Doctor-Approved Tips to Prevent Back Pain

Spinal disorders affect scores of Americans. Follow these tips to protect your back.

A man grasping his lower back

Scores of Americans suffer from spinal disorders such as back pain, neck pain, scoliosis, stenosis, and disc disease, all which can cause debilitating sleep issues and affect one’s everyday activities. Back pain alone is one of the most common reasons Americans call in sick to work, with total costs in the United States exceeding $100 billion annually.

“The back is a complex structure with many delicate parts, but with good judgment and healthy lifestyle habits — including proper lifting, good posture, and exercise — it’s possible to avoid common back pain caused by strained muscles,” says Dr. Lawrence Lenke, surgeon-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, chief of spinal deformity surgery, and professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Make Movement Part Of Your Daily Routine

Regular cardiovascular exercise and stretching and strengthening exercises can increase back and abdomen flexibility, according to Drs. Lenke, Ronald Lehman Jr., K. Daniel Riew, and Peter D. Angevine, all of NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, who provided back health tips to Health Matters.

It’s also important to get up and walk around every 15 to 30 minutes if you sit for long periods. Maintaining a healthy body weight and avoiding smoking will make adopting these habits easier.

Maintain Proper Posture

Posture is also key in maintaining back health. In addition to being aware of slouching or holding your head too far forward while sitting, the doctors recommend sitting with the feet supported, the hips level with or slightly above the knees, the spine slightly reclined, and a small arch in the lower back maintained.

If sitting at a computer, the shoulders should be relaxed and away from the ears, the elbows bent to about 90 degrees and resting by the sides, the wrists neutral (not bent up, down, or away from each other), and the head facing front without protruding forward.

If using a mobile phone or tablet for texting or web browsing, hold it up instead of bending your neck to look down, the doctors say. The more you look down at a mobile phone or tablet, the more the muscles have to work to keep your head up, which can lead to strain. At just 45 degrees, your neck muscles are doing the work of lifting a 50-pound bag of potatoes, the doctors say.

Lift Heavy Objects Properly

When lifting a heavy or large object, make sure it is properly balanced and packed correctly so its weight won’t shift. Keep the object close to your body and take your time lifting since rushing will strain your muscles. When you are ready to lift, bend at the hips and knees, not the lower back. Maintain proper posture with your back straight and head up, and use your legs to lift.

For those with complex spinal problems such as scoliosis, myelopathy, neck or low back nerve impingement, chronic sciatica, stenosis, or vertebral fractures, surgeons from NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital recommend getting an immediate medical assessment. Individuals who have back injuries due to severe trauma also are advised to seek professional medical help.

Pay Attention To Symptoms

Indications that a serious injury has occurred include abnormal bowel or bladder function, bilateral sciatica (pain down both legs), significant nocturnal pain, weight loss, fever, and severe pain. Symptoms such as loss of balance or dexterity, constant numbness, or weakness could also indicate neurological issues. In these cases, patients are referred for a diagnostic workup that may include X-ray, MRI, and CT scan. After a diagnosis, treatment can include physical therapy, complementary medicine (acupuncture, magnetic therapy, herbal medications, and more) and surgery for serious conditions.

“For more complicated spinal problems such as scoliosis, stenosis, fractures, or injuries from trauma, medical intervention is usually necessary for effective treatment,” says Dr. Lenke, “but each person with or without spinal problems can benefit from adopting healthier lifestyle habits to keep your spine as strong as possible.”

To learn more about spine care at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, visit