Low back pain is common and costly.

The strength and flexibility that is engineered into your lower back is remarkable. But it also makes it susceptible to developing problems. Low back pain is one of the most common, costly medical complaints around the world, one of the top reasons why people see doctors and the second leading cause of disability in the United States. Eight out of 10 of us will experience low back pain during our lives for a variety of reasons, including injury, arthritis, infection and weak muscles that are prone to strain. For many, low back pain leads to the inability to complete daily tasks, work, exercise and sleep which can lead to low self-esteem, depression and mood swings, poor relationships, lost wages, disability and more.

Don’t let low back pain get in the way of your life. Try these six tips to prevent and/or improve low back pain:            

Eat anti-inflammatory foods.

Eating inflammatory foods can cause your muscles to contract without relaxing. If this persists over a lengthy period, it can cause back spasms and irritation. One of the best ways to reduce inflammation lies in your refrigerator, not your medicine cabinet.

Rather than eating foods that cause inflammation, such as refined carbohydrates (white bread and pastries), fried foods, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hotdogs, sausage), and margarine, shortening and lard, try eating anti-inflammatory foods, such as tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale and collards), nuts (almonds and walnuts), fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines) and fruit (strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges).  In addition to helping improve your lower back pain, a more natural, less processed diet can reduce your risk for chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and improve your mood and overall quality of life.

Get moving.

If you’re experiencing chronic low back pain, getting regular exercise may be a balancing act between finding something beneficial and less likely to make your pain worse. Gentle exercises like yoga, tai chi or Pilates may help.

Yoga improves muscle strength. Many of the common poses stretch your back, abdomen and upper thigh muscles, all of which directly or indirectly support your spine. Your range of motion may also improve with gentle poses that involve stretching from one side to another.

Tai chi involves more movement than yoga. This can be good for your back since tai chi doesn’t have any jarring or jerky motions that are hard on the spine. Rhythmical breathing increases blood flow to muscles and circulation throughout your body. You can also reap some of the benefits of tai chi even when you’re not doing the exercises, such as improved posture throughout the day.

Pilates can also help improve your posture, as well as correct alignment issues—especially if your back pain stems from disc or joint degeneration. As your posture improves, there is less wear and tear on your joints and discs. This means less back pain. Pilates also makes you more aware of how your body moves and what movements are likely to result in stress and tension.

Maintain a healthy weight.

Your risk for low back pain grows as your body mass index increases. Every pound you gain puts additional strain on your musculoskeletal system which supports you and helps you move. While excess weight especially affects your back, it can also negatively impact your pelvis and knees. Some medical experts believe as you become heavier, your pelvis is pulled forward, and your lower back becomes strained. A strained lower back produces symptoms such as pain, soreness and tightness. Also, added weight in the midsection can cause the spine to tilt and become misaligned. This can lead to your back muscles overcompensating, which contributes to the development of lower back pain. Maintaining a healthy body weight helps prevent the occurrence or reoccurrence of low back pain.

Get enough deep, restorative sleep.

Restorative sleep keeps your body functioning properly. Bodies need restorative sleep to perform renewal functions like muscle growth, protein synthesis and tissue repair. Without it, our body systems, organs and cells don’t properly repair themselves. When you are experiencing low back pain, getting a comfortable, restorative night of sleep may be difficult. Finding the right sleep position can help.

If you are a back sleeper, try raising your knees or placing a pillow under them to relieve pressure on your spine. Try placing a firm, flat pillow between your knees if you are a side sleeper. This will allow your lower spine to align with your hips. Or you can try using a lumbar support cushion or waist pillow under your waist for support. Avoid sleeping on your stomach. This can have a negative effect on your spine’s natural alignment. If these sleep positions aren’t helpful, try stretches, planks or yoga movements. Heat may also help, along with over-the-counter medication, such as analgesics. Many people also find a medium-firm mattress and flexible pillow for neck support help minimize pain and discomfort.

Minimize alcohol consumption.

Studies have shown that for people with low back pain drinking alcohol can increase pain. Alcohol, a natural muscle relaxant, decreases support in the back, buttocks, pelvis and abdomen. This means your body and spine must work harder to stay upright. Additionally, alcohol decreases circulation, which can lead to pain and inflammation in areas already prone to problems. If you are experiencing chronic back pain, consuming alcohol can also cause and intensify feelings of depression. This may lead to inactivity, which in turn may worsen your back pain.

Avoid smoking and other forms of nicotine.

Smoking and nicotine increase your risk of back pain and spinal disc degeneration. Toxic substances, like the carbon monoxide from tobacco, can damage spinal disc cells and the interior lining of blood vessels. Nicotine can shrink blood vessels, which restricts the flow of vital nutrients like calcium. Smoking also causes cell malnutrition which can destroy your spinal cushions and vertebrae.

Want to learn more about low back pain and improving pain?

Find the recording of our webinar, “Protecting your lower back and improving pain,” where Magellan Healthcare’s Nikki Darnell, RN, BSN, director, clinical care services; Katie Maher, RN, BSN, senior manager, clinical care services; and I delve into low back pain causes and symptoms, how low back pain is diagnosed and treated, and steps you can take to protect your lower back and improve pain here.