Prioritizing Spine Health in 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic shut the door on much in 2020, but not back pain.

As I write this final blog in the year that was 2020, I’m sure I am not alone in hoping for a brighter, healthier New Year. People worldwide are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in various ways – from the extreme and heartbreaking – to the minor and inconvenient. But few have been left with no effects, and one thing is for sure – our collective spine health has taken a backburner. In some cases, that may seem appropriate. After all, most don’t consider the occasional bout with back pain a matter of life or death. But I am here to tell you – as with many things in the human body – a lack of care and keeping can result in significant and catastrophic consequences.

I understand that asking people to prioritize their spine health may seem laughable to some right now. But I do worry about the damage we’re doing in this regard, and I do think we need to turn it around – STAT. Protecting ourselves and those we care about from COVID-19 has resulted in many people heading home, indoors, and seated at a screened device for hours at a time. People work from home more than ever before, and millions of our nation’s schoolchildren switched from in-person to remote online learning. We were already heading in a sedentary direction that research has shown us proves catastrophic for spine health BEFORE the pandemic hit. I can only imagine where we’re at now. 

Please understand, I am not asking anyone to give up the safety precautions they are rightly taking concerning COVID-19 to consider their spines. What I am asking for us all to do is more than one thing at a time. I truly believe we CAN stay safe from COVID-19 while also taking care of our overall and spine health in such a way that we’re not trading one set of risk factors for another. Consider these tips to help achieve a better balance between protecting ourselves against infectious illness and caring for the health of the spines that will carry us (literally) through the rest of our lives. 

Exercise – This pandemic has taught us that good exercise doesn’t have to require a gym membership. I have seen some incredibly creative yet practical solutions to getting the body moving that don’t require much space at all. Commit this year to engage in exercises that elongate the spine. Walking, stretching, and yoga are all great options. They also don’t require any equipment or a whole lot of previous knowledge. As I would give with any exercise, one disclaimer is to clear it with your doctor first. DAILY movement is critical for the spine and overall health, but it can cause an injury that is counterproductive to the cause if not done correctly. 

Dietary Modification – Along with daily movement, we’ve got to make it a point to clean up our diets this year too. Convenience foods and drive-thru windows have taken the place of more nutritious fare in many households, and this again can have catastrophic consequences to spine health. Replace what you’re currently drinking with the same number of ounces in water, and your spine will thank you for it. We are what we eat and drink, and our spines are no exception to this. Calcium-rich foods are bone-strengtheners, and getting enough water is the lubrication for the muscles and ligaments that surround and protect the spine.

Stress Relief – 2020 was the most stressful year yet for many of us. Unfortunately, we also tend to carry much of that stress and tension in our backs and necks. Back and neck pain episodes were far from diminished this year. Make 2021 the year you actively work to manage your stress in productive ways – meditation, journaling, a walk around the block, whatever it is that helps you manage your stress and doesn’t put more strain on your spine is something to further explore in the coming year.

As I write this, the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine are deploying to every state in America. We are on our way to putting this pandemic in the rearview mirror. Let us all place a renewed focus on our health – spine and overall. After all, the healthy habits we create right now can help be their own kind of vaccine against illness and injury well into the future. That is something we can all celebrate in the coming year.

Neel Anand MD