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Self-Help for Optimal Back Care

by Neil Summers(more info)

listed in physiotherapy, originally published in issue 49 - February 2000

We constantly overload the back with tasks and poor habits, resulting in abnormal postural alignment. The majority of the adult day is spent flexed forward, crumpled in the forward bending position, hunched over our everyday tasks. So insidious is this forward 'pull' of the head that we do not even notice it is happening.

Compound this with the fact that most of us have stopped using our bodies to move in any dynamic, athletic way at all. All our movements are of the same kind. Without the varied array of movements of which the back is capable, we condemn our backs to a life of aches and pains.

What is missing is the body's ability to 'counter' these positions and to regain the balance which is inherent in the design of the back. We are forever trapped by the monotonous groove that these actions put us into, and unless we change our habits of movement then there is no way out.

Performing the same old movements again and again ensures that unused capacity is lost, often forever.
Not allowing it to become overly compressed is the best gift you can give your spine. Passive elongation of the vertebral column is an essential movement for the spine, which is absent in all but a very few individuals' lives. Decompressing the intervertebral spaces should be everyone's goal, at least once during the day. This is surely the best way to counter the problems associated with postural misalignment and the mechanical problems which result in backache. Why not reverse gravity-assisted compression and witness the rebirth of your spine?

Back Lengthener

Starting Position
Lie flat on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
Lightly hold your forearms, elbows raised in front of your chest.
Look straight up at the ceiling.

Bring your arms back over your head until the forearms are resting on the floor.
Relax for a moment, then bring your arms forward over your head, through the starting position, to rest on your tummy.
And relax.
Perform the whole sequence slowly five times.
Make all movements smooth, controlled and continuous. Breathe naturally at all times.

You will feel the stretch in your rib cage and along the full length of the spine. The spine will lengthen as you relax. This simple stretch helps to de-squash or decompress the spongy discs, prising them free and helping the spine to move and function as it was designed.


Straight Stretch Hold

Starting Position
Lie flat on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, both arms stretched straight above the head, the backs of the hands touching.

Cross one hand over the other until the palms are facing and touching each other.
Squeeze the hands together and stretch away from the body. Hold for 10 seconds.
Repeat with the other hand crossing over. Hold for 10 seconds.
Perform the whole sequence five times on both sides.

As you squeeze, feel the tension in the back of the shoulders.
Try to create the feeling of the arms moving away from the pelvis to encourage the spine to lengthen.
Not allowing it to become overly compressed is the best gift you can give your spine.


Rock and Wrap

Starting Position
Lie flat on your back, the knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
Wrap your arms around you so your fingertips are touching your shoulder blades. The elbows should be pointing up to the ceiling.
Hold and squeeze for a moment.

Keeping your feet still and your legs and pelvis stationary, rock/sway from side to side.
Keep looking up to the ceiling.

You should feel a gentle massaging effect across the upper back and shoulders.
This stretch promotes a healthy relaxed back, posturally aligned and moving as nature intended.

Backstretching as an Aid to Backache

Bear in mind that if backs are functioning properly there would be no pain. Pain tells us that something is wrong and will nearly always be connected with a malfunctioning part of the spine. Everyone gets backache – it is the body's way of saying that something is starting to go wrong and the pain is trying to tell us this. As we get older, if we fail to do anything about it, the situation only gets worse. If there is something wrong with the back and we try to carry out our normal activities, it is only a matter of time before serious problems occur.

Small problems build to create debilitating conditions. The muscles surrounding the spine, if they are in good working order, support the spine and keep it in its natural optimal position, while correct posture, in turn, places all other joints in their optimal working positions. Unfortunately, we all too often lead sedentary lifestyles. Once we stop actively participating in life then back problems begin to increase and as the back becomes out of shape, it is not possible to perform the activities which we once performed easily. We then live our lives using only a restricted range of movement in our backs and the natural functioning of the back has been lost. The back moves in a monotonous restricted manner, not allowing for the full range of motion to provide a full stretch – we have forgotten the feeling of supple and agile spines. Locked as we are in restricted positions, we probably spend day after day in the same old positions. When constantly taking up forward bending positions, the muscles which keep the body straight become unbalanced. We do not notice it necessarily, but some muscles tighten and shorten while the others weaken and elongate. Constant wear and tear in these locked, fixed positions takes its toll; the back loses its 'give' and its shock-absorbing qualities, leaving a stiff and aching spine. This causes the body to become susceptible and it's easy to see how the problems occur.

We can only make the situation worse by standing and sitting upright for long periods where the spine is constantly being squashed. This constant 'squashing' of the spine means that over time, everything compacts together, noticeably impacting upon itself. Standing or sitting as we do all day in the vertical plane exacerbates this. As we lose our posture the pain increases and this constant imbalance creates further aggravation for the lower lumbar.

The back wants to feel a fully extended spine, so it helps backache if we can allow stiff joints responsible for the pain to perform as they were designed.

If a sedentary lifestyle causing insufficient spinal movement is a major problem, then stretching to separate the squashed discs to enable them to operate as they were meant to is a major solution. Backache is reduced by lengthening the spine, that is by stretching it in a horizontal plane. The back longs to feel fully elongated and extended lengthways as such stretching helps to free each vertebrae from impacting with the one below. By encouraging this stretch, we help to remove the impacted vertebra off the bottom one, thus taking the pressure off the damaged area.

Stretching miraculously allows the freeing of impacted joints so that they can move naturally. As the back loosens up it eventually stretches its way to its natural, pain-free position.

Most pain is a result of long-term neglect, where a particular joint is not functioning harmoniously with its neighbours. Horizontal stretching prevents the spine from sticking together, gently prising free discs which are squashed one on top of each other. Stretching the back in a lengthways direction eases the joints apart. The result is to remove the weight and pressure from the damaged joint with the effect of ensuring that the discs are maintained in good health by allowing them to move freely.

Lying down is the most comfortable position for a person with backache. The vertebrae are 'suspended' with no postural stress, therefore they can relax and pain is relieved. Lying down produces the least intra-discal pressure; the most is produced when sitting and standing. The back actually lengthens during sleep – the natural curves of the back are exaggerated throughout the day, weighed down by fatigue, stresses and strains, but they are straightened during sleep. Relieved of pressure, the discs are allowed to re-hydrate, repair and hence recover.

There are many therapies available to the back sufferer; however the cheapest, simplest and most effective is stretching. Stretching the back is a subtle activity to be performed daily for life. The benefits may take longer to be felt, but this method is gentler to the back and the effects are therefore long-term. Stretching removes pain and restores function, removing the stiffness which led to the discomfort, and correct posture ensures that all other joints are in their optimum working positions.

The Right Stretches Do Provide a Solution

The good news is, we are told, that exercise is back in fashion for the treatment of backache. However, this is only partially true – this well-meaning message actually deceives us, for it fails to clarify that not all exercise is good for the back. In fact, most exercise is bad for the back. Since only some exercises are truly 'ultra friendly' to the back and of any benefit at all, a nightmare scenario develops where people further aggravate their backs by exercising in the wrong way, helping to perpetuate both their backache and the myth that once you have had a bad back you will always have one. It does not have to be this way. Once you have corrected the problem and properly strengthened the back, it will have gone forever.

Bed rest has always been the most trusted friend to doctors through the centuries. However, we must realise that it is not the act of climbing in bed and slipping between the sheets which helps (this has nothing to do with it), but physiologically, it is the act of going horizontal which has the effect. In such a position we have immediately removed the stresses and strains on the spine due to the compressional effects of gravity. We have literally taken the weight off the intervertebral spaces. This in itself is heaven to the damaged joint, allowing it time to recover without further damage.

Damage to the joints can occur through sporting injuries, car accidents, hereditary complaints, wear and tear or through the slightest of sudden awkward movements. Once damaged, the joints in the spine suffer a constant and never-ending downward pressure, which only serves to aggravate the situation – for most of us, that is at least 14 hours a day spent sitting or standing with the forces of gravity pushing down upon us. The average adult head weighs 11/12/13 lbs, squashing everything below it. All exercise movements, whether intrinsically designed to help or not, will aggravate the damaged joint if done in a vertical plane ie, when sitting or standing. It is this fact alone which is crucial to the final solution. Hence, strengthening and flexibility exercises designed by physiotherapists to aid recovery are fundamentally flawed if the spinal column is vertical. Only exercises in a horizontal plane are safe and effective, and will not aggravate the situation.

The "Back Coach's" golden rule is that you should be lying down to do back exercises, as doing exercises in the horizontal plane allows the spine to be stretched without the weight of the body exerting a compressing element on any joints which are damaged. The routine of 'ultra friendly' back exercises would benefit injured athletes or ailing grannies. This philosophy has given birth to a series of easy exercises which are of benefit to all those interested in maintaining a healthy back. They are safe, easy to perform and physiologically sound for the back and its function. This routine is designed specifically to counter poor posture, muscle spasm and restricted movements and to allow the spine to function properly once again. Stretching is, after all, one of the oldest forms of body therapy and this routine is unbelievably simple; so simple that it works.

The University of Iowa's Spine Centre recently confirmed in a scientific study that backstretching devices cause the spine to lengthen at twice the effectiveness of bed rest. They concluded: "A single 10 minute usage of Neil Summers's Backstretcher has a statistically significant lengthening effect on the human spine. This means it reduces the pressure on the discs, which is exactly what is needed after the added compression and weight bearing activities of everyday life."


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About Neil Summers

Neil Summers has a MEd in exercise physiology. He is an international lecturer on physical education and a full-time exercise physiologist for Enanef Ltd, designing products for a healthy life. He served in the Royal Marine Special Forces and as a 'Body Coach' has helped heads of state, politicians, sporting stars and a whole host of Japanese, American and European celebrities. To find out more about Neil Summers's award-winning Backstretchers and Neil's upcoming back exercise book with Sharron Davies, please call 0700 222 5724.

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