3 Health Habits That Mess With Your Back

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that three of the most typical New Year's health related resolutions are to quit smoking, lose weight and get more exercise. But did you know that following through on these commitments may also help you relieve back pain?

A 2008 study from Sweden (Björck-van Dijken, RPT, et. al) published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine entitled "Low Back Pain, Lifestyle Factors and Physical Activity: A Population Based Study" found that among other things, being a regular smoker and having a BMI over 25 raise the risk low back pain.

Note: BMI stands for Body Mass Index. It is a measure of how much body fat a person has, and is calculated using your height and weight. If you don't know what your BMI is you can calculate it here:

The study also found that adults—especially women—whose jobs require them to exert a lot of physical effort but who spent their leisure time being sedentary had a slightly higher risk. (Additional risk factors identified by the study include low education and living in a small community.)

It is common knowledge that quitting smoking may have a positive effect on the health of your lungs.  We know that both regular exercise and maintaining an ideal weight for your height and age may help ward off degenerative health issues such as cancer, stroke and/or heart disease.  Let's now explore how these desirable health habits can more directly influence the health of your back.

Quitting Smoking

For smokers with back problems, quitting may yield an array of benefits.

Smoking may reduce the blood supply to your spinal structures. It also interferes with bone metabolism and increases the risk of fracture—especially if, in addition to being a smoker, you don't exercise regularly.

If you are planning to have a spinal fusion, your post operative road to recovery may be more difficult as a smoker.

This is because smoking increases the risk for a non-union (called pseudoarthrosis.) In essence, if you have a pseudoarthrosis, you may need to redo the original surgery.

And if the above facts about smoking and back pain are not enough to get you motivated to quit, perhaps the thought of experiencing pain unnecessarily will be.  Smoking is thought to influence the perception pain—by amplifying it during those times when nicotine is denied.

Successful Weight Management

Perhaps the most obvious danger to your spine of carrying extra weight is the extra pressure this puts on your joints, soft tissue and posture. An expanded girth in front may take your pelvis into anterior pelvic tilt, which in turn may tighten up your low back muscles or cause strain. The extra compression on your spinal column may hasten degenerative changes and/or increase your risk for back conditions such as herniated disc, spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis, DISH (hardening of spinal ligaments) and more.

And similar to smoking, having back surgery while overweight or obese may present problems you otherwise may not have to face. In particular, the higher your BMI the more at risk for surgical complications you may be.

Get Regular Exercise

It is well known that exercise may help improve your health status and prevent disease. Exercise also plays a big role in back pain prevention as well as many types of spine rehab. Strong, flexible muscles—especially those of the hips, shoulders and core help align your spine, support your as you move and prevent injury.

The good news is that exercising for back pain relief does not have to take a lot of time or be an intense workout. In fact, when you first start. working moderately may yield the best results. Here are a couple of beginner programs to get you started.


Christina Björck-van Dijken, RPT, MSc1,2, Anncristine Fjellman-Wiklund, RPT, PhD2 and Christer Hildingsson, MD, PhD1. LOW BACK PAIN, LIFESTYLE FACTORS AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: A POPULATION-BASED STUDY. J Rehabil Med 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19242625

Calculate Your Body Mass Index. Aim for a Healthy Weight. NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH. Accessed Dec 2014. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm