Watch Your Back! - Tips to Prevent Back Pain

Edited by Jasmine Ryu Won Kang

Let me ask you a serious question: 

What age comes to mind when you think of back pain? 

40? 65? I posed this question on my Instagram story and here are some answers:

  • "Like 40/50 when it starts but 15 if you have big boobs”
  • "Could be any age really but starting from 40 and older”
  • "Honestly depends on what the person does for a living”
  • "Used to be like, 50 but now I’m 21 and back hurty :("
  • "From experience 18, general media and society 30”
  • "I’d say 50 was normal, primarily with lower back pain. But I know a lot of young people with pain from bad posture”

These answers came from people around the age of 18-25 years old. There’s always that expectation that a sign of getting older is that your back will start to hurt, but as you can see from these responses, your back can basically start falling apart at any age and I believe that this new world of COVID has really opened people’s eyes to this. 

My favourite response to the question was “Covid 19 gave me back pain at 19… Coincidence?” I love this because that is literally me. Like all of you, I had to continue the rest of the last academic year online. I didn’t notice it yet, but that was the start of my back’s deterioration. Since my first year at U of T, I’ve accustomed myself to working in the library rather than doing assignments at home, because why wouldn’t I? Our Turkey Library has a Starbucks, E.J. Pratt has private study cubicles and comfy couches to nap on, and the library at Innis College has a cool scaffolding look to it. That’s just three. I didn’t need a desk at home when I could just do all my work on campus, but here we are. 

I spent Summer 2020 taking a summer class online, where all I did was what we’re all doing now: sit and stare at a screen all day. The only difference between then and now is that I didn’t care about my posture or the importance of a good workspace. As a result of my ignorance, I now have chronic back pain and have to get physiotherapy and massage therapy. I didn’t have a desk, so I would work wherever was convenient; most of the time it was on the couch, but if I was feeling fancy I’d make use of our dining room table. The couch was great because after a lecture or finishing an assignment, I didn’t even have to stand. I just closed my laptop, extended the footrest of the couch, and rewatched Hamilton a couple hundred times. There were days when the only time I stood up was to go to the bathroom or grab a snack. I didn’t even fix my posture whenever I noticed that I’d gradually been sliding down the couch.

Unpslash

Fortunately, I have learned my lesson and I bought a desk, have a great chair, and am cautious of my posture. It’s been eight months since I first felt pain in the lower area of my back and it’s still there. Of course, there are days when the pain isn’t as bad as it used to be–thank goodness for therapy–but nonetheless, I still feel pain. I’m living in discomfort and would rather not be taking Advil or Tylenol every day to relieve it. So, I’m writing this as a warning to you.

You don't have to be 40-50 years old to mess up your back, especially now that we’re sitting all day watching two to three-hour lectures in the same position. Our backs are so fragile, yet we neglect it so much. I have some tips and exercises that I learned in Physiotherapy that can hopefully help prevent you from feeling what I and many other young people are feeling right now. I want to make it clear, though, that I’m not a professional and these are just easy things that I highly recommend to promote back health based on my experience.

 

  1. 1. For the love of your back, STAND UP!

    desk stretch

    I know a lot of you don’t keep your camera on during lecture, so stand up every once in a while during lecture. If your desk is at the height where you can reach your keyboard, you can also kneel during lecture to get your back to straighten up. The goal here (according to my physiotherapist) is to get your back in the opposite position it was in - lying down works too, but only during breaks. Lying down during lecture while working on my laptop is the exact reason why I’m in this position. 

  2. 2. Make sure your positioning is right when you're at your desk

    This is what’s recommended: you want to set up your desk and chair so that your elbows are 90 degrees, so it doesn’t hurt your shoulders or your back after a couple of hours. Your monitor or laptop screen should be at arm's length away from you; try it now: hold your arms out, are the tips of your fingers touching the screen? To keep your neck from straining, you will want to have the top of your monitor or laptop screen at eye level. There are many laptop mounts online that can help you do this, but who’s got money for that? A stack of books works just fine. I know some of you have textbooks you still haven’t sold or given away, so this would be a great use for those books. Adjust your chair accordingly but remember that if your feet are not touching the ground, you’re going to need a footrest. You can always buy one or grab another stack of books.

  3. 3. Be cautious of your posture

    woman working upright on a standing desk

    Good posture not only makes your look more confident, but it also promotes a healthy back and prevents back problems in the future. I realize some of us have formed a bad habit of slouching - I blame it on having to carry heavy backpacks when we were younger. Since we’re all in Zoom University right now and have no weight on our backs (not counting the weight of our falling GPA and other stresses), this is a great opportunity for you to practice good posture. A great tip is to always think that there’s a string attached to your head and that it always needs to be pulled up, so as your head goes up, so does your back. It might take a while but eventually, you’ll get into the habit of keeping a good posture.

  4. 4. Lift with your legs!

    You’ve probably heard the saying, “Lift with your legs, not with your back” at some point. Usually, it’s in reference to lifting heavy boxes or when lifting weights at the gym, but this applies to picking up the smallest and lightest of objects. I take my dog, Mocha, out every day and have to pick up her little brown gifts and when I do I use my legs to get it from the ground. What does that mean? It means I’m squatting and working my butt out just to pick it up. This applies to everything I have to lift and pick up. Bending forward to pick something up is awful for your back as it forces it to do something it’s not meant to. If you don’t want to look like you're working out just to pick up your pen, at least bend your knees to support the rest of your body as you pick it up. When you’re in the midst of lifting or picking something up, also avoid turning and twisting your back because that usually leads to a meeting with a chiropractor.

  5. 5. Try some of these stretches!

    These are exercises that work and stretch out the back as well as give your core a good workout. 

    Double Knee to Chest

    Lie on your back and pull both your knees to your chest until you feel a comfortable stretch. Hold it for 10 seconds and repeat as needed.

     

    Passive Lumbar Extension

    Lie on your stomach with your hands next to your face. Push up with your arms and lift your head and upper back gradually until you’ve reached a comfortable stretch. Hold it for 3-5 seconds. It’s like a weird push-up.

     

    Glute Bridge

    Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Lift your butt to lift your hips off the ground until your trunk is aligned with your legs. Hold for 3-5 seconds and slowly return to your initial position. Repeat as needed.

     

I’m not a professional or a doctor, but I’ve learned the importance of back health the painful way. I hope this piece has taught you something and has started a habit of healthy back practices. If there is at least one thing I think you should take away from the list, it would be the importance of posture. Remembering that there is an invisible string attached to your head that constantly needs to be pulled up is a great start to a happy life with minimal back pain.