I’ve had a couple patients ask me recently about back supports, both the low back versions for heavy lifting, and the types that attempt to pull your shoulders back for improved posture.
For starters, some of these, in moderation, can definitely be helpful. The idea of protecting your spine, and of keeping your shoulders and spine back, from the hunched posture, is a good one.
If you’re helping a friend move a piano, or a couch, or some other foolish endeavour (spoken from someone who knows, and has learned painfully over the years), then wearing an artificial low back support, to provide extra core stability, is a good idea.
Your body was never really designed to move pianos, or at least 99% of us weren’t. There are some huge people out there, who were made to move huge things. For the rest of us, we weren’t made for this.
Particularly if you never really lift anything heavier than a 20 lb sack of potatoes, lifting a piano is not a good idea. So, if you’re foolish enough to do it, wear the low back support, and make sure you’re getting checked in a chiropractic office shortly before and after this potentially disastrous activity!
In some cases, the mid back braces, that loop over your shoulders, also make sense. Pulling back your shoulders, and keeping you from the hunched posture, is a great idea. That posture compresses your spine, which long term can result in early arthritic degeneration and pain. Not good!
So avoiding the hunched posture is good, especially with so many of the things we do in life, sitting at computers, driving cars, staring down at smart phones, accentuating it.
The problem is: Whenever you use some artificial means to accomplish this postural change or stability, you naturally end up weakening your body, and it’s ability to accomplish this stability on it’s own.
When we artificially stabilize our low back with a lumbar belt, doing the job our core muscles are designed to provide, and we do this on a consistent basis, guess what our body thinks?
There’s no reason to maintain these core muscles, because their job is being artificially done for them. When the belt does all the work, so the muscles don’t have to, the muscles get WEAK.
This isn’t a huge problem as long as we’re wearing the belt. But guess what happens when you go to lift something heavy, without the belt, and the muscles are too weak to stabilize you? Disc bulges and disc herniations!
So, short term, wearing artificial supports is ok, but long term, doing it on a continual basis, it’s asking for major problems.
Same thing with the supports that pull your shoulders back.
For one thing, it takes significant force to actually pull them back, so it’s doubtful that any supports on the market actually do this to any significant degree. If it’s only being used as a reminder to bring your shoulders back on your own, that’s one thing, but it’s unlikely there is enough resistance to actually accomplish this task by itself.
The problem becomes again that these supports offer to do artificially, through straps, what your muscles are designed to do on their own. If you rely on the straps to do this, to do the job of your muscles, guess what your muscles think?
We can take a holiday! No need for us to act, and stay strong, because these supports and straps are doing our job for us.
And these muscles get weaker and weaker. Which means that without the support, YOU get more and more hunched.
So, my advice is that short term, none of these supports are bad for you. Wearing them for a couple hours for a couple days is fine.
But if you plan on relying on them for extended periods, for days and weeks and months, be prepared for your body’s own support structures to get weaker and weaker.
The best approach: Train yourself to do these things automatically. Work on stretching your chest, to ease the forward pull of these chronically tight muscles, to make it easier to keep yourself back and less hunched.
Work on strengthening your core. Work on neck retraction exercises, and mid back retraction, to strengthen these muscles, to naturally pull your shoulders back. Not only will this help, but it’ll be a more permanent fix, and something you’ll be able to maintain, over years and years.
If you have questions about any of this, or what we’d recommend, please feel free to contact us.
All the best,
Dr. Byron Mackay