Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series on healthy back and shoulders.
The back is an amazing complex of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves that work together so that we are able to move and carry out life’s activities. It serves as such an essential part of our body that many of us take our backs for granted until pain or injury causes us to realize that something has gone wrong.
Back and shoulder injuries manifest themselves in many different ways, from temporary nagging aches, chronic pain, or even slipped disks that require surgery. According to “The Healthy Back Book” by Dr. Astrid Pujari and Nancy Schatz Alton, “eight out of 10 Americans will suffer from low-back pain at least once during their lifetimes.”
Fortunately there are many simple ways to strengthen and protect the back and shoulders in order to prevent injury. The first fundamental habit for a healthy back requires maintaining good posture. Common examples of poor posture include sitting or standing slouched forward and/or with slumping shoulders. Rebecca Albert, the massage therapist at A Dance of Hands Massage in Juneau summarizes good posture as “ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips.” This easy-to-remember phrase means that the head, torso, and hips are in their natural alignment which respects the natural curves in our spine near our neck and lower back.
“Good posture naturally promotes a calm and relaxed state of mind leaving you more physically and mentally stable. Correct posture means a broad chest, pushed slightly forward with the chin somewhat tucked rather than jutting up or out,” Albert said.
If we spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen, she said we should be able to look directly at the screen in front of us without straining our necks up or down.
“The shoulders should also be down, away from the ears,” she adds.
Albert recommends making small adjustments to our surroundings in order to encourage good posture. For instance, she makes it a habit to adjust the side and rearview mirrors in her car to correspond to when she sits with good posture. If she starts to slouch or hunch forward, she is forced to revert back to good posture in order to use the mirrors and drive safely.
Another trick is to choose a chair where the feet can rest flat on the ground and the arms can rest on the desk at a 90 degree angle. Some chairs offer lumbar support, which means that they are especially designed to support the lower back. For chairs that do not offer this support, Albert recommends placing a small cushion between the lower back and the back of the chair.
Today, many of us spend the majority of our day sitting; however excessive sitting can result in poor posture, weak back muscles, shortened ligaments and tendons, and increased muscle tension. These conditions set us up for back and muscle pain and possibly injury.
“It’s a difficult situation for the body. We’re not designed to sit all day. Our bodies are meant to move,” observes Judy Macnak, the massage therapist at Sacred Forest Healing Arts in Juneau. “If you find yourself locked in one position for hours, make sure to take breaks, stand up, walk around, or do stretches,” recommends Macnak.
Physical activity is critical for a healthy back.
Especially in summer, Macnak offers a reminder: “It’s important to not get in the habit of being sedentary and inactive all week and then suddenly go on a big outdoors adventure or sporting event. Find ways to be active during the week in preparation for the weekend.”
Stress also plays a big role in affecting back and shoulder health.
“With so much work at computers and desks, we need to take time to check-in with ourselves and shed stress throughout the day,” Macnak said.
As a massage therapist, Macnak assists clients with back pain by viewing the person in a holistic manner and having the client discern the relationship between their life situations and their physical health.
“People recognize where they put their stress because can feel the tension in certain places, for example, on their back or shoulders,” she said. “Sometimes with chronic back issues, it’s important to look at what’s going on emotionally. Sometimes the back is rigid and stiff and you wonder if there is some kind of rigidity in this person’s life.”
For someone who slouches or slumps, Macnak notes “You might get a sense about a lack of support this person feels in their life.”
Effective stress management and bodywork therapies such as massage therapy can help facilitate relaxation and healing for back pain.
“The body really knows how to heal itself. We just have to relax and get out of the way,” Macnak said.
Anyone interested in learning more about massage therapy is welcome to attend an open house on form 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Sacred Forest Healing Arts and A Dance of Hands massage therapy studio at 2203 Dunn St. in the valley. For more information, call Judy Macnak at 723-7947 or Rebecca Albert at 209-4900.
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org