads to back pain. It usually starts with neck stiffness, aching shoulder blades on the side you carry the bag, and upper back pain. A heavy wallet hurts the lower back by messing up your balance and stride. The extra weight affects posture and can cause intense pain, especially when carried for long.

“Anything heavier or more than 10 per cent of your body weight for more than half an hour alters posture. If one strapping is the only option, swap sides frequently or use the strap diagonally across your body to balance the weight,” suggests Dr. Awasthi. Whenever possible, use two straps to evenly distribute the weight across the back as it is the neck, not the back which is the weak point for carrying loads. In the case of school children, a heavy bag loaded with books is linked to a higher level of back pain and injury.

Being overweight

Extra weight puts added pressure on the spine, and the risk of causing pain and injury to the spine is even greater. The pressure may increase your risk of getting a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease and back strain. Being overweight also contributes to the development of osteoarthritis in the spine. “A pot belly puts an extra load on the spine. A healthy weight can help you counter the effects of an exaggerated low back curve,” says Dr. Maheshwari. Encourage your children to be active and maintain appropriate body weight for their age to avoid problems later in life, as being overweight affects children’s joints as well.

Pointers to avoid back pain

- Do not ignore early symptoms of back pain, such as discomfort, stiffness in the back.

- Look after your posture.

- Exercise daily.

- Eat a healthy diet.

- Spend at least 20 minutes in the sunlight daily.

- Relieve your stress. The tension created by emotional stress can give you backache.