Tense back

Originally Published: May 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 2, 2012
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Dear Alice,

The muscles in my back become extremely tense/tight throughout the term as I am cramped down studying all the time. What should I do?

--Posturing?

Dear Posturing,

Studying can be a real pain in the neck; or, in your case, back. You’re right to attribute your back tightness to being “cramped down studying all the time.” Indeed, poor posture can lead to back pain. There are other pieces to this posturing problem, though. Back pain can be caused by a number of things including chronic stress (causing your back muscles to tense up), tight hamstring muscles (shifting weight from the pelvis to your lower back), and back injuries among other factors. Lack of exercise, improper sleeping positions, incorrect lifting, smoking, and being overweight can all put you at risk for back pain or injury.

 Here are some simple things you may want to try in order to prevent and relieve back tension and tightness:

  • Get your workstation in tip-top shape. Are you hunched while reading or while working on your computer? If you are working on a computer, it’s best to have the monitor at eye level. Keep your elbows bent near 90 degrees. In addition, keep the mouse comfortably close to your keyboard, avoid slouching, and place the monitor 18-28 inches away from your face. When you are sitting and studying, your lower back needs to be flat or slightly rounded outward. Your knees need to be slightly higher than your hips, with both feet planted firmly on the floor. A footrest can help keep your knees at a comfortable position.
  • Take regular breaks. When you're studying, take frequent breaks and stretch your body every fifteen or twenty minutes. Also, rest your eyes and change your position often.
  • Keep stress in check. Stressors, worry, and anxiety all produce muscle tension. It's part of the natural fight-or-flight response, and is one of the ways that our bodies respond to threats and demands — whether those challenges are actually happening, or if they're just in our heads. Some people are more prone to feel this stress response in their muscles, while others may be dogged by fatigue, indigestion, or moodiness. Check out Stress is a pain in the neck — literally! for a few stress- and muscle tension-reduction suggestions.
  • Get plenty of physical activity, and don’t forget about your core muscles! Strengthening your core with regular exercise can help prevent back pain or keep it from becoming chronic. Additionally, regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight, which can also help prevent back pain considering obesity is associated with back pain.
  • Get a massage or back rub. Relieve the tension! If you are a Columbia student, check out Seeking massage therapist for information about getting a professional massage. If you are on the Morningside campus, check out the Stressbusters, a team of trained Columbia students who give free neck and back rubs to members of the Columbia community.
  • Heating pads, warm moist towels, or heat creams can be used to help relax stiff joints and muscles. In addition, over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) can help relieve symptoms of a tense and tight back.

If your back tension and tightness don't subside after three to fourteen days, you may want to speak with a healthcare provider. Additionally, if the tightness worsens or turns to pain, talking with your healthcare provider can help. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-7426. Columbia students at the Medical Center campus can make an appointment with Student Health.

Best of luck relieving the tension!

Alice