Who would have thought that fulfilling my wife’s longtime wish for a fresh coat of paint on our kitchen ceiling would sentence me to sleeping in a chair for two weeks? Craning my neck and arching my back to roll on two coats of ceiling paint caused a cervical herniated disc that impinged on a nerve in my neck. The pain radiating down my arm was excruciating, like someone twisting a red-hot corkscrew into my left deltoid.
If you’ve never experienced nerve pain in your neck or back, be prepared: In all likelihood, it’s in your cards, too. “About 90 percent of us will experience back pain in such severity at some point in our lives that the person will have to miss work,” says Dr. Jack Stern, a spine surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and author of Ending Back Pain (Avery Trade, 2014).
Back pain has reached epidemic proportions, Stern says, for several reasons:
- We are living longer, and with increasing age we become more prone to osteoarthritis. The jellylike discs cushioning our vertebrae are the only tissues in our bodies without a blood supply, so they degenerate, become thinner, dehydrate and, as a result, lose their shock-absorbing characteristics.
- We are an overweight nation. Carrying extra pounds stresses the mechanical structures in our bodies.
- We sit too much — at our jobs, in our cars and on our couches. All of this sitting alters the natural posture we had as kids.
Since you can’t stop aging, the best you can do is protect your back by staying trim and active, in addition to strengthening your lower back and neck muscles with exercises like the ones shown on the opposite page.
As I write this, I’m seated deep in my chair, my lumbar area supported well. When I hit the last period key, I’ll stand up and do my neck exercises. And the next time my wife asks me to paint a ceiling, you can bet I’ll hire a professional — a young one.
Jeff Csatari is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Belly Off! Diet.
Check Your Posture
If you sit at your job, Stern suggests you ask a friend to take a photograph of you sitting at your computer. Check your posture in the snapshot. Your posture will most likely appear similar to the slouched example at left. Instead, your rear should be completely against the back of the chair. There should be a natural arch in your lower back, and your shoulders should be back, not hunched forward and rounded. Your hips should be at the same level or higher than your knees, and the computer screen should be at eye level. This means you may need to use a couple of books to elevate your screen.
Watch Your BLTs
This has nothing to do with the sandwich and everything to do with avoiding sudden movements and being mindful before bending, lifting or twisting. “An awful lot of people use their backs like a crane,” says Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, co-author of Framework for the Lower Back (Rodale Books, 2010). Always bend your knees and keep the weight as close to your body as you can.
On the floor, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Keep your arms at your sides at a 45-degree angle to your body. Squeeze your glutes and press your heels into the floor to raise your hips until your body creates a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Pause a few seconds in the up position, then lower and repeat 10 times.
Get on your hands and knees with your hands flat on the floor directly under your shoulders. Your knees should be hip-width apart and bent 90 degrees. Tense your abs as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach, and then raise your left arm and right leg until they are in line with your back and head. Hold for five to 10 seconds, lower your limbs, and then raise your right arm and left leg. That’s one repetition. Continue to alternate back and forth for a set of 10.
Lie facedown on the floor and raise yourself on your palms and forearms positioned directly under your shoulders. Keep your hips on the floor. Hold this stretch in your lower back for 10 to 30 seconds, and then lower your chest to the floor. Repeat five times.
Sit or stand straight and fix your eyes on an object so your head remains level, not tilted up or down. Tuck your chin in and pull your head straight back. Hold for three to five seconds, and then return to neutral; don’t extend your chin forward. Complete 10 retractions three times every day.
Stand facing a corner of the room with your feet together about 2 feet back from the corner. Place your forearms on each wall, with your elbows slightly below shoulder height. Keep your head neutral, tucking your chin back slightly. Inhale and pull your abdominal muscles into your spine. Exhale and lean into the wall. You’ll feel your shoulder blades squeeze together. Hold the stretch for five to 30 seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat five times.