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Home  »  Sunday Times Healthy Times   »   Strategies For A Strong, Stable Spine

Strategies For A Strong, Stable Spine

You can’t really ‘grow a backbone’, so look after your spine, says Georgina Guedes.
Image: ©iStock Image: ©iStock

The spine is an often neglected part of our healthcare routine. However, it’s a vital part of our skeleton and nervous system, and we ignore it at our peril.

The spine is made of 33 stacked vertebrae, providing the main support for the body and protecting the spinal cord from injury. The spinal cord transmits neural signals between the brain and the rest of the body, and for this reason it is vital to the overall health of the human body.

We spoke to two practitioners of spine health – a physiotherapist and a chiropractor – to get the low-down on exactly what you should be doing to maintain the health of your spine.

Get your desk right

According to Johannesburg chiropractor Dr Robin Maris, there are a range of things that you can do to support the health of your spine. The starting point, however, is always the ergonomics of your desk – if you are a frequent computer user.

“The human body is not designed to spend hours sitting,” he says. “It is important that we move around and change position.”

He says laptops are one of the biggest problems, because they encourage users to work hunched over and leaning forward, which increases cervical lordosis (the inward curve of the neck) and thoracic kyphosis (the outward curve of the upper back), and decreases lumbar lordosis (the inward curve of the lower back).

“All of these lead to back, neck and shoulder pain,” says Maris. “[In addition,] every centimetre your head leans forward doubles the pressure on C6 and C7 (neck vertebra), and the nerves from that area supply your arms and hands, so you might experience pain and numbness all the way down your arms.”

For this reason, people spend a lot of money on expensive ergonomically designed chairs, in an attempt to support their posture. According to physiotherapist Tamzyn Ellis-Clark, the best position for your body on your chair – whatever it costs – is to have all the angles at 90 degrees.

“Your ankles to feet, bent knees and thighs to hip should all be at 90 degrees. Your computer screen should be at head level, and your arms should be supported by your table, to reduce stress on your shoulders and your neck,” she says. “You should also consciously correct your posture every half an hour to 45 minutes – when you find that you are starting to lean or slump.”

Keep moving

However, no matter how well positioned your workspace is, remaining in one position for too long just isn’t good for your spine. For this reason, Ellis-Clark tells her patients to stretch regularly – every hour or so – by doing the following stretches:

Stretch your neck to each side for 10 seconds – with your right hand gently pulling your right ear towards your right shoulder, and your left hand gently pulling your left ear towards your left shoulder.

Put your chin to your chest for 10 seconds – with your hands pulling your crown gently downwards.

Then do the “pretend to smell your armpit” stretch for 10 seconds each side – with your right hand pulling your head diagonally towards your right pit, and your left hand pulling your head diagonally towards your left pit.

“It only takes 50 seconds,” she says. “You have the time to do it, and it will really help your spine.”

According to Maris, there is a new product on the market called the Varidesk, which can be adjusted to allow users to sit or stand, so they can change position throughout the day while using it. If you don’t have the money to purchase this type of workstation, you can still achieve some of the benefits by setting your desk space correctly, but also finding a standing space to work at and alternating throughout the day, taking your cue from your body.

Both practitioners recommend regular exercise to maintain the health of your spine. “Dance and swimming are great,” says Ellis-Clark. “Pilates and yoga are often considered to be the best exercises for spine health, and they are fantastic, but if you have any kind of a back injury, like a prolapsed disk, the stretches can pull your back out of alignment. Always speak to your yoga or pilates instructor before you start, and keep them updated on any injuries, so that they can let you know what stretches or positions you should avoid.”

Generally speaking, physiotherapists don’t recommend running for spine health, because of the high impact.

“I recommend a variety of different exercises,” says Maris, and says he would add resistance training to the mix.

It’s not just your desk

While a great deal of the focus on spinal health centres around the ergonomics of your desk, less attention is paid to another place where you probably spend an equal amount of time: your bed. Maris says that if you find that you are waking up in the morning uncomfortable or in pain, and have no underlying conditions, you need to find a different solution that works for you.

“It’s a matter of personal preference and trial and error,” he says. “I don’t recommend springs over memory foam, but I do suggest that you go for medium or hard, and not a soft bed.”

However, he strongly recommends memory foam pillows – the pillow-shaped ones, not the contoured ones – for the support they offer your neck.

Another area that is causing back and neck trouble for people all around the world is the increased use of cellphones and tablets. “They’ve even coined a medical term for it – text neck,” says Maris.

To reduce the symptoms caused by tilting your neck forward and curling your spine around your device, again, try to be posture-aware, but also take regular breaks. “You can’t sit there looking at a screen without moving for three hours straight,” Maris says.

Most people know that by sitting at their desks for extended periods of time, they are doing damage to their back and neck. Most of the exercises and lifestyle adjustments recommended by Ellis-Clark and Maris are easily within reach of most people – they just require attention and commitment.

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