Eighty percent of Australians live with back pain. Not long ago, I thought I had become one of them. I had a chronically sore neck and upper back on most days of the week and it was starting to interfere with my sleep. I suspected it was related to my posture but I didn’t do anything about it until it became unbearable. We don’t change unless we’re in enough pain. In most cases, if the pain is bearable – be it emotional or physical – we’d rather put up with it than have to disrupt our lives to do something about it. When the pain becomes a big enough disruption to our lives, we finally give it the attention it deserves.
It’s particularly important to attend to back pain because it can have a domino effect on our mental and physical health. Back pain can lead to less walking, exercising and socialising, poor sleep (and vice versa), muscle wasting, fatigue and depression. These factors can then go on to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and dementia. What starts as back pain can be the trigger for a cascade of other negative health outcomes. I had to nip it in the bud.
What surprised me was the simplicity of the solution: becoming aware of my posture and adjusting how I sat and stood to alleviate unnatural pressure from my spine. It took time and conscious effort, but after a few weeks, my new posture became a habit and my pain disappeared. I’m not suggesting that everyone’s back pain has a simple solution. However, improving our posture is a good place to start, regardless of the complexity of the diagnosis.
Our neck is designed to comfortably support our five kilogram head when we stand or sit upright while looking straight ahead. When we tilt our head forward by 12 degrees to read the newspaper, it increases the pressure in our neck by 15kg. If we increase the tilt to 45 degrees – as most people do when texting on their phone – there is 27kg of extra strain on the neck! This is what I was doing for hours on end while typing on my laptop. Yes I was alternating between sitting and standing but I was nonetheless tilting my head forward far too much and overloading my neck and back.
To correct my posture, my physiotherapist suggested I imagine a light shining straight out from my heart. ‘Don’t hunch up and hide your light from the world,’ she said. ‘Shine your light straight ahead in front of you. There is no need to force your shoulders back; just pick up your head and as a result your neck and back will be balanced as you shine your light onto the world!’
What a lovely metaphor. When you type or read, open your heart to illuminate the page, and when you stand or walk, go and light up the world!