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'Couch Back' is a thing, and it's a pain

Don't be this guy...

We’re well and truly in the thick of it all now, aren’t we? The Toy Show is but a memory, and the days have gotten so short it seems sunset is half an hour after sunrise. The optimists are making plans to get together over Christmas, while the pessimists are waiting for Nphet to pull the plug on those plans.

With all this happening, the one certainty over the next few weeks is that most of us will have some time off work. And let’s be honest, in that time off there’s a reasonable chance we’ll spend a bit more time sitting than usual. Sitting and socialising. Sitting and eating. Sitting and watching old movies, football or, in my case, the Ashes.

Anyone who has read more than a couple of these articles will know that I can get a bee in my bonnet over sitting. But for today I’m not going down the standard route of telling you to get moving for general health and longevity. Instead, let’s discuss the likelihood of your back getting stiff and sore from sitting too much. Because I’ve lost count of the number of calls I’ve had over the festive season from people whose socialising has been limited by back pain.

So, how to avoid the dreaded ‘couch back’? Well, the obvious thing is to get up and move reasonably frequently. By changing position frequently, joints and muscles are less likely to feel stiff. It seems almost too easy to be true, but by standing up and walking around the room every hour, you will drastically reduce your risk of back pain.

Of course, you could try one or all of my four favourite back exercises. These basic movements can be done pretty much anywhere, and while they are safe for most types of back pain, some care should be taken. It’s okay to work into discomfort, but if the exercise is genuinely painful, back off a little or stick to those that are easier for the time being.

Supple tips First try a knee roll. Lie on your back and bend your knees, keeping your feet on the ground. Now roll your knees from side to side like windscreen wipers. Don’t try to push the movement or to control it too much, instead let the momentum do the work. Swing your knees for a minute or two and, even if your back is quite sore, you should feel it loosen up a little.

For the next exercise, stay lying right where you are. Bring one leg up, grab onto your knee and pull it up and in towards the centre of your chest. As you do, you should feel a bit of a stretch in your buttock and maybe into your lower back. Hold it for about 20 seconds - without bouncing the leg - and do three or four on each side. If one side feels tighter than the other, do an extra one to try see if you can correct the imbalance a little.

Once upon a time I used to laugh at these next two exercises, because they seemed like old man movements. As old-man status rapidly approaches, I now do them myself! Stand up and place your hands on your hips or in the small of your back. Keeping your knees reasonably straight, bend back, letting your whole back arch as much as you can tolerate, then straighten up. Repeat the movement a few times. As you go, see if you can focus the movement into the areas that feel like they need it the most. For example, you might want to try to arch more under your ribs than at your waistband.

Lastly, stay standing, but this time let your knees bend a bit, almost like you’re about to hip a golf ball. Now drop your chin onto your chest, let your shoulders slouch and slowly roll yourself down towards the floor. Try to let your back relax as much as possible on the way down and just go to where you can tolerate. Then, keeping your chin on your chest and knees bent, roll your way back up again.

Remember, discomfort is okay, but pain is not. If one of the exercises hurts, leave it out and concentrate on the others. If your symptoms are more severe, or involve pain into your legs, ring your physio and get them off the couch. You’ll be doing them a favour.

This post first appeared in The Mayo News

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