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How to take care of your spine

Remember your mom nagging you to “stop slouching” and “sit up straight”?

She may not have known just how right she was to urge good posture. The spine plays a major role in one’s overall health — and taking care of it yields lifelong benefits.

Slouching and the detrimental effects of daily living are among the reasons why about 80 percent of us will have spinal problems in our lifetimes.

Yet, most of us can eliminate or avoid back pain and surgery by taking a few preventative steps. Spinal problems can start as early as age 29, so it’s never too early or too late to start.

“You would think it goes without saying, but too many of us simply don’t maintain good posture, which is critical for a healthy spine,” says Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, an orthopedic and spinal surgeon and author of “Keys to an Amazing Life: Secrets of the Cervical Spine.”

Poor posture contributes to an array of unwelcome symptoms such as pain, numbness, weakness in the arms and legs, impaired breathing and digestion, and impaired control of the bowel and bladder, he wrote in a recent article for CNN Health.

Poor posture, depression

Researchers have found a link between poor posture and depression, and many experts maintain that slouching could be associated with weight gain, heartburn, migraines, anxiety and respiratory conditions.

“I agree totally,” said David Magnuson, board certified acupuncturist and certified yoga instructor at the Center for Healing and Wholeness in Grand Forks.

“For so many of us, we’re chronically working at a computer, hunched over with the head forward. (In this position) our spine is out of alignment, versus when our vertebrae are aligned with each other and muscles relaxed.”

For those who spend much of their day looking down or driving, the back tends to round, he said.

The unhealthy, but common, posture leads to “overly tight neck muscles (and) diminishes the flow of blood and Qi (energy) to the head which can cause headaches” and other problems.

“Yoga is all about revising the effects of the day and restoring the natural flow of energy throughout the body through breath and stretching and movement.”

In his practice, he’s found “it’s very common that people have some sort of back or neck discomfort.”

He estimates about 40 to 50 percent of people who seek his services have conditions that can be traced to the back. The percentage of patients in this category is cyclical and fluctuates, he said. “Some people are sensitive to weather and seasonal changes.”

Benefits of good posture

Proper posture leads to a taller appearance, deeper breathing, improved well-being and increased energy with enhanced human performance.

Good posture is essential for the health of your spine but other factors — some of them surprising — also play into the well-being of this critical part of the body’s central nervous system which controls the body’s functions. Deep breathing, meditation, sunlight and what you eat have an impact on how well your spine functions.

As an acupuncturist, trained to view the body, mind and spirit holistically, Magnuson is accustomed to a broad perspective on health and the influences that affect it.

He recognizes chiropractors as “the experts in spinal health,” he said, and suggests people “keep in contact with their primary care provider” to access imaging technology to better understand the nature of the problem.

His practice is aimed at restoring balance of the mind and body, he said, noting that Eastern philosophy does not separate them, while Western medicine historically has.

After an initial visit with the patient, he begins by pressing on muscles on either side of the spine to determine points of “deficiency” or weakness, and points of “excess” or overly tight areas which can cause muscle spasms, stiffness and aches.

“In Chinese medicine, there are points along the spine that affect the internal organs,” he said.

The upper back is related to such functions as the heart and lungs, emotional health and quality of sleep. The middle back relates to liver, gallbladder, stomach and digestion, and the lower back is associated with kidneys, adrenals and legs.

For example, “if the patient complains of problems in the arms and back, I look at what’s going on the upper back,” he said.

Breathe, mediation

The act of breathing “definitely” plays a role in spine health, he said. “In yoga, we’re working with breath in conjunction with posture.”

The practice of “breathing into” an area of the body sounds strange to those raised in Western cultures and requires practice, he said. “Breath helps create expansion. It doesn’t make sense until you do it.”

Taking a breath back to the kidneys, for example, takes pressure off the spine, nerves and blood vessels and increases circulation into the spine, he said.

These methods, such as toga and Tai Chi that originated in the far East, are more centered on building energy and restoring balance of the mind and body to promote wellness, he said.

Certain yoga postures may be useful to reduce stress, a proven detriment to good health.

“Anytime you can relieve stress, you’ll definitely sleep better,” he said. “If the mind is peaceful, you’ll sleep good.”

In meditation, “there’s always an emphasis on posture, having a long spine, erect and straight,” he said. “There’s a focus on breathing. When we’re finished, we take that into our day. We breathe more fully.”

Article written by Pamela Knudson of the Grand Forks Herald

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