Back injury stories often start with someone explaining that "everything was feeling just fine until ..." a single twist, jump, stretch or lift ruined everything.
But the truth is that usually isn't what's behind the pain.
Those sudden crippling spasms and twinges are most likely the result of a body that was neglected and has grown weaker over time, says Larry Collins, physicians assistant at the University of South Florida's Department of Orthopedic and Sports Medicine. Back muscles, bones and joints that lose flexibility can't support your head, chest, torso and legs.
"It's all these little deficits that add up," he says.
Collins and Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise, say there are simple common sense practices that can help you avoid getting caught off guard with a sudden back injury. And if you do, there are a few ways to heal and get back to health.
"If you have a back episode, it's not a life sentence," Matthews says.
DO watch your weight. DON'T look for a quick fix.
"It's often a gradual gain so you don't notice it," Collins says of the added pounds backs are asked to bear. "That's a significant stress on your body," The key is creating a balanced, long-term approach to losing weight that includes regular exercise and getting enough sleep.
DO stabilize your core. DON'T think hardcore workouts are a must.
The idea of no pain, no gain "goes out the window" for people looking to improve their back stability, Matthews says. "While exercise is certainly important, it's also important we are setting ... a foundation for quality movement," she says. Avoid sit-ups and focus on back-friendly exercises, such as the side and front planks and the bird dog.
DO rest an injury. But DON'T rest too much.
Rest is critical to recovery, but four or five days may be too long to sit - or lie - still. Collins says. A key is "active rest," which helps restore movement and flexibility without placing too much pressure on a sore back. "Start getting your body moving in the right direction again," Collins says.
DO know your age. DON'T use it as an excuse.
Aging takes its toll on your back, particularly the disks between each vertebrae. Combat it by incorporating stretching and flexibility exercises into your daily routine. Collins suggests stretching the legs and back first thing each morning. Matthews says exercises should focus on muscles with any relationship to the back.
DO try different exercises and treatments. DON'T think it's a cure.
Serious back injuries need professional attention, with an orthopedist, acupuncture or chiropractic care. And physical therapy, yoga or massage can be part of the recovery. Collins says. But it's all for naught if you're not willing to take back injury prevention seriously. "Just seeing a chiropractor two times a week will help, but it won't fix it," he says.