Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
What if there was a way to stop chronic pain in your body before it strikes?
That's the concept behind Vinh Pham's new book, Sit Up Straight: Futureproof Your Body Against Chronic Pain with 12 Simple Movements. Pham, a physical therapist with over a decade of experience, shares a set of exercises aimed at helping to prevent bodily pain that lasts for over three months due to injury, exercise, bad posture or other factors — and relieve it, too. Practicing these movements consistently, he says, can extend your range of motion and increase your flexibility.
"There's research to support the decrease in the incidence of chronic pain with the addition of exercise," says Christipher Bise, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences who researches lower back pain and is not affiliated with Pham's book. "Exercises that are going to balance the body front to back [such as mobility training] are really going to be the ones that help over time."
Life Kit asked Pham, the Los Angeles-based founder of the physical therapy studio Myodetox, to walk us through four movements that target areas prone to chronic pain, such as the neck, shoulders, spine and lower back.
Pham recommends doing these exercises, which take about 15 minutes to complete, on a daily basis. Think of them as part of your hygiene plan, he says. Just as brushing your teeth twice a day may help you prevent cavities, mobility training may help boost your odds for remaining pain and injury-free, he says.
Lastly, if you are pregnant or experiencing severe chronic pain, Pham says to consult with a doctor before introducing anything new to your care routine.
Rotate your spine
Anyone who works at a desk knows how easy it can be to slip into slouching over your computer. If we're not careful, that mid-back rounding can creep into all of our sitting time and create pain by putting stress on the middle section of our spine.
This movement seeks to relieve that stress and encourage flexibility by mimicking the natural movements of the spine — side bending, bending backward and rotating. The idea is to get the body comfortable with these motions so that when you encounter them in real life, they're not painful.
To do this modified movement, which Pham calls the 3D T-spine rotation, stand up and drop your right foot behind the left, about a foot apart. Starting with the right arm straight up and the left arm back, as if you're shaking the hand of the person behind you, simultaneously drop your arms — still in a straight position — and torso to your right foot. Move them back to their original position and hold for two seconds. Repeat the movement ten times before switching legs and doing the same exercise on the other side.
Floss your spine
This exercise also helps to relieve the stress of the slouch position you may find yourself in while working at your desk. But instead of rotating your spine, as you did in the previous movement, you're going to move your upper torso forward and backward — exposing your spine to the opposite motion of hunching over.
And you're going to do that by "flossing" your spine — stretching the spinal cord and nerves to reduce irritation and improve your range of motion.
To do this movement, stand and bring your arms straight out in front of your body at chest height. With your thumbs down and palms out, bend your knees a bit and let your shoulders curve forward so that your spine forms a C-shape. Then straighten your knees and stretch your arms straight back, palms up, and hold for about two seconds.
As you do this exercise, pay attention to any tension you may feel in your back, shoulders and neck — or if there's any discomfort that feels better after doing the exercise. Doing so can help you identify undiscovered sources of pain — and keep tabs on the movements that are helping to soothe that pain.
Teach your body how to bend safely
We reach down to pick things up from the ground dozens of times a day. And we do that in a variety of ways: kneeling down beside it, hunching over or bending at the waist. These movements might seem convenient or the least cumbersome, says Pham, but in reality, they're often at odds with our spine and lower back's natural ranges of motion.
This exercise aims to protect the lower back from those movements by mobilizing your hamstrings and your sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back down your hips and hamstrings.
To do this movement, called Split Stance Hip Reach, stagger your legs by placing the left foot a few inches in front of the right, with most of your weight on your front foot. Bring your hands and arms into a V-shape pointing downward. Keeping your left leg straight, with a slight bend in your right leg, slowly hinge down to touch the ground at the 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock and 1 o'clock positions, back and forth ten times. Then switch legs and repeat the movement. Remember to keep your back straight and push your butt back as you stretch forward and rotate your trunk.
Extend your big toe
Try walking around for a bit without using your big toes and see how difficult it is. It may not seem obvious, but you need them to be able to walk and run properly. When movement of these toes are limited, it can change your gait and contribute to pain in the plantar fascia — the rubber band-like ligament that stretches from your heel to your toes — and tightness in the calf and hip, says Pham.
This exercise, called the Big Toe Extension, aims to relieve or guard against discomfort you might feel in your foot and calf. Put your big toe against a wall so it's pointing upward. Lock both your knees in a split stance and rock in and out of it ten times, moving slowly so each lunge forward lasts about two seconds. Switch and do the same exercise with your other leg.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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