How to tackle back pain when working from home

03/20/2020

As a long term yoga practicioner and also a teacher I get asked which yoga poses are good to prevent back pain. I know that the responses will differ teacher by teacher, but my answer would be all of them. Everything in our bodies is interconnected. Logically, releasing tight muscles in your back will alleviate back pain. But there is more that we know.

If you suffer from back pain, your choices for healing range from pharmacological treatment, superficial heat, massage, acupuncture, physiotherapy, laser therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy and more. Nevertheless, the most successful is prevention, the most effective way is motion, and one of the best and healthiest movements is yoga. Yoga is affordable, safe, inclusive, accessible, and non-violent (you may have heard of Ahimsa, the Sanskrit term for non-violence).

Healthy posture

Caring for your back means developing healthy postural and movement habits: sitting up correctly, moving about with more awareness, and hitting the mat for a strength-building and stretching yoga session.

Spending long hours in an office chair (or worse - dining chair on your home office) encourages bad posture, can take a toll on the back. In most yoga poses and throughout your day, whether sitting or standing, it's important to maintain the natural inward curve in your lower back, to keep the back of your head lined up with the back of your pelvis (not dropping the head forward or back), and to keep your shoulders broad and stacked right over your hips. The spine's natural curves-a slight inward curve of the lumbar spine (lower back), a slight outward curve of the thoracic spine (upper/middle back), and a slight inward curve of the cervical spine (neck) are important for optimal spinal health but harder to achieve in a seated position hunching over your laptop.

Practice healthier sitting and standing postures to help strengthen the back. When sitting or standing, utilize core support, with a slight lift of the lower abdominals and pelvic floor, and "think tall" with axial extension (upward lift) of the spine. Don't let the feet turn out when standing, sitting or walking. For many people, external rotation of the feet causes of lower back pain. When moving around the house or exercising, don't round up from a standing forward fold with straight legs. This action can compress the discs of the anterior spine and aggravate back pain

Where is my core?

In yoga and other workout, you will often hear a common cue "engage your core". Be aware that core is not your show-off six-pack. The teacher is referring to transversus abdominus, multifidus, pelvic floor muscles, and diaphragm. Within the region of your pelvis and torso there are 29 pairs of muscles that help to stabilize the spine, pelvis, and kinetic chain necessary for functional movements. When the system works efficiently, it provides distribution of forces, control and efficiency of movement, absorption of ground-impact forces, and an absence of excessive compressive, translation, or shearing forces on the joints in the kinetic chain. It requires cooperation and integration of active (muscular), passive (bones, ligaments), and neural-motor (nerve, CNS) systems. Slow-twitch fibers primarily make up the deep core stabilizers. Dysfunction in one joint anywhere in the body can lead to compromise elsewhere in the kinetic chain. 

Research has shown the importance of how these muscles are recruited. Co-contraction of transverse abdominus and multifidi occur before any movement of the limbs. Those who sustained a low back injury had difficulty recruiting TrA and multifidi early enough to stabilize the spine before movement. These deep core muscles can actually "switch off" and the global muscles take over. When this happens, they must be consciously activated again. It is this ability to stabilize your lumbar spine many positions that enables you to overcome and prevent back injury.

Build your core strength. Yoga sequences usually focus both on stretch and on strength. Stretching can be great for alleviating tightness in back muscles, and poses we might associate with a nice back stretch such as cat-cow or child pose and supine twists may feel good, but they don't contribute much to building core strength, which is important for back health. To strengthen the back of a structure we must balance the support in the front. You can build abdominal strength with postures like boat, chair, plank and back strength with postures like locust.  

Other causes of pain

Another common problem is Sacroiliac Joint (SIJ) dysfunction. Without tapping into the detail of biomechanical possibilities it is typically brought on by asymmetrical activity. 

Tight hamstring muscles are another common contributor to lower back pain. The hamstring muscles run through the back of each thigh from the hip down to the back of the knee. Repetitive movement, poor posture, and constantly sitting in a sedentary lifestyle force hip flexors into a constantly-shortened position, creating one of many tight hamstring causes. Tight hamstrings accompany majority of cases of chronic lower back pain. The constant pull of these tight muscles forces the lumbar spine into a forward bent posture, the effects of which are especially felt during physical activity. Additionally, the overall mobility of the hip joints is poorer. As you sit down, you're deactivating them, making them even less responsive when you try to use them. 

Prolonged sitting has negative effect on our disks, that act as protective cushions. When they degenerate, the vertebrae may start rubbing against each other, which can cause back pain. When we sit for long periods of time our disks gradually lose fluids, and the spine becomes measurably shorter. Although practicing asanas is one of the best things to maintain healthy backs, be careful with improper forward bends and twists, which can damage the disks near the base of the spine. On the other hand, the backbands are very healing and therefore they are such an fundamental part of each yoga lesson.

One of my yoga teachers used to say: flexible back equals eternal youth. So keep that in mind and move!

Always consult your doctor about what types of movement may be contraindicated for you if you have any generative diseases or medical conditions such as fractures, deformities, traumas, compressed nerves etc. 

Additonal resources:

Learn yoga from an expert on yoga and anatomy Noah Mazé

Yoga for back pain 

Protect your disks during your yoga practice