When someone “throws out their back”, it could mean any number of things has taken place. They may have pulled a muscle or strained a ligament. In some cases of arthritis, they may have “pinched” a nerve along one of the jagged surfaces of a bone in the spine.

Some people “throw out their back” more often than others, so let’s take a look at some of the contributory factors. This way, you can see if you may have any red flags and take action to prevent this from happening to you.

Here are the top four factors that are common among patients in my own chiropractic practice who tend to “throw out” their backs most often (along with some preventable measures):

Rotational Movements. When people throw out their lower or midback, they usually say they were doing some rotational movement at the time. Specifically, front-loading the lower back vertebrae and then twisting as they come back toward a neutral position.

Giving one last round of goodbye hugs to young grandchildren, shoveling snow, cleaning the garage and taking out the trash are all examples of activities that cause us to have much rotational movement in our mid and lower back.

2 Tips: Before doing these activities, make sure your chin is retracted just like a soldier at attention. Not tucking your chin down but locking it back. When you do this, it’s pretty much impossible to have bad mid and lower back posture.

Another tip is to find your belly button and trace around the other side to your lower back. This should be at the level of L3 which is the middle of your lower back. If you can, try to pinch the skin from the top-to-bottom. Now pretend that you are golfing with an iron from the fairway. When you go down to lift something, you should be able to maintain that skin pinch. If your skin stretches and you do not maintain that “skin pinch”, this means that you’re front loading your spine and transferring your weight to discs. Over time, this can lead to cracking and bulging of the discs which are the cushions between your individual vertebrae.

Obesity. Obesity associated with various health problems. This includes weakness in the connective tissues that hold the vertebrae together. Muscles and ligaments distend outward, from the middle. This weakens the integrity of the spinal structure, especially when bending…and even more so when bending and then rotating (twisting). Not only that, it accelerates the effects of gravity. Gravity compresses the spine and the extra weight can turn a good spine into a bad one and a bad spine into a potentially non-recoverably bad one.

Tip: Lose the extra weight. If you’ve tried unsuccessfully in the past you need to change your approach. Consider what you’re motivated by. In high school I was assigned to visit a laryngectomee support group and write about my experience. Sitting around a bunch of people with a hole in their neck sounding like a robot with their speech device was enough to convince me to not make certain lifestyle choices. There are genetic factors involved a lot of times with excess weight, but anything you can to drop a couple of pounds will be helpful.

Lack of Water. Now we’re getting into factors involving the spinal discs. A healthy disc contains about 90% water. You probably are not getting enough water every day. You need to forget about the “8 glasses of water” idea. It doesn’t take a genius to know that no two glasses are the same size and, if you’re like most people, you forget how many glasses you’re on by the time you get to your fourth one. Glasses don’t work very well for running errands either because they can break and spill easily.

Tip: Your best bet is to get a large container that you fill up once or twice a day. It should be calibrated on the side with the number of ounces or milliliters. This way you can keep track of what you’re taking in. A rule of thumb is to take your weight (in pounds) and divide it by two. Take this number in OUNCES and this is how much water you should be putting down every day.

I know it seems like a lot. The good news is it will help you with your oxygen circulation and you’ll find that you need to use the restroom less often over time. And if you’re overweight, this will HELP you lose weight because dehydration and obesity go together.

You probably like your water on the colder side but consider this. You won’t pass water out of your body until it is cooked up to body temperature. It will slosh around in your stomach until it is warm enough to be absorbed or eliminated. If you have cold water all the time, you won’t have enough time in the day to get all this water into your system.

The good news is that, when you adequately hydrate, notice the benefits within a couple days and you won’t mind the warmer water. I recommend slightly warmer than room temperature if possible. Many people even report a surge of energy when they drink hot water because they can feel it absorbing and disbursing into their limbs fairly quickly. Of course, the water shouldn’t be so hot that you’re forced to sip it like hot tea. It should be chug-able.

Spinal Misalignments. As a chiropractor, I can tell you that there are certain categories of misalignments that affect people. Overly simplifying, there are small and simple, big and simple, small and complex, big and complex, and there are those nasty ones that are very complicated.

Staying with the theme of healthier discs = healthier spine = less chance of “throwing your back out”, what I can tell you is this: healthy spines do not get “thrown out”, and when they DO “go out”, it is usually due to a cascade of events: 1) the spine misaligns; 2) there is an altered center of gravity; 3) there are altered centers of motion; 4) the disc(s) wedge; 5) the disc(s) bulge; 6) the disc(s) protrude; 7) the disc(s) herniate; 8) the disc(s) rupture.

What To Do: Ruptured discs will usually need surgery. Sometimes, herniated discs will need surgery. Herniated and ruptured discs are often associated with unrelenting pain that keeps you awake at night, numbness in the groin, loss of bowel or bladder function and sudden impotence.

If you don’t have a ruptured disc, there’s a good chance that chiropractic can help you get out of pain. It’s important to know that not all chiropractors are the same. It is very unfortunate when someone says to me “My doctor said I shouldn’t see a chiropractor because of my disc problem”. That medical doctor does not realize that there are different kinds of chiropractors who are skilled in different areas.

While it’s not for me to judge the ethics of a medical doctor who says “don’t go to a chiropractor” (I’ve personally NEVER told a patient to not see a medical doctor. I basically try to steer away from giving advice on things I’m not an expert in, such as medicine so I don’t GIVE medical advice), I actually understand where they’re coming from. If they see chiropractic as potentially creating MORE rotational movement in their back that is already “thrown out”, then YES – that is likely to make the problem worse. A side-lying, one leg crossed over the other position plus a high velocity thrust can certainly create more rotational stress in the discs of the spine.
Yet, the safer approach would be to keep the spine in it’s neutral position during the treatment.

At our office, we do our work from the top of the neck. A long way from where the back get’s “thrown out”, right?
Think about it. Your lower and midback are actually very strong. They have to be – they support 2/3 of your body weight. But just think, all those nerves that control those muscles eventually have to trace back to the BRAIN and from there they have to trace DOWN through the weakest link in the spine, that being the top of the neck. The SIDEMOST part of the brain stem, after all, controls the tone of the muscles that anchor your lower back to your pelvis.

A misalignment of the top couple vertebrae in the spine could result in one leg being shorter than the other, one hip being higher than the other, a twisting of the body framework, uneven muscle tone in the spine and breakdown of the individual spinal discs. Just like tuning a guitar, we gently reposition the top two bones in the neck and for most people it balances out all these factors very well.

The only way water can get into the spinal is PASSIVELY, like a sponge through a pumping/back-and-forth motion, which naturally happens when the spine is in correct alignment.

Back pain is not 100% preventable but following these steps will make you stronger, more resilient, more flexible and more confident that you won’t suffer a setback especially when being at your best is demanded of you!