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At the Core of the Matter: Supporting the Spine

Maintaining strength in the core muscles can be key to relieving spine problems

It may be a small twinge when you lift something heavy. Or pain that shoots down your arms or legs. Or persistent aches or stiffness. But regardless of how it feels, back pain is something 70 to 80 percent of all Americans will experience at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health. In fact, it’s one of the top reasons people visit the doctor.

Back pain may be a symptom of a more serious condition that requires medical attention. Read “What’s Your Back Pain Trying to Tell You?” for more details. But even mild or sporadic pain can be troublesome, especially if it affects your ability to work or play.

Strengthen from within
The good news is that there is something you can do to prevent or lessen back pain and to help you maintain a healthy spine: Focus on your “core.”

The core is the structural center of your body, providing vital support for your organs and spine. It comprises muscles from the ribcage down to the pelvis. The core includes the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm (an internal muscle that helps you breath), the muscles that help your spine and legs extend and rotate, and the “pelvic floor” muscles, which stabilize the pelvis and control the bladder and bowels.

“Think of the core as the base from which your arms, legs and head attach and work,” says Sheila Dugan, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Rush University Medical Center. “When you have a strong core, if you do experience back pain, the pain will be less debilitating and won’t last as long. Having a strong core can also help to prevent many types of back pain.”

At the core of the matter
How do you strengthen your core? The answer isn’t as simple as saying: “Do a lot of sit-ups.” Different exercises will work for different people, and the wrong exercises may do more harm than good.

If you are experiencing back pain, schedule an appointment with a spine specialist, such as the experts at the Spine and Back Center at Rush. “We do a comprehensive physical examination to rule out neurologic problems, which can cause serious long-term damage, and to determine your strength and flexibility deficits. We will also find out what could be perpetuating your pain and address those issues,” says Dugan.

Rehabilitation and exercise plans are tailored to meet each person’s unique needs. “We take into account which of the core muscles is weak and whether a person has any other medical conditions—such as joint problems, or a prolapsed uterus resulting from pregnancy—that may affect the type of exercises they can do. There isn’t a list of 10 exercises I give to all my patients, and we’re done. Each plan needs to be tailored to the individual and their needs.”

There are, however, some general things to keep in mind, whether you are experiencing back pain or are pain-free and want to stay that way.

  • There’s a proven link between being obese and having back pain. Maintaining a healthy weight can help you maintain a healthy back.
  • Pay attention to how your core functions on a day-to-day basis, and select exercises that condition your muscles to perform appropriately.
  • Don’t skimp on the cardio. Thirty minutes or more of moderate-to-intense cardiovascular activity four or more days a week will help you improve bone density, increase muscle strength and manage your weight. All of these things help prevent back pain—as well as heart disease and stroke.
  • Put together a creative core strengthening program that will keep you interested, so you’ll stay with it long-term. Depending on the cause of your back pain and your medical history, you may choose to incorporate things like weightlifting, Pilates, yoga, water aerobics, or working with tension bands or medicine balls into your routine.

The spine is your backbone—literally. So make sure to give it the support it needs. “Our goal,” says Dugan, “is to help you lead a healthy, active, pain-free lifestyle.”

Rush also offers a variety of free seminars each year focusing on issues related to back and spine health, including “Spine and Back Health–Ask the Experts” on Saturday, May 6, and Wednesday, May 24. For more information and a complete list of free events at Rush, visit

If you’re interested in “Spine and Back Health–Ask the Experts,” you can make an online registration request or you can phone 888 352-RUSH (7874) to register or get more details about the event.

More Information at Your Fingertips:

  • For information on spine and back care at Rush visit the Spine and Back Center home page.
  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (7874)

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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Past Issues
Discover Rush, 2006 - Spring
Fitness and Back Health
Back Pain: When Should I See My Doctor

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