Back for The Future: Save Your Spine when Driving

Front seat

Do you drive for long periods of time? If you do, you’re in danger. Of course, danger is relative in the context of driving but you are in similar danger from sitting in your office chair all day long.

The danger here is to your spine, the bony column that lets you sit, stand and bend, and carries and protects your spinal cord. The human spine is similar to its equivalent in any mammal. It is made up of 33 bones, called vertebrae. You have seven cervical vertebrae in your neck, 12 thoracic vertebrae in your chest, five lumbar vertebrae in your lower back and four sacral vertebrae in the region of your coccyx – your tail bone. Your vertebrae are separated by tough, flexible, shock-absorbing ‘cushions’ and these discs, especially the ones in your lower back, are at risk from extended sitting, such as when driving.

So, what happens when things go awry? We can see from looking at a disc’s structure. Each disc has a tough, fibrous outer ring, filled with a water-rich, jelly-like substance. If you are lying down, the pressure inside the outer ring will be about 17 psi (pounds per square inch). If you do the worst thing you can, lift something with your back rounded, it can jump to a whopping 300 psi, or nearly ten times the pressure in your car’s tyres.
Like unwise lifting, extended sitting in a poor position can lead to the dreaded ‘slipped disc’. This is in fact a misnomer, a disc doesn’t slip anywhere – it can’t. What happens is that the disc effectively bursts. The tough outer ring develops a split and the jelly-like internal filling protrudes. The snag is that the spinal column carries many nerves; these branch out from it. The jelly-like material can physically crush a nerve, as well as attacking it chemically. The result is pain – a lot of it.

What, then, can be done to avoid disc problems, and back problems in general. The answer sounds simple and it is….the short version is ‘don’t slouch’. Car designers have known this for a long time and most, if not all, car seats have the lumbar support that is essential to a good seating position.
In many instances, a car seat’s lumbar support is adjustable. If it is, use the adjustment to dial in a setting where you can feel the base of your back being pushed forward. This may feel odd and perhaps a little uncomfortable at first. But the feeling of pressure proves that your lumbar spine is being supported properly.

Should you feel that this is questionable advice, you can prove to yourself that it isn’t. Some seats that are well designed don’t have adjustable lumbar support at all, because they don’t need it. Several car seats bearing, for example, the name ‘Isri’ or ‘Recaro’ are like this and, once you become accustomed to how they feel, you’ll find they are supremely comfortable. This is purely because or the support they provide…you may notice that all such seats also feel very firm. This is no accident.

There are a couple of other ways you can save your back for the future. If, when driving, you find you have to adjust your rear-view mirror after a while, this is the signal that you’ve slouched. It’s time to pull up and have a walk around with your service-station coffee. The same applies at work. Even if you aren’t into exercising, try to do at least a little walking. This will help maintain your core strength and here’s the best incentive you can have. Remember that your spine is your body’s bony column but it is your muscles and ligaments that keep it in line. Weedy muscles won’t help it one bit.

Finally, don’t engage in the real spine-killer unless you want to permanently use painkillers. You’re quite capable of lifting heavy things but if you lift them with a rounded back, you’re just as capable of seriously damaging yourself. The simple rule is this: when lifting, don’t bend, squat.


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