HEALTH & FITNESS - Aching back? You've got company

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It is estimated that 80 percent of the American population will experience back pain throughout their lives.

From stiff necks and tight shoulder blades to achy lower backs, these discomforts are a result of daily work including heavy lifting or sedentary desk jobs.

A person has three main areas of the spinal column: the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. The cervical spine, eight vertebrae labeled C1-C8, accounts for the neck region and is smaller in size compared to the other spinal regions. The "mid-back" or thoracic regions consist of 12 vertebrate, T1-T12, and connects the rib cage to the spine. The lumbar spine, five vertebrae known as L1-L5, is larger than the other two areas. Back pain is possible in any of the three regions, but is most common in the lower back.

Lower back pain accounts for 10 percent of all chronic health conditions in the U.S. Long-term employees who work in construction or manual labor are at high risk for low back pain or an injury. Back injuries cost American organizations millions of dollars annually due to lost days of work, disability payments and medical coverage. This type of injury has been labeled as the most expensive condition in America.

Generally a doctor will label back pain as acute, recurrent or chronic. Acute is pain that lasts less than three months, whereas chronic is a constant pain lasting longer than three months. Recurrent pain is when acute episodes come back sporadically. Beyond work injuries, back pain is also caused from tight leg muscles, birth defects or degeneration of the bone such as osteoporosis. Frequent symptoms of back discomfort include sharp pain, stiffness, burning or spasms in a specific or general area.

In exercise science research, there is a strong correlation between back pain and unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles that include smoking, eating a poor diet and stress. Prevention of back pain is the best solution. Aerobic, strength and flexibility training have been known not only to aid in easing the pain, but can prevent work-related back injuries.

A common but usually unknown fact is that tight hip flexors, hamstrings and gluteus muscles cause lower back discomfort. A simple resolution is to choose at least two to three stretches per muscle group and hold it for 20 to 30 seconds each.

Low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking, biking, swimming and water aerobics are healthy cardiovascular techniques to strengthen the core muscles.

People with chronic pain can benefit from resistance exercise including yoga and Pilates as well as utilizing resistance equipment such as bands, exercise balls and light weights.

Generally, people with weak core muscles suffer from pain as well as improper posture. The core, which includes the back, abdominals and obliques, should be the strongest muscles in the body. When these muscles are weak it causes a muscular imbalance of strength and flexibility and pain can occur in the weak areas.

Unfortunately, for those with scoliosis, osteoporosis, herniated discs or spondylolisthesis, back pain may be a lifelong irritant that is only eased through exercise and healthy life choices. A healthy spine can make or break a strong, vigorous-feeling body and spinal column.

Just remember, it is never too late to activate a healthy back and lifestyle.

Elizabeth Kovar has been working in the fitness industry since 2006 with international experience in India and Australia. She has a master's degree in recreation and tourism and is a programs coordinator at the YMCA where she trains, instructs fitness classes and assists in marketing projects. She welcomes questions and comments and can be reached at ekovar@wwymca.org.

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