Here’s one simple yet important health-related question for you: how much time will you be sitting today—eating your meals, driving to and from work, doing your job, and relaxing in front of screens? Six hours? Eight hours? Twelve hours? Once you’ve totaled your time, ask yourself a follow-up: do you find yourself hurting physically?

If so, you’re not alone. Back and neck problems are affecting Americans of all ages at epidemic levels. Back pain is the biggest cause of disability in the world, and over thirty million Americans are afflicted with lower back problems. Experts estimate the vast majority of people will have back or neck problems at some point in their lives.

And, as much as it hurts individuals, it also hurts the bottom line. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), low back and neck pain is the third-costliest of all American medical conditions, with a price tag of over $50 billion in healthcare costs and lost wages.

Our Aching Backs

So why are our spines in such sad shape? At times, it occurs because of how much strain we put on our backs. Lower back problems often occur, and sometimes persist, by lifting something heavy too quickly, too frequently, or with poor technique. And, as we get older, our backs get weaker and we’re more apt to develop arthritic conditions and have problems with sciatica as our discs—the cushions of our vertebrae—degenerate. Back pain can also be caused by scoliosis, bulging discs, fractures, and other conditions.

However, the prime culprit for back problems appears to be our Western lifestyle—especially in the twenty-first century. You probably spend many more hours sitting each day than you do standing or moving. And when you’re sitting, you’re likely not maintaining a proper posture—choosing instead to slouch or hunch over—resulting in muscle tension and an unnatural shape to your spine.

Necks on the Line

Let’s not forget about similar impacts on the other end of the spine: the neck. People suffer neck injuries, of course, such as whiplash, especially in car accidents. And you might hear people complain about having a crick in the neck, which could be a muscle strain or joint problem. But on a day-to-day basis, the neck, also known as the cervical spine, puts in a lot of work just by holding up the head—the full weight of which is, on average, about twelve pounds—for most of every single day.

And that’s if the head’s held in perfect alignment. If you look at your phone frequently, you might be shocked at what you’re doing to your neck. One study estimates that, even if you hold your head only slightly forward at a fifteen-degree angle, the force on your neck becomes twenty-seven pounds. If you prefer full-out looking-down-at-your-hand mode, the force balloons to sixty pounds at sixty degrees. In the long term, such constant craning of your neck over your phone can also lead to an increasingly common condition called text neck. Talk about devices being a pain in the neck!

Back to Basics

Hope is not lost, however. There are several things you can do to help protect, strengthen, and improve these vital areas of your body.

CHECK IN.

First and foremost, talk to your doctor, who can do an examination, help you find the specific cause of your back or neck issues, and recommend a course of treatment. Options often include medicine, heat therapy, and—as medical professionals are more frequently leaning toward alternatives to medicines and surgery—chiropractic solutions and physical therapy.

SENSE HOW YOU SLEEP.

What’s your favorite sleep position? Believe it or not, your answer might hold the key to your neck or back problems. Experts say that the best position for your back and neck is lying flat on your back, with your arms lying by your sides and, for added measure, a pillow underneath your knees for even more lower-back support. (Good luck with the snoring, though.) Side sleeping is also acceptable. On the flip side, sleeping on your stomach, which is a relatively unnatural sleep position, can make it worse for your neck and back. No matter what, make sure that your mattress and pillow are comfortable and that they provide support.

RESTORE YOUR CORE.

Your body is always readjusting and compensating for what you put it through, which is one of the reasons we sleep and is the basis for bodybuilders and athletes building muscle. But long-term damage can occur if your spine is compensating for added weight. If you’re carrying extra fat, especially around your midsection, it can lead to back problems—particularly for your lower back. So if you strengthen your core abdominal, back, and pelvic muscles through exercise or even walking properly, you can reset the base for the rest of your body, which, in turn, can also help your neck and back realign where they should be.

PERFECT YOUR POSTURE.

Perhaps the best way to take control of your back and neck health is to relearn proper posture, especially while sitting. If you are in front of a screen all day, adjust your chair or monitor to make sure that your screen is at eye level so you’re not tilting your head forward. (See more sitting tips above.) To stand properly, the ACA recommends keeping your weight primarily on the balls of your feet, your knees somewhat bent, your feet and earlobes aligned with your shoulders, and your shoulders pulled backward as you stand tall and elongate your torso. Also, get up and walk around each hour to give your body a break. When you do, make sure you wear comfortable shoes that support your feet.

THE AMERICAN CHIROPRACTIC ASSOCIATION (ACA) RECOMMENDS THE FOLLOWING WHILE SEATED:

  • Make sure your feet don’t dangle, and keep your ankles in front of your knees.
  • Keep your knees slightly in front of your seat and at the same level or slightly below your hips.
  • Relax your shoulders, and keep your forearms parallel to the ground.
  • Provide support to your lower and middle back while sitting in a chair.

Your back and neck are literally what keep you moving, day in and day out, so make sure that you care for them the way you should. If you take the time to make changes to your everyday routine and learn to become self-aware about how you carry your body, you can get back to living a healthier, more enjoyable life.

For more info, visit acatoday.org