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Why we're all suffering from back pain

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From emails on smartphones to highheels hiding under our desks, modern life is becoming a pain in the neck, back, wrists… Beth Gibbons investigates

There is a long list of habits that we know are terrible for us; we know our morning Americano isn’t really the way to boost energy, and that our weekly alcohol units shouldn’t be consumed in one hour straight. The fact that we spend the majority of our lives peering at tablets and smart Phones? That’s right up there on the list too, possibly at number one…

The problem isn’t just our work/ life balance. What happens to our body when we’re scrunched up staring at gmail on a tiny screen is just as problematic. Though we may not think we have time to focus on how we’re sitting – with deadlines to meet and emails to send – the reality is, we can’t afford not to.

A new report by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) found 65% of under-35s have experienced back or neck issues, which prevented many from sleeping and exercising, and BCA chiropractor Rishi Loatey says the majority of these cases are caused by poor posture. We are officially the pain-in-the-back generation.

For most if us posture is a hard thing to control, because it’s only when we’re forced to think about it, that we sit up straight. But in order to avoid getting what Professor Craig Jackson, lecturer in occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University, calls the ‘iHump’ (shoulders scrunched up to ears, back hunched and chin jutting down), we need to address our unnoticed everyday habits.

Carrying bulging bags

The first culprit in your back attack is that beautiful oversized bag you’re carrying. In short, your sartorial pride and joy. Though we know it’s bad for us (advice says to only carry what we can pick up with one finger) the average woman now ferries around 5.2lb worth* of gadgets, shoes, brollies and weighty hardbacks (damn you, Donna Tartt).

“I’ve given up telling patients to lighten their load,” says Loatey. “If you insist on carrying the world on your shoulders, invest in a rucksack to distribute the weight evenly; failing that, wear a messenger bag across your body, alternating shoulders daily.”

And while we’re picking up our on-trend Nineties rucksack, we might also pop to Kurt Geiger. Those courts we wiggle our toes into when we arrive at work could be adding to our posture problems. Anything with a heel higher than four and a half inches results in overloading the toes and balls of the feet. No surprise – we know the heel warnings – but even this season’s diminutive kitten heels could cause problems. Instead of going as low as possible, the trick for posture is actually getting the height just right – one or two inches for moderately arched feet, three for flat arches. Stick to that, and small heels could be better for our feet than flats.

Working overtime

With working hours longer than ever, it’s crucial to take a break every hour and tell your boss if you’re experiencing back or neck problems: they’re legally required to help. You should have a chair that supports your back (if it doesn’t adjust, a special cushion can help), feet flat on the floor (use a foot rest if not) and your computer should be directly in front, with the top of the screen level with your eyes. Your keyboard should be close enough to your body so that your upper arms can sit by your side, with forearms resting at 90 degrees on the desk.

When we finally do leave work the sitting continues – in the car, on the sofa for MasterChef – all adding up to an average of nine or 10 hours a day. This means our leg and bottom muscles get gluteal amnesia (ie they forget to fire up) so not only do we burn less fat, but weak glutes lead to a forward-tilting pelvis and a protruding tummy. “In the long term, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to serious back and neck issues,” explains Loatey. “Which is why we’re seeing young women with postural changes such as flattened spines and ‘dowager’ humps.”

At least our workstations are mostly designed to promote good posture. Your seat in carriage C on the train home? Not so much. Tapping work emails on our commute is increasingly a problem. “I’m seeing so many patients with a hunched up posture suggestive of spending too long looking down on a smartphone or tablet,” says Loatey. “We’re talking neck and shoulder strain, headaches and even nerve irritation.” Surgeons note increased wrinkles on our necks, the result of constantly looking down at screens. And there are other concerns too. “Even just a slight sustained forward tilt of the head over time will irritate and inflame your spinal ligament,” says Dr Eric Asher, medical director of The Third Space. There’s even evidence that poring over smartphones can compromise lung function. “Put your chin to your chest and try and take a deep breath,” says Dr Asher. “Now lift your head up and try again. The difference is significant. So you’re restricting the amount of oxygen reaching your brain.”

If you can’t reduce tablet time, at least position your arms at right angles and hold it at eye level in order to keep the chin level and open up your chest. The free Posture Coach app, which alerts you every time your posture deteriorates, can help too.

Using your laptop on your lap

With an increasing number of us working from home (up 13% to more than 4million in the past five years**), often the place we’re putting in the hours is actually our sofa. “Being slumped on the settee with a laptop on your knees is one of the worst possible positions for your spine,” says Loatey. “It forces the vertebrae in the lower back apart, putting increased pressure on the discs, which leads to severe pain as well as impacting on our hips which should be aligned.” The solution? Sit on a proper chair that supports your back, with your hips level with your knees. “Place your laptop on a table in front of you,” advises Loatey. “Raise your computer on books until the top of the screen is level with your eyes and use a detachable keyboard. And just as you would in an office, step away from your computer regularly.”

Exercising too fast

When your job is sedentary, it can be tempting to overcompensate during lunch. A Pilates class that combines cardio and stretching can really help posture in the long term. But be careful. Julia Buckley, personal trainer, says,“It’s a bad idea to dive straight into a workout after being sedentary. Exercise causes tiny tears in your muscles. If the muscles are cold and tight, these tears can actually be severe enough to result in serious sprains.”

Instead, use the first 10 minutes to warm up – a fast walk or stretching – this ensures your muscle tissue is more elastic. M&S’ Perfect Poise bra (£25) has become popular with Pilates and yoga fans to support their backs during short work-outs. Don’t forget the warm down either. “After lunch, get up from your desk every hour or your muscles will become stiff as your body’s recovery mechanisms kick in,” warns Buckley. And if that’s not an excuse for regular tea and Hobnob breaks, we don’t know what is.

Back to basics

There is mounting evidence that alternative therapies can really help improve both muscular pain and posture

Acupuncture

Evidence for acupuncture relieving back pain has been so compelling that it is now prescribed by the NHS. A major review of 29 studies last year found that acupuncture had a clear effect on chronic back pain.

Bowen technique

Developed by Australian therapist Tom Bowen in the Fifties, this technique is a form of light touch therapy, using rolling movements to act on the nerve pathways of the body.

Alexander technique

A major scientific trial found this therapy, which teaches people to hold their bodies correctly by re-firing long forgotten muscles, reduced symptoms significantly over three months.

Photos: Rex Features

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