From aching backs to tense necks to sore feet, we’re living in a world of pain—and everyone seems to think that’s normal. A new study in The Journal of Pain reports that 39 million people in the United States, or 19 percent of Americans, have persistent pain.
“It used to be the patient’s objective to get rid of pain. It’s morphed now where people don’t say, ‘I don’t want to live with pain.’ Instead, they say ‘How do I live with this pain?’” says Pete Egoscue, a posture therapist and the creator of the Egoscue Method for pain-free living. “You shouldn’t have to choose between taking four or eight pills.” He says that when he treats people with chronic pain to address its underlying issues, the pain disappears.
If you’re not dealing with some kind of pain right now, misalignments in your body will likely put you on a course to chronic discomfort. “We’re all brainwashed from a medical point of view that as we age, we should feel pain,” says Aaron Brooks, founder of Perfect Postures in Newton, Massachusetts. “But it’s not an aging issue.”
Rather, by addressing imbalances in your body, you can stop the development and progression of pain in its tracks. Use these quick tests and corrective exercises to assess the source of what hurts (or could soon hurt) and safeguard your body against four of the most common chronic pains.
Correct Your Neck
“If you’re working at a desk job, at some point in your career, you’re going to have issues with upper trapezius tightness,” says Brian Kelly, a physical therapist at Pivot Physical Therapy in Washington, DC. And that tightness leads to neck pain. “[People] start to sink in toward the computer because their eyes get tired. That causes tension in the upper spine around the neck.”
If you’re not already feeling the pain, here’s how to see if you’re in danger: Look at how you sit. “If your back is not in contact with the back of your chair, or if your head is far away from the back of the chair, you may not have pain yet … but this can lead to some problems,” Kelly says.
Another easy test tool: A mirror. When your head is in proper alignment with your spine and shoulders, your ears should roughly be in line with the cap of your shoulder. If your ears are forward of this position—as is the case with most office workers, Kelly says—you’re at risk for neck pain, back pain, and a host of other issues.
While time spent at your desk is often part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution; you can use your time there to fix neck pain with these two moves from Kelly.
First, stretch your upper trapezius muscles—the muscles between your shoulders and neck that you most commonly associate with someone rubbing your shoulders. This muscle gets tight with a forward head. To stretch them, sit straight with your shoulders level, and tip your left ear towards the cap of your left shoulder. You should feel a stretch. To enhance it, use your left hand to gently pull your head further in that direction. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Perform the stretch twice on each side.
Next, stretch your levator scapulae, a muscle that runs down the back of your neck. To do this, sit straight in a chair. Turn your head to the left, and bring your chin down toward the cap of your shoulder. To enhance the stretch, use your left hand to gently pull your chin closer to the shoulder cap. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Perform the stretch twice on each side.
Attack Your Low Back
Back pain is so common that it affects nearly four out of five Americans at some point in their lives. While there are a number of factors that contribute to pain and injury, a sedentary lifestyle and problematic movement patterns are often at the root of physical wear and tear.
People with desk jobs are especially susceptible to back pain because they spend so much time sitting, so their hamstrings are in a shortened position, says Kelly. Tight hamstrings limit motion of the pelvis, which puts pressure on the bottom lumbar and increases stress on the lower back.
When back pain is extreme, in the case of a herniated disk, many people assume the answer is surgery. But medical intervention comes with risks, a long recovery process, and, often, more pain. Another way to correct and avoid musculoskeletal lower-back pain is through corrective daily movements, such as these two recommended by Egoscue.
Start with sitting knee pillow squeezes. Sit on the edge of a chair or bench and arch your back by rolling your hips forward. Place your feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart so that your hips, knees, and feet are all in line. Retract your shoulders by pulling your shoulder blades back and down. Relax your stomach muscles. Place a pillow between your knees. Use your inner thighs to squeeze it gently without changing the position of your feet or flexing your stomach or lower back. Return to start, and do four sets of 10 squeezes.
Next you’ll perform static back knee pillow squeezes. Lie face-up with your legs in a tabletop position, your lower legs resting on a couch or chair. Your feet, knees, and hips should again be in line, your feet parallel to each other. Your arms should be relaxed out to the sides, palms up. Place a pillow between your knees. As above, squeeze the pillow and release. Perform three sets of 15 squeezes.
Stop Your Feet from Aching
If your feet hurt, it probably isn’t just your shoes, says Brooks. “Many times, from my perspective, it stems from the ankle—which can allow the foot to collapse inward—or from the rotation of the hip,” he says.
To check for a hip rotation issue, Brooks suggests a very simple test: Close your eyes and march comfortably in place. Stop and freeze your feet: If one foot is more turned out than the other, or if one foot is set forward of the other, you may have hip issues that are causing pain in your feet (or that will cause pain soon).
Try alleviating the issue with this femur rotation exercise. Lie on your back with your butt close to a wall and place your legs straight up against the wall with your feet about 18 inches apart. Tighten your quadriceps and flex your feet toward the floor. Without letting your butt lift off the floor, rotate the legs toward each other in a controlled motion, moving from the hip joint. Then rotate the legs away from each other. Keep the quads tight and toes pulled back the entire time. Perform this exercise for three sets of 10 reps twice per day.
To check on your ankles, the test is also simple: Stand on one foot, Brooks says. When you lose your balance, see if your foot collapses inward.
For this issue, Brooks suggests a “rocking chair” exercise. To do it, lie on your back with your arms out to the sides, palms facing up. Your knees, hips and ankles should all be aligned, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tie a strap or belt around your knees so there’s pressure when your knees are hip-width apart. Press the knees out against the strap, keeping constant pressure on the strap throughout the exercise. Maintaining this position, roll the feet back onto the heels and forward onto the toes, applying constant pressure outward against the strap with the knees. Your feet may tend to slide away from the body. If they do, bring them back to the original position and continue with the exercise for a total of two sets of 10 repetitions.
Sitting is Severe for Your Shoulders, Too
Your laptop and phone aren’t just attacking your neck and back—they’re after your shoulders, too.
Whether you’re currently suffering or not, Brooks says to assess your shoulders by standing tall and facing a mirror. If one shoulder is higher than the other, you’ve got a problem. Then look at your hands: If one hand is more turned in than the other—that is, if your knuckles are showing—your shoulders may be too far forward, which can cause a variety of painful issues.
To address these issues, try a reverse press exercise, Brooks says. Lie on your back with knees bent 90 degrees in a tabletop position, with your lower legs resting on a block or chair. Your knees should be in line with your hips. Place your elbows level with the shoulders so your body forms a T and point your fingers towards the ceiling so your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Keep the wrists over your elbows. In this position, squeeze and release the shoulder blades together by pressing the elbows into the floor. To get the desired benefits, concentrate on your shoulder blades coming together and not shrugging the shoulders. Do three sets of 10 repetitions.
Then try the reverse floor block exercise. In the same position with your legs on a chair, raise your arms overhead so they touch the ground above your head and your torso and arms form a Y shape with your elbows straight. Make light fists and rotate your hands towards the floor. Hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat a second time.
Breathe Better So You Hurt Less All Over
Deep breathing is also crucial for healing and overcoming chronic pain. When you breathe deeply with the diaphragm, you trigger relaxation in the body and more efficiently pull air into all areas of the lungs. If you’re not breathing properly, you’re not getting enough oxygen around your body—and not healing your body naturally with those life-giving breaths, says Egoscue.
To see if you’re breathing with your diaphragm, the large, dome-shaped muscle at the base of you lungs, stand straight and take a deep breath. If your shoulders rise and chest expands to take the deep breath, “you’re creating a vacuum in the top third of your lungs” to breathe, Egoscue says, and aren’t using your diaphragm.
To fix this, you’ve got to practice. For a diaphragmatic breath, stand pigeon-toed with your toes touching and your heels at five and seven o’clock. Straighten your knees by engaging your thighs. In this position, take a deep breath in, focusing on distending your stomach and feeling your ribs expand out to the sides. When breathing in this way, you’re using your diaphragm—and you should feel a deeper, longer inhale.
Egoscue recommends people practice breathing in this way as often as possible to train yourself to use the diaphragm for all your breathing.