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3 Ways to Keep Your Back Healthy and Steer Clear of the Spine Surgeon

Whether you’ve woken up with a stiff back, felt sore after a day of yard work or tweaked your back unloading the dishwasher, you’ve probably had back pain at some point. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 39% of adults experienced back pain in the three months before they were surveyed. 

But you can take steps to keep your back strong and healthy and potentially avoid ever needing spine surgery. “I look at spine health similar to how I view heart health,” said Andrew Chung, DO, a spine surgeon at Banner Health in Arizona. “It takes daily commitment. It doesn’t happen overnight or with temporary efforts.”

Dr. Chung asks his patients how they would change their lifestyles if they had a heart attack. “You would probably eat healthily, exercise regularly and avoid smoking and other risky behaviors for the rest of your life. It’s the same idea when it comes to spine health. Think of your first episode of back pain as a ‘back attack.’ Ask yourself, ‘Do you want to keep living in pain?’ If not, it’s time to get to work.”

He recommends these three key principles for keeping your spine healthy, limber and feeling good.

1. Exercise and strengthen your core every day

Regular physical activity and a daily core-exercise routine are crucial to keeping your spine healthy. “Both have been shown to reduce back pain,” Dr. Chung said. Daily walking can help. If you’re not exercising, Dr. Chung recommends starting by walking five to 10 minutes a day and slowly increasing the time you spend walking. 

If you’re experiencing back pain, you might want to work with a physical therapist to develop a daily core-strengthening routine. “It's important to let your body be your guide and steer clear of activities that aggravate your pain,” Dr. Chung said. He notes that yoga has also been shown to be helpful and is another option.

2. Manage your stress and get adequate sleep

“People who are less stressed and consistently get a good night’s rest have less back pain,” Dr. Chung said. “Stress leads to muscle tension, which in turn leads to pain.” Many people don’t realize that stress, poor sleep and back pain are all interconnected. So, be sure to treat high stress levels or sleep problems. 

To manage stress, the CDC recommends deep breathing, stretching, meditation, exercise, spending time on hobbies and talking to other people. To improve your sleep, have consistent bedtimes and wake times, keep screens out of the bedroom, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime and keep your bedroom comfortable, quiet and dark.

If you’re having trouble dealing with stress or sleeping well, talk to a health care professional. “Don’t be afraid to seek help if you’re struggling with either of these issues,” Dr. Chung said.

3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

A lot of the healthy habits that are essential to other aspects of your life also help keep your back healthy. “Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and maintaining good posture can all help to prevent or decrease back pain,” Dr. Chung said. 

A healthy diet might include:

  • Plenty of vegetables
  • Moderate amounts of protein—choose plant-based proteins, fish and skinless chicken rather than red meat
  • Healthy fats such as salmon and small fish, avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds

Building healthy habits is key

Dr. Chung pointed out that there is no quick, long-term fix for spine pain. These changes are lifelong habits, not overnight remedies. “It might not be easy to incorporate all of these practices into your daily routine. Start slow—it doesn’t have to happen all at once. But if you’re able to, these are powerful habits that are not only good for your spine health, but for your overall health, too.” 

When you have back pain, many times it will resolve without any invasive procedures or surgery. “The reality is, in many cases, the body takes care of the problem,” Dr. Chung said. But you and your doctor can work together to develop the best treatment plan, and sometimes, surgery is the right choice. 

“In certain instances, spine surgery is highly effective and may even be absolutely necessary,” Dr. Chung said. “But it is not without risk, and when it comes to back or neck pain alone, it typically should be viewed as a last resort.”

The bottom line

Back pain is a common complaint, but good lifestyle habits can help keep your back healthy and strong. If you exercise, strengthen your core, manage stress, get enough sleep and maintain a healthy lifestyle, you can put yourself on a path to life without back pain. For more tips on keeping back pain at bay, reach out to a health care professional at Banner Health. 

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