By Anne Asher
Updated December 17, 2010
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.
'Tis the season of amplified stress. Party prep, mammoth shopping treks, disrupted schedules and emotions that run high are just a few of the things that could threaten your spine health. If you are prone to back pain or neck pain, how do you keep it all under control? Here are 10 tips for managing spine problems during the holidays.
If you're traveling during the holidays, stress can get physical - fast. The heavier your suitcases and the more of them you carry, the more load you put on your spine. Most likely, you won't remember to keep perfect posture while traipsing through airport concourses lugging backpacks, carry-on bags, and with a kid or two in tow. A preemptive move may be in order here: Think carefully about what you'll take with you. Will you really be reading that extra book, wearing that heavy winter sweater, or going at it with your laptop?
Once you've chosen (carefully) what you intend to pack, the next consideration is load balance. Try to put larger, heavier items on the bottom of your suitcase, or place them so that they are closest to your body when you lift or carry the bag. Lighter things should go toward the outside. Also, don’t put all your heavy items on one side of your suitcase. These packing tips are easily adaptable for backpacks as well.
The laws of physics state that the further away a load is from your core body, the harder you have to work to carry it, and the more stress it puts on your joints. Translation: Carry your suitcases close to your body.
It was a beautiful day for back pain sufferers when the marketplace rolled out wheeled suitcase models. Be sure to use this type of luggage, but don't use it as an excuse to bring even more stuff with you!
You may be managing pretty well right now, but once you start traveling, getting ready for holiday celebrations or dealing with more than the usual amount of stress, your risk for back muscle strain or other injury may increase. For minor problems, use an over-the-counter pain medication such as Tyenol, Motrin or even aspirin (Motrin and aspirin are NSAIDs; Tylenol is not.)
Before the season gets in full swing, familiarize yourself with how to use an array of at-home therapies. You might even invest in a short first aid and CPR class. If a serious back or neck injury occurs, you'll need to make decisions quickly and possibly administer the initial medical care. It's best to do so from a place of knowledge and skill.
The season's extra pressures may lead to back muscle spasms. Most of the time this type of back pain is not serious, but can be a bear. Spasms may be exaggerated by strength or flexibility imbalances in your hip or back muscle groups.
If your back seizes up on you, try lying supine with your knees bent and your lower legs supported. You might lie on the floor, bend your knees and put your legs on the seat of a chair. If you can't get down to the floor, lie on a bed and build up pillows and other objects under your lower legs until your hip and knee joints form 90-degree angles. This position should feel good. If it brings on more pain, it's not for you. If it feels okay, breathe, relax, and release.
Many times, back pain is caused by tension in the muscles around the hips and pelvis. Chronic tension, as well as tension from physical exertion, may alter the alignment of your pelvis and spine. For example, tight hamstring muscles may lead to a condition known as flat low back posture. Poorly aligned or non-neutral positioning may cause back pain or other spinal problem.
Should the holiday's activities bring on spine pain that's not relieved by other methods, try stretching your back and hip muscles. Stretch for the hamstrings, quadriceps, psoas, adductors and gluteus medius in particular may provide relief. Here are instructions for stretching the hip muscles from About.com's Guide to Exercise.
Come on now, how long does it really take you to do your back exercises? If you do pelvic tilts, a bridge, some abdominal work and a yoga pose or two (I suggest the supine spinal twist and cobra, provided your back can handle it), it might take all of 10 minutes. So find the time. I like doing them first thing in the morning, because once I finish, I know it's done for the day.
Most spine experts recommend doing your back exercises every single day, but if you just can't, don't let that stop you from doing something. Keeping an abbreviated routine going during the holidays may still provide you with the muscle support, joint flexibility, and muscle balance necessary to avoid pain or an injury.
Okay, so you don't even have time for a modified back exercise program during the busy holiday season. What do you do?
Studies looking at recreational activities show that fit people have less back pain. Try to do some type of physical activity every day or every other day. In other words, don't let the change to your usual routine stop you from participating in more generic forms of exercise. Taking a daily walk with family members or a friend, for example, may not only help you minimize holiday weight gain, but may also keep your back tuned up.
If your back hurts, you can modify your chosen fitness activity to accomodate that pain. So no excuses -- stay as active as your holiday schedule and your back will allow.
First, be vigilant about maintaining your current medication schedule. Holidays are notorious for disruption, so taking extra precaution to avoid missing doses is a must. Ask your doctor if you should make any adjustments based on your anticipated stress levels (physical and emotional).
Second, be aware of possible drug-food interactions. In the digestive tract, foods and medications are processed in much the same way. But during the holidays you may find yourself consuming foods or spices to which you are not accustomed. This could increase the risk of a drug interacting with your food, and causing an upset stomach or other distress.
Most types of back pain resolve with little or no treatment. However, there are a few signs that indicate the need for a doctor or a trip to the emergency room. When in doubt, it is important to call your doctor.
If you are having problems controlling your bladder or bowel and/or your legs have been growing progressively weaker, you should see a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. If you have a fever, it could be an infection such as meningitis, and prompt care is important.
Pain or other nerve symptoms down a leg or arm, pain that gets worse when you bend your spine, trauma to the spine and pain that lasts longer than 3 weeks are also serious. Most likely, though, they not life-threatening.
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