Back pain, neck pain, and headaches. These three common pain conditions affect millions of Americans every day. About 116 million people suffer from chronic pain, with 27% of pain sufferers complaining of low back pain, 15% headache or migraine, and another 15% neck pain.
Some of this pain is the result of chronic underlying medical conditions, and requires a doctor’s care. But in some cases, you can manage pain by taking a few simple steps in your daily life.
If you could do just one thing to lessen the amount of pain you experience daily, it would be to improve your posture. “The human body was designed to be out in a field and chasing down our meals, not seated at a desk, slumped over looking at a computer for 8-12 hours a day,” says Trent Nessler, PT, DPT, MPT, a physical therapist and managing director at Baptist Sports Medicine in Nashville.
But of course, that’s what millions of us do every day. And while you probably can’t change your job, you can change the way you sit. “The average person slumps forward over their pelvis, which puts a lot of strain on the lumbar spine and can add to low back pain,” Nessler says. “We also tend to sit with our arms extended forward, and head projected forward as well. That stretches the posterior structures of the back and can cause muscle tightness in the shoulders and neck, and the forward positioning of the head can also lead to headaches.”
So how should you be sitting? There’s no one perfect seated posture, Nessler says. Instead, find your own “neutral spine” position:
- Sit in your desk chair and roll your pelvis all the way forward, arching your back.
- Then reverse it so that you’re rolling the pelvis all the way back, flexing your spine.
- Go back and forth between these two positions several times, until you find a position that’s right in the middle.
You can also set up your work station for a pain-reducing posture. Some tips from Lauren Polivka, PT, a physical therapist at DC’s Balance Gym and an adjunct professor of physical therapy at George Washington University:
- Don’t work on a laptop.
- Set up your monitor so that you’re looking not straight ahead, but just about 10 degrees down from straight. “You shouldn’t be leaning and rounding forward.
- Add a footrest beneath your desk. “You want your ankles to be slightly flexed. This realigns your entire lower body, putting more weight onto your hips and less on your back,” Polivka says.
Take a few minutes every hour to stand up and stretch, or even just lie flat on your back behind your desk. Or try this stretch:
- Roll up a small towel into a tight cylinder
- Place it between your shoulder blades against the back of your chair
- Gently engage your shoulder blades against the towel roll. Don’t squeeze tightly — just flex a little.
More than one-third of all adults — 39% — get less than 7 hours of sleep each weeknight. That may also be part of why so many of us are so achy, says Nessler.
“Sleep is when the body heals,” he says. “When you’re not falling into REM sleep or limiting that type of sleep, you tend to be clumsier and your muscles aren’t as quick and resilient, as well. So if you’re not getting enough REM sleep, that can dramatically increase your potential for injury, and decrease your ability to heal from an existing injury.”
There are many culprits behind sleep problems, from sleep apnea to wakeful children to work stress. But Nessler recommends that everyone who isn’t getting enough sleep at night take a look at two things: their mattress and their sleep position.
“I’m a physical therapist and even so, it took me and my wife awhile to figure out that our problems sleeping were because of our mattress,” he says. “You need to have a mattress that supports you, and you can’t keep the same one forever.”
What kind of mattress do you need? “Everyone is a little different,” Nessler says. “Some people sleep better on a slightly harder mattress, some a softer one, but you don’t want a mattress that you sink into too much. You want to keep your spine in a fairly neutral position.”
A mattress is a big investment. Find a store that will let you test one out at home for 15-30 days. There are stores that will, so if the one you’re shopping at says no, keep looking. “We tried out about four before we found the right one!” Nessler says.
Another tip that can help almost anyone, no matter what their sleep issue: experiment with pillows. “Again, you want to be sleeping with your spine in a neutral position,” says Nessler. “If you sleep on your side, put a pillow between your knees. If you’re on your back, place it under your knees.” Better sleep positioning with the help of pillow support can ease pain both by giving you a more restful night, and by easing pressure on your spine.
A body of research shows that exercise can ease many types of pain, from arthritis to low back pain. Many of us may not only miss out on a great source of pain relief, but in fact could be making pain worse, by not moving enough.
“If you stay moving and stay active as you get older, you naturally maintain the mobility and simple strength of your body that helps prevent the muscle imbalances that create pain,” says Polivka.
A great exercise that almost everyone can do is walking. But Polivka notes that a lot of people are walking wrong. (Yes, you’ve been walking since you were a year old, but it’s possible to do it wrong.)
“Most people walk ‘with their knees’ instead of with their hips,” she explains. The basics of a healthy stride can be described in three steps:
- Push off from the balls of your feet
- Swing your arms
- Take a long stride, not short steps
A well-rounded exercise program should also include flexibility and strength training. “The stronger and more flexible you are, the more your body can distribute force throughout your system rather than concentrating it at each joint, which leads to more pain,” Nessler says. And of course, exercising regularly may help you reduce body weight, which can significantly decrease pain — particularly in the joints of your hip, knee, and ankle, and in your lower back.
These tricks may not completely eliminate pain from your life — but try them for a few weeks, and you’re likely to feel less discomfort. And unlike medication, they come with no side effects.