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How to look after your back in middle age and beyond

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The spine has many important functions, from providing support and allowing for movement to functioning as an integral part of the central nervous system. As we grow older, our spine can experience degeneration. However, there are some lifestyle changes and self-care steps that can help to prevent or alleviate some of the age-related problems which can cause back and neck pain. This article looks at some common issues that can affect your back and at some of the ways in which you can prevent problems developing or improve existing aches and pains.

Common back issues

Back pain can be more common among people approaching middle age due to general wear and tear and other factors. While the exact cause of back pain can be hard to determine, causes can include muscle weakness, bad posture, carrying excess weight, and even smoking. Pain can result from strained muscles or ligaments, damage to the discs (the pads between the vertebrae), or a specific injury. Among the more serious disorders of the spine which can affect older people are arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and osteoporosis.

Reasons to visit the doctor or chiropractor include (but are not limited to) back pain resulting from a fall or after lifting something heavy, persistent pain, pain that travels down your legs, weakness, and changes to your bowel or bladder habits. Fortunately, a “bad back” is often not the result of a serious disorder but lifestyle factors, which means that if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, there might be some things you can try.

Protecting your back at work

One of the main culprits when it comes to an ailing back is sitting for long periods. If you’re a desk-based worker, you might find that any existing back issues are worsened over the course of the workday. Talk to your employer about any issues and ask about adjustments that could be made to your workstation to improve your back health. In particular, a desk chair that offers good lumbar support should be available.

Likewise, if you work from home or spend long periods on the computer during your downtime, it is important to have an office set-up that supports optimal musculoskeletal health. Choose a comfortable height desk and, again, an ergonomic chair. Some advocate a standing desk but just as sitting for long periods can be harmful, so can standing for too long. Seek professional advice on this if you’re unsure what’s best for you.

It can be tempting to hunch over your keyboard but make sure you sit with your head upright, hands at a 90-degree angle on the desk, and arms parallel to your spine. Choose a quality computer with a good-size monitor that you can see clearly without having to lean forward to squint at the screen. A desktop computer is preferable to a laptop as it offers more flexibility to adjust the monitor, mouse, and keyboard to achieve optimal posture and body position. Ensure that the processor can be stowed in such a way that you can sit with your feet flat on the floor with your legs positioned at 90 degrees. Nowadays, there are plenty of slim processor units that won’t impede your sitting position. For more on the 11th Gen Intel Lenovo Desktop, take a look here.

You can also buy ergonomic accessories, such as a keyboard and mouse that can add to your back-friendly workstation. However, optimally, you set up your workstation, and be sure to take regular breaks to get up, stretch and walk around.

Caring for your back at home

A key part of looking after your back is strengthening the muscles that support the spine. As we age, it is important to incorporate exercises that help to build strength, not just in the back but also in the core, which contributes to balance and overall musculoskeletal health. Muscle mass starts to decline after 30, so it’s crucial to counteract this loss. Of course, if you have more serious issues with your back, you should not do anything that could exacerbate the problem. Swimming or walking are often recommended as good, low-impact exercises that can help to build and maintain muscle mass and bone strength without being too strenuous on the body. However, the best advice is to ask your doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist to suggest suitable movements or exercise regimes that will improve, not aggravate, existing issues.

Further back-care issues to consider are sitting and lying down. Slumping on the sofa to watch TV and sleeping on an old, lumpy mattress each night are not doing your back any favors! Try and sit upright in a supportive chair, with your feet flat on the floor to encourage good posture. You might find placing a pillow or cushion between your lower back and your seat is helpful. When it comes to your mattress, you want one that’s firm and supportive (but still comfortable). You can even purchase an orthopedic mattress, mattress topper, and pillows. These work to maintain a neutral spine position and relieve back strain. Sleeping with a pillow between or under your knees can also help with maintaining neutral spinal alignment.

If you do experience discomfort in your back, some home remedies to try are ice, heat, and light movement. Indeed, while it can be tempting to think that resting your back will help, in fact, keeping immobile for long periods can make things worse, so try gentle movements that keep the spine supple. Again, check with a health professional if you have any concerns, especially if the pain gets worse, results from a specific injury, or is accompanied by other symptoms.

Overall, the spine is a complex part of the body, comprising vertebrae, bones, and cartilage discs, and interconnected with joints, muscles, tendons, and the central nervous system. There is a lot that can go wrong with this part of the body, but by remaining vigilant, taking a few basic self-care measures, and seeking medical advice if you have any concerns, you can help to keep your back healthy and to function well throughout your life.

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