“Teacher’s Back”: What, Why, and How.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 2.15.52 PMDuring my undergraduate years, a lot of my friends (almost all of them) went on to become teachers, so I’ve had the good fortune of following their career development to this point. What I hadn’t expected, at least initially, was watching a number of them develop mid- and upper-back tightness, stiffness, and pain since that time. For many of them, their job demands crouching or bending over to guide much younger and smaller students in their learning, and then spend countless hours after school leaning over a desk to mark, document, and plan new lessons and resources — an incredibly taxing sequence of events to carry out day-after-day. 

These aches and pains became so commonly talked about that I jokingly started referring to it as “Teacher’s Back” (not a real thing — don’t google it!). These complaints are of course not specific to just teachers, as I’ve noticed similar problems in others who spend a number of hours sitting, leaning, or working at desks — think of office workers and students, in particular. 

But I’m not just here to tell you who has these troubles: what can you do about it? And why should you bother?

It’s just an ache, does it really matter? 

Your painful left knee is holding you up? That’s fine, the right leg will take the brunt of your effort for the next year or two. Can’t reach your right arm over your head anymore? No problem, the lower back will just lean out to the left, making sure you complete your task.

Obviously, spending so much time in these positions can make you sore. Stiffness and tightness, although not imminently threatening to our health, are hardly comfortable feelings to have with on a daily basis. And why should you have to live with these? Assuming there are no other underlying conditions to be concerned about, daily aches and pains do not need to continue forever — many solutions are available, at the very least for short term relief. 

Beyond pain relief though, you might hear a number of other reasons why staying in these bent over postures are not ideal for everyday living. Depending on who you ask, one of the following could be suggested: “Posture is the foundation of function; Continued poor posture will lead to increased pain later; Our bodies are not built for working over desks and tables for 20 hours a day;” Etc. I’ve heard each of these explanations given, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. I do, however, find it more intuitive for my patients if I remind them that our bodies are exceptionally good at ensuring our function, even under the most impossible conditions. Consider: Your painful left knee is holding you up? That’s fine, the right leg will take the brunt of your effort for the next year or two. Can’t reach your right arm over your head anymore? No problem, the lower back will just lean out to the left for the next while, making sure you complete your task. And so on. 

The trouble with our body using this approach is that, though great in the short term (and it sure shows the versatility our our bodies!), we begin using isolated parts of our body to pick up the slack of our tight and painful regions which aren’t operating as we would like. As a result, those isolated areas end up working double-time for your body, and slowly begin to wear down as well, and now there is a new painful area to address as well as the original. Therefore, it’s a good idea to address that stiff and tight mid- and upper-back at the beginning! — long before we develop new, less efficient ways of moving. This model of function is based in “regional interdependence” for those interested (real thing — you can google this!) — the idea that seemingly unrelated parts of our body work together to achieve a desirable outcome. 

That’s all great, but what can I do about my Teacher’s Back?

As simple, home-based interventions go, here are a couple really fast and easy ideas that will help free up some motion in your mid- and upper- back. 

1> Seated Rotation — this is designed to begin adding some motion to an area that moves poorly in many of us. The challenge here is that we’re trying to keep your lower back still while turning — we’re only looking for your mid- and upper-back to turn. 

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Seated Rotation Why something between the legs? Both squeezing gently between the knees and leaning forward slightly will challenge your core to keep you upright and stable. With the core active, we can further restrict any lumbar (low back) motion, meaning we can safely work motion at the mid-back without risking problems at the low back.

> Step 1: Place a book/foam roller/squeezable object between your knees and squeeze gently.

> Step 2: Sit up as straight and tall as you can! 

> Step 3: Place your hands behind your head, elbows pointing to the side.

> Step 4: Keeping your back as straight as possible, lean forward a little — just 20-30 degrees, but keep sitting straight and tall!

> Step 5: Slowly turn to your left, then your right. Only turn as far as you need in order to feel tension in your mid-back. Going past this point will just involve your lower back, something we want to avoid!

Repeat to each side 5 times, holding for a two steamboat count each.

2> Bruegger’s Stretch — This position get you into the opposite of a hunched posture! It’s simple, takes all of five seconds to complete, and is easy to do when either sitting or standing. Let’s consider sitting: 

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Bruegger’s stretch — This is almost exactly the opposite of desk-work, and so easy to do. Head up, not down, shoulders back, not forward, low back arched, not flexed, and palms open, not closed.

> Step 1: Sit up as straight and tall as you can! 

> Step 2: Bring you shoulder blades back and together — try to touch them together (you probably won’t, but it’s a good visual idea)

> Step 3: With your hands at your sides, turn your palms forward so your thumbs point away from your body, and reach your fingers down towards the floor. 

> Step 4: Tip your chin towards the ceiling, only to the point of a comfortable stretch at the front of the neck. 

Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat when possible throughout the day (ideally 1-2 times an hour). 

These are just introductory exercises, and you can find many other great resources available too — if you have a foam roller, this can be a really effective tool for increasing thoracic mobility. Likewise, a pair of tennis balls can also be a great tool, or there are some other really good exercises for this type of issue that requires getting down on all fours first. However, if you’re limited for time and don’t have much available equipment, this is a good place to begin. 

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