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Spinal Arthritis and Weight Loss

How to Treat Back Pain when You’re Overweight

Question: Last month, I was diagnosed with spondylosis (spinal arthritis). I'm 46 years old and I weigh 350 pounds. My doctor says I need to lose weight in order for any types of treatments, including spine surgery, to be effective. I've recently started a weight loss program and have already lost 10 pounds. My goal is to lose 60 more pounds by the end of the year. I would like to know: What can I do in the meantime to treat my back pain?
Ely, MN

Answer: Congratulations, and good for you for making progress on your weight loss journey! Losing weight when you're overweight is extremely important, especially when it comes to treating spinal arthritis (also called spondylosis and spinal osteoarthritis).

You should be proud of yourself for taking the initiative to lose weight: Not only can losing weight help relieve your back pain, but it also gives you options for other spinal arthritis treatments.

Spinal arthritis—arthritis that affects the spine—can develop at any age, and being overweight or obese puts you at greater risk of developing it. That's because when you carry around extra weight, that weight puts extra pressure on your entire spine. This can lead to numerous spine conditions including spinal arthritis.

As you mentioned, if you're overweight, sometimes you need to lose weight in order for your doctor to even consider certain treatments, such as spine surgery.

But I have some suggestions for things you can do now to help address your back pain. What's great about most of these things is that they pack a one-two punch: They can help you ease back pain and lose weight.

Integrate exercise into your lifestyle. If you're not exercising regularly, you're missing out. A consistent exercise routine makes muscles stronger and helps you lose weight.But don't rush into exercise; start off slow. For example, go for a walk around the block after dinner or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

As your body becomes used to physical activity, try switching up your routine: Incorporate aerobic, strengthening, and flexibility exercises. No matter what exercises you decide to do, talk to your doctor about beginning an exercise program.

Practice yoga. Yoga offers a variety of benefits. The poses you do in yoga can help lengthen and strengthen your muscles. And breathing and meditation techniques can help calm the body and mind. Work with a yoga instructor who has experience teaching students with spinal arthritis. He or she can teach you specific poses that—with practice—can help relieve your back pain.

Try physical therapy. As with exercise, physical therapy can help build muscle (important because so many people with spinal arthritis have weak muscles, so physical therapy helps address this). Your physical therapist will show you exercises to do to help alleviate your back pain and other spinal arthritis symptoms.

Pay attention to your posture. Poor posture can put unnecessary pressure on your spine, which can aggravate your spinal arthritis symptoms. Remember to check in with yourself every so often to see if your posture needs some fine-tuning. Make sure your shoulders are drawn back, your head is in line with your shoulders, and the crown of your head is pointing toward the sky.

Take medication according to your doctor's instructions. Whether your doctor recommends taking an over-the-counter medication, prescription medication, or both, make sure you follow his or her suggestions carefully. Medications can make the pain more manageable, but you have to be sure you're taking the correct dosage.

Get some shut eye. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night is essential. Your body—especially your spine—needs to recover from all the demands of the day.

Of course, before you try any of my suggestions above, it's important to talk to your doctor. He or she may recommend a combination of these treatments to address your back pain caused by spinal arthritis. Also, remember to stay focused on your weight loss goal: Every pound counts, and losing weight now may help you become a candidate for other spinal arthritis treatments.

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