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Chronic back and hip pain: Relief and prevention

As persistent as chronic back or hip pain is, you can soften its effects while continuing normal day-to-day activities. Sometimes, you can stave it off by making smart lifestyle changes. These steps are especially important as you age, and your chances of suffering from degenerative and inflammatory arthritis—common causes of back and hip pain—increase.

Chronic pain affects more than one in five people and is most common in middle-aged and older adults. Don’t let it get the best of you.

Tune out tension. One of the newest ways to fight back pain is with quiet, calm, relaxing music. A recent study found that people with herniated disks significantly reduced their lower-back pain by listening to music and doing relaxation exercises every day. After three weeks, the subjects who listened to music had 40 percent less pain than the subjects who didn’t make room for tunes. Why? Experts say the music reduces stress and muscular tension. So pop in some Bach or a soothing ballad.

Make your move. Regular exercise can help speed recovery for many patients with chronic pain; it helps reduce stress and increases flexibility and strength in the muscles that support your back. To avoid injury, talk to your doctor about exercises that are appropriate for you, and be sure to stretch before and after a workout. If any movement increases your pain, stop doing it. In general, stretching and strengthening exercises, such as pelvic tilts and hamstring stretches, help keep your back healthy. But certain exercises actually increase lower back pain: Avoid double leg lifts (lifting both legs while lying prone) and touching your toes while standing.

Staying fit has another benefit, too; it can help you burn calories and lose weight. Carrying around extra pounds strains back muscles and compresses the disks in your lower back. A big belly moves your center of gravity forward, making the spine muscles work harder to support the spine—yet one more incentive to get down to a healthy weight.

Walking is an excellent exercise for pain sufferers, because it’s easy on the back and joints. It impacts the body less than jogging, and the more you walk, the more you’ll notice that your back doesn’t tire as easily. Exercise in warm water is particularly good for relieving arthritis pain in the hip joints, since the water is relaxing and its buoyancy makes moving easier.

Sit up straight. Your mom was right. No slouching—keep your head and shoulders erect. Stand tall and proud, don’t slump and try to keep abdominal muscles tight.

Sitting the wrong way can also strain your back muscles and ligaments, so they can’t do as effective a job of holding you up. Make sure your desk and computer keyboard are at comfortable heights so you don’t have to hunch forward. If your office chair doesn’t support you adequately, use a small pillow or rolled towel behind your lower back. And once an hour, stand up and stretch. Place your hand on your lower back and gently arch backward. When you return to your chair, change sitting positions if possible.

When you drive, pull your seat forward so that the brake, gas pedal and steering wheel are easy to reach. On long road trips, stop often to stretch and walk a little.

Rise and shine. You’ll probably spend at least one third of your life in bed, so you need a mattress firm enough to support your back. If you have to put a board underneath it for support—or if your back hurts when you wake up—it’s probably time to get a new mattress.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to get out of bed, too. If you’re prone to back trouble, don’t just pop right up. Instead, roll onto your side, bend both knees and drop your feet over the side as you push up with both arms to a sitting position. Scoot to the edge of the bed and stand. That way, you’re far less likely to strain your back.

Think positive. Studies show that people who are unhappy at home tend to have more back problems and take longer to get over them than people who have a sunny attitude.

And let’s face it, chronic pain itself can trigger depression. Take time for you—and if you need counseling, seek it.

Stop smoking! Experts say that smoking not only interferes with the bone restoration that occurs in our bodies every day, but it also damages the small blood vessels that supply the elastic tissue and supporting material of the many joints in the back.

Talk to your doctorabout other options for pain management. Remember, chronic pain doesn’t have to control you—you can control it.

The right way to lift

To stop stressing your back and joints, learn to lift properly. Don’t just bend over at the waist. Instead, place your feet shoulder-width apart for balance and support, bend your knees, tighten your stomach muscles and let your leg muscles do the work. Do this whenever you scoop something up, whether it’s the dog’s dish, the bath mat or a grocery bag.