Human Lab: Back Pain
Americans spend a whopping $50 billion a year trying to find comfort for their aching backs, a figure that doesn't surprise Dr. William Levine, orthopedic surgeon and Director of Sports Medicine at Columbia University. "It's one of the most common problems we see in medicine," he tells Rachael. "The two positions that cause the most pressure on the back are standing and sitting, and that's pretty much what we do all day long." In order to test some of the products that claim to alleviate back pain, Rachael enlists the help of four athletes who have put their bodies through a lot more than standing and sitting:
Laura Wilkinson, 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist in Diving
"When you go off 10 meter [platform], you hit [the water] like 30 to 35 miles per hour," Laura explains. "You feel like you're hitting cement sometimes. Over time, that's going to take a toll on your body, especially your back." A diver for 15 years, Laura says that her back pain developed gradually, and probably stemmed from hitting the water wrong a few times. Now retired, she still likes to work out, and she continues to feel stiffness and aches in her back. "To be pain-free, and know that all day long I could do whatever I wanted to do and it wouldn't hurt, that would be very freeing," Laura says.
Laura tries Back2Life Therapeutic Massager, which claims to ease back pain by loosening tight muscles and releasing pressure between the vertebrae.
Peter Vidmar, 1984 Gold Medalist in Gymnastics
"Being an Olympic gymnast is fantastic," Peter says, "but as with any physical activity, there are aches and pains associated with it." He still likes to work out in the sport that won him two gold medals and one silver medal in the 1984 games, but it does cause him some discomfort. "My back pain tends to flare up if I do intense physical activity for prolonged periods of time, or if I'm sedentary," Peter explains. "I may not consider giving up one of my gold medals to get rid of my low back pain, but it would be nice if I had something that might alleviate the pain."
Peter tries Dr. Bakst Magnetic Back Support, which claims to relieve general lower back pain and discomfort by using 28 high-powered magnets to block pain flow along the nerves to the brain.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, 2006 Olympic Silver Medalists in "Pairs Ice Dancing"
In their 11 years as skating partners, Tanith and Ben have racked up an Olympic silver medal, five US national ice dancing titles, and their share of aches and pain. "We have to create interesting movements, dance to the music," Ben says, "so it puts a lot of strain on the back." Tanith adds, "I pretty much always have back pain -- just general aching all over." The pair has not given up hope that they'll have pain-free backs one day: "If there's anything that can help us, we want to get out hands on it now!"
Tanith and Ben try the StressRoller, which claims to reduce chronic back pain by releasing muscle tension and nerve pressure around the spine.
According to Dr. Levine, there are two things people need to keep in mind when it comes to taking care of their back. "The first is posture, posture, posture," he says, explaining that when you sit, you should pull your shoulders back so that your arms are behind you, not in front. "The second thing is that core strengthening is probably above all other things the thing that works the best. That means strengthening your abdominal muscles, your pelvic muscles and your lower back muscles. Swimming is one of the best activities because you're not standing, you're not sitting, you're not putting any pressure on your spine at all."
He cautions: "There's a misconception out there that bed rest is a good remedy for back pain, and there's probably nothing further from the truth for most people who have back pain. You want to do some activity. You want to try to have a strong back, and you want to try to get your muscles back on track."
Dr. Levine advises, "Before you start any exercise programs, you should speak to a doctor and make sure you don't have anything more serious."
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