What lies behind back pain

The role of correct breathing is underestimated in back pain but it is very important, and easy to do


About 80% of us are likely to suffer at least one episode of severe back pain in our lifetimes owing to our sedentary lifestyles. Photo: iStockphoto
About 80% of us are likely to suffer at least one episode of severe back pain in our lifetimes owing to our sedentary lifestyles. Photo: iStockphoto

Lower back pain is prevalent today not only among the elderly but also among those in their early teens. About 80% of us are likely to suffer at least one episode of severe back pain in our lifetimes, the result of a sedentary lifestyle in which smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers have become an integral part of our lives. 

Contrary to popular belief, the most common cause of back pain is not the disc. 

When you enter a doctor’s consultation room, there is a good chance you will see a human skeleton there. You will explain your problems but most of my colleagues will limit the conversation to bones and discs. With the best of intentions, they will use terms that you will check later on Google, which will throw content from all kinds of sources, most of it not credible, at you.

The point is that your muscles, along with ligaments and tendons, help your skeleton to stay upright and move. Any movement is initiated by a signal from the brain that travels down your nerves to the muscles. Daniel Wolpert, a Cambridge University neuroscientist, says all of us have a brain for just one reason, and that is to produce adaptable and complex movements. Then, however, we sat down, because our parents, teachers, partners, employers, et al told us to.

So we end up leading lifestyles that are unnaturally inactive for human beings.

This leads to the commonest cause of back pain—bad posture, courtesy gross muscle imbalance. Sooner rather than later, this leads to disease, dysfunction and distress.

The good news is that most people just need a commonsensical approach to get better. People with desk jobs can start by being more physically active, adopting better eating habits and hobbies, doing strength training—not just at the gym but even at work.

Bed rest has been advised as a treatment of choice for back pain for centuries, but it is just the wrong thing to do. The trick is to be up and about. That doesn’t mean you strain yourself excessively even when there is pain, but you need to keep moving. Basically, we need to move—in other words, get back to what actually came naturally to us. Specific exercises can follow later.

The role of correct breathing is underestimated in back pain but it is very important, and easy to do. We have forgotten how to breathe properly. Both the lungs are encased in a ribcage. These ribs are attached to the spine in the upper and middle back. If you don’t breathe properly, your ribs will be limited in their movement. This will lead to restricted lung expansion, suboptimal breathing, and stiffness in the upper and lower back.

At the end of the day, then, we need to start by respecting ourselves; the rest will fall into place. Get moving today.

Rajat Chauhan is the founder of the Back 2 Fitness chain of clinics and La Ultra-The High, a 333km ultra marathon in Ladakh, and is the author of The Pain Handbook: A Non-Surgical Way To Managing Back, Neck And Knee Pain.

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