Sedentary lifestyles and addictions to smartphones are causing chronic back and postural problems among the Gulf’s population.
Does your work lifestyle include meetings all day where you make hard decisions in conference rooms? Or are you an executive glued to your screen for the majority of your eight to nine hour shift as you fix a minor crisis? If you follow such lifestyles then you better watch out for your back because such habits could be killing it. Research reports from various sources have validated prolonged sitting as one of the major causes for back and neck pain. With most office work performed electronically, which requires being seated for hours on end, it comes as no surprise that spinal problems are so common today. In fact, the situation is not very different in the Middle East, medical experts point out.
“Back-related problems are becoming more prevalent in the Middle East,” says Dr. Sharik Ali, specialist chiropractic physician at Medeor Downtown Medical Centre and community health advisor at www.SpinalHealthCentre.com. “I can only comment on the two countries that I practiced in—the U.K. and the U.A.E.—and I can confidently say that back related ailments appear to be just as widespread in the U.A.E. as the U.K. Through research and my own personal experiences in practice, it has become evident to me that low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. The Middle East is certainly no exception.”
This is no laughing matter. Corporates could log hours of loss in productivity if they continue to ignore the spinal health of their employees. A study by San Francisco-based workforce health measurement firm Integrated Benefits Institute shows that lost work time and under performance at work (presenteeism) due to low-back pain cost employers around $34,600 per 100 workers. In addition, employees with back pain are absent four more days per year than those without back pain and exhibit the equivalent of 4.4 more days of presenteeism. Dr. Ali says: “Companies should take note that back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work. Spinal disc problems are becoming increasingly prevalent among patients in the region,” he adds. However, a more alarming fact is the trend where younger people are being afflicted with the same problems reserved for the “older” population. “Whereas previously back problems may have been associated with an elderly demographic, it is apparent to me how the generation under 40 is also complaining of chronic back problems.”
But he is not surprised to see the numbers as he points out the underlying cause—the constant use of gadgets that have literally taken over our lives. “These gadgets and smartphones, these labor saving devices, are creating epidemic problems from a musculoskeletal standpoint. Basically a labor saving device is designed to help us avoid getting up and moving around. All such devices are making us use our body less but are over working our postural muscles.” Apart from spurring on inactivity, these devices are also wreaking havoc with our postures and Dr. Ali explains how. “Take a typical phone for example –we have got a head which is flexed forward, rounded shoulders and often slouching. Now this position is taken at the work desk, at the desktop, it is adopted when looking at the tablet and the phone. We are thinking we are more relaxed, but in fact, it is creating increased tension in our postural muscles. Meanwhile our dynamic muscles—which are designed for movement and work against gravity—they are being under worked and so there becomes a great muscular imbalance creating a tremendous amount of pressure on the spine, on the exiting nerves and on the soft disc tissues.”
Prolonged usage of smartphones and tablets is now leading to what, Dr. Ali terms, a forward neck position where a person adopts a forward-leaning posture. He adds that such a position over years could lead to serious bone and joint problems eventually. “Research shows that for every inch the head leans forward to the shoulder, it increases the weight of the head by two. So if your head and shoulder are in an inline position, then you have got the weight of one head. But because of gravity and pressure if your head is one inch forward, now you are holding the weight of two heads.”
Choosing the Alternative Way
To gauge how widespread spinal conditions and back problems are in the region, one needs to look no further than the burgeoning number of orthopedic and spinal clinics based in the U.A.E. Last year, the Dubai Healthcare City branch of the Alabama-based American Spine Center underwent an expansion to accommodate the growing number of patients. Officials revealed that the center reportedly saw an 89% growth in patients in 2014 alone; indicating how deep rooted the problem is among the local masses. But along with such specialist hospitals, complementary alternative disciplines such as chiropractic care and osteopathy that address chronic back and joint aches, are also catching up in the region. While exact figures on patient data are hard to come by, Dr. Ali admits that chiropractic care is increasingly being opted in the region as patients seek solutions to alleviate their back and spinal problems.
“Chiropractic is the art, science and philosophy of all things natural. There is an understanding we believe that we look at health from a holistic point of view,” says Dr. Ali. “Chiropractic focuses on the spinal cord which forms the nerve system. As the nerve system controls the whole body, chiropractic identifies the cause; where the nerve system is being irritated and where there is stress on the nerves due to the joints and spinal discs being out of position. When you address the cause of the problem, the body will be able to heal itself better.” The physicians practicing in this complementary area of medicine are not medical doctors, but are trained in treating conditions affecting spine through the application of pressure on certain points. The discipline of chiropractic medicine also works on a concept called spinal subluxation. “A subluxation is when a spine comes out of its correct alignment or if there is a physical restriction in its normal motion. This is integral to our profession. When that happens it creates tension at that level of the spine, the joint and the disc while putting pressure on the nerves. Our techniques are designed to get that joint moving again. We can either do that traditionally by hand or we can use very special technology as well.”
The methods adopted by chiropractic physicians might be different to what medical doctors might apply, but experts are unified when it comes to ways on avoiding or minimizing back problems. “Move your body regularly. If you are forgetful, use smartphones to your advantage. Just make a commitment to have a reminder or a pop-up every hour that comes on your screen and tells you to get up and walk. Do some simple stretches to exercise the spine and the neck with shoulder rolling and by bringing the knee to the opposite shoulder which will help elongate muscles. These stretches will help target the lower back, the neck, the mid back and lower back. Stretching can be really good and slow down the ageing process as well. If the desk worker can just make the effort and move better, they will feel better.”
Dr. Ali also advises office workers to adopt an ideal sitting posture. “Sit with your bottom parked up against the chair so that there is no space between your bottom and the chair. This will allow you sit more upright and minimize postural strain at the work desk.” He urges those suffering from back problems to avail a lumbar-support cushion and then adjust the chair so that the computer is at eye level while hand and knee should be bent at 90 degree angle while the feet rest on the floor. In order to completely rid oneself of back ailments, Dr. Ali recommends minimizing the time spent with devices. However he reiterates the importance of movement for the health of the joints and the spine. “If the whole spine is looked after in the right way with exercise, nutrition and good movement and by having a periodic checkup with a licensed professional then your spine has the capability of staying healthy throughout life. One thing that we are trying to promote in the GCC is to care for the spine and posture from an early age.”