Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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Four out of five adults suffer from back pain at some stage in their lives. As we get older, the simple 'wear and tear' of time on the body can make it more frequent and severe. SUSAN DALY has some ideas on the best ways to manage a bad back - or to prevent getting one altogether.

HOW ironic that calling someone spineless, or telling them they lack backbone, is considered an insult. A sufferer of chronic back pain might consider that absence – however physiologically impossible - a blessed relief. Standing, sitting, lying down: when your back is playing up, there is no respite.
No wonder then that back pain is the second most-frequently reported reason for visiting the GP surgery, after the common cold. It is one of the most difficult ailments to treat, affected as it is by so many factors, from posture and lifestyle to osteoporosis and old injuries. As the American actor George Burns once put it: “Love is a lot like backache. It doesn’t show up on X-rays, but you know it’s there.”
Obviously some back pain has its source in a severe, diagnosable condition. Any persistent pain should be reported to the doctor who might be able to confirm if an issue such as degenerative disc disease – common as we age – osteoporosis, stenosis or another syndrome is at the root of the problem.
Our sedentary lifestyle is frequently blamed for the occurrence of back problems. Frances Moran is physiotherapist to the senior Leinster rugby team and runs spine fitness and Pilates classes from her Dublin premises. She says that only around 20 per cent of backpain cases that present to her are the direct result of an injury.
“You will have the odd person saying they were lifting something heavy and put their back out,” says Moran. “But the majority of people coming in have developed a vague onset of pain from bad habits, from sitting, driving, chronic posture, playing golf, repetitive movements. The use of computers is now a huge factor because people are sitting at desks for longer, perhaps carrying a bit more weight and experiencing chronic tightness in their back and neck.”
Getting exercise is the most obvious and least expensive solution in this scenario, according to Moran. Here, though, is the catch-22: When that niggling ache sets into the lower back region, it is tempting to put off being active for another evening. Unfortunately, unexercised muscles are weaker muscles and the spinal column loses support.
“There is a huge fear associated with exercising, that it might aggravate backache,” says Moran, “But the opposite is true. With lack of use, certain muscles will spasm and tighten and others weaken, putting uneven pressure on discs.”
So following the school of ‘use it or lose it’, it’s worth looking into the Alexander technique of posture or signing up to a course of Pilates and yoga. These forms of exercise are ideal for stretching and realigning the spine. They develop the ‘core’muscles around the stomach and lower back, providing an invisible band of support for the area.
Swimming, walking and – would you believe it – cycling have also been shown to increase back strength. Specific exercises to target the area are important, if you can make room for a few every morning or evening. Most can be carried out without any equipment but incorporating a blow-up Swiss ball can help you get the best out of some of the movements (see ‘Useful websites’ below this article for specific instructions on these exercises). Fitness and sports stores sell Swiss balls – and Argos has some for under a tenner.
Prevention is always better than cure. However, there are alternative treatment options for back pain sufferers. Some people swear by acupuncture, the ancient Chinese method of realigning the ‘chi’ or energy flow in the body. In addition to physiotherapists, chiropractors also claim to be able to help relieve back pain by the manipulation of the spine. Unlike many western countries, there is no chiropractic legislation in Ireland but the website for the Chiropractic Association of Ireland, which self-regulates its members is perhaps a good starting point.
For the lucky ones who have yet to experience the twinge of backache, remember – sit up straight, stretch and stay active!
USEFUL WEBSITE: - Simple exercises that strengthen the back. – Physiotherapist Frances Moran runs specially-targeted Pilates and ‘strong spine’ classes from a studio in Dublin’s Baggot Street – Respected Irish company specialising in spinal-aid products for the past 25 years. - A free, ready to download, booklet on all aspects of back care from the Health Promotion Unit. – The Chiropractic Association of Ireland’s official website.

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