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January 4, 2011

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Home » Feature » Health and Environment

Stand straight and get backbone

BAD posture and modern sedentary life cause problems like back and neck pain, curvature of the spine and pinched nerves. It's important to stand and sit straight, take breaks and exercise, advises Zhang Qian.

The spine supports the weight of the body, enabling it to stand and walk upright - a straight spine is the basis of good posture and important to good health.

But the spine is vulnerable to stress and can be distorted and damaged by years of bad posture, as well as the wear and tear of aging.

Chronic back strain, lower back pain, stiff neck and deformation of the spinal column are common in modern cities where much of the workforce sits at desks or on assembly lines. Lack of activity and exercise is a major causes of back problems.

As people age and bones become more porous (osteoporosis) and fragile, years of bad posture take their toll and the spine is more likely to be damaged.

Other associated problems are compressed discs (cushions between the vertebrae), herniated discs - these pinch the spinal nerve causing pain - abnormal lateral curvature of the spine and degenerative joint disease, among other ailments.

Doctors strongly recommend good posture, frequent movement and change of position as well as regular physical exercise. Traditional Chinese medicine doctors emphasize the importance of staying warm and avoiding "pathogenic" cold (yin energy) and "pathogenic" damp.

The spinal column or backbone is like the trunk of a tree. It keeps the body upright, enables movement and protects the spinal cord, the bundle of nerves that connects almost all parts of the body with the brain.

The spine has 33 bones, or vertebrae, running from the skull to the lower back, the tailbone, and these are cushioned by discs between them.

According to TCM, the spinal cord also governs the yang (hot energy) of the body and healthy yang is important to health, according to Dr Zhan Hongsheng, chief of Orthopedics and Trauma at Shuguang Hospital attached to the Shanghai University of TCM. He discussed the protection of the spinal column and health maintenance at the Shanghai Sun Island Health Maintenance Forum in December.

The spine is an important part of TCM's meridian system. Meridians are invisible channels through which qi or energy flows through the body.

In TCM theory, du mai (the governor meridian) runs vertically through a straight and healthy spinal column. Six yang meridians pass vertically through the spine. They include the large intestine, small intestine, san jiao, stomach, gallbladder and bladder meridians.

San jiao, or triple energizer, refers to the spaces in the trunk, composed of three jiaos - shang jiao, zhong jiao and xia jiao. Shang jiao (upper burner) includes lungs and heart, associated with respiration; zhong jiao (middle burner) includes stomach and spleen, associated with digestion; and xia jiao (lower burner) includes small intestine, large intestine, kidney and bladder, associated with elimination.

"Most organs have their reflexive points on the back near the spinal column, which makes the spinal column important in diagnosis, treatment and health maintenance," says Dr Zhan. Acupuncture and acupressure on these points can influence organ health.

Damage, including years of bad posture, may trigger other problems such as abnormal blood pressure, blood sugar and heart and digestive problems, say Dr Zhan.

"It is very likely that spinal column damage is a major cause of for many chronic non-infectious diseases," says Dr Zhan. That makes protecting the spine and reduce strain on the backbone essential for health maintenance.

Dr Zhan suggests not remaining in one position, such as sitting, for a long time. Breaks for motion are important, such as stretching and easy exercises. He recommends exercises for the lower back and neck every hour.

People should avoid sleeping with their head and arms on their desk, avoid sleeping in a chair without neck support and avoid sitting at the front of a chair while leaning back for long periods. Those working at desk should keep both feet firmly on the floor.

Changing the position of computer screen helps. Pillows for sleeping should not be too soft or too hard, too high or too low; they should support the neck in a natural position so the spine is straight.

Avoiding "pathogenic" cold and damp energies is important. These energies can "attack" the body from outside. Foods that are too "cold" (high in yin) energy should be avoided. Cold energy can slow down blood and qi circulation, cause energy stagnation and contribute to blocked energy channels, which causes pain.

"We are exposed to various pathogenic cold today, but few people are aware of it and some keep exposing themselves to pathogenic energy," says Dr Zhan.

Icy drinks, ice cream, cold foods and too much air conditioning all contribute to pathogenic cold. So do skimpy clothes worn by many women, he says.

People should keep warm by wearing proper and enough clothes and avoid direct exposure to cold air. Easy physical exercises can help relieve strain on both the spinal column and muscles around it.

For example, moving the head slowly in circles is good for the neck and lying in bed or on the floor and lifting both legs together is good for the lower back. People with diagnosed back problems should consult their physician before putting stress on their spine.

Some serious spine problems may be treated with herbal medicine, acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion, fire cupping (local application of vacuum cups and warmth) and tuina or Chinese massage.

Tips on reducing stress on the spine

? Always keep the back straight and shoulders back. Don't bend the back for long periods. Lower the body by bending knees and ankles.

? When lifting heavy objects from the ground, bend the knees and ankles, then lift and stand, using the leg muscles, not the back.

? When holding heavy objects, keep them close to the body and keep the back straight.

? Keep shoulders back and level, horizontal to the floor. Don't slouch. Don't routinely carry a heavy weight, like a backpack, slung over one shoulder. Distribute the weight.

Easy exercises:

? For lower back

Lie in bed or on the floor (a cushioned exercise mat helps). Keeping both legs together, slowly lift them up and lower them; slowly inhale while lifting and exhale while lowering the legs. Repeat five or six times.

Sit in bed or on the floor. Keeping both legs straight and together, try to touch the toes; look straight ahead. Repeat five or six times.

? For neck and back

Stand with feet apart at shoulder-width. Turn the neck slowly around to the back, facing left or right.

Slowly twist the waist as well, as far as comfortable. Inhale while turning. Hold the position briefly and turn back slowly. Then turn the waist first, then the neck. Exhale.

Repeat around 10 times for each side.


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