Since this is the start of a new year, a time to establish new habits, we thought it would be helpful to provide you with a smattering of tips to help you avoid back troubles in 2007.

Exercise is king

The single most important thing you can do to minimize your risk of back injury is to stay fit. Having tight, weak back and abdominal muscles (also known as "core" muscles) puts you at much higher risk of having a "back attack." If you haven't been exercising regularly, start easy and gradually increase the intensity of your routine. The most important aspects of exercise are consistency and proper technique.

Stop smoking

It is well established that smoking is a major risk factor for the development of back pain, since it reduces blood flow to bones, muscles and joints. Smoking negatively affects your musculoskeletal system, just as it does your heart, lungs, blood and virtually every system of your body. Make quitting a priority.

Learn how to lift properly

Almost every patient we see who injures their back lifting believes that they know how to bend and lift properly. The reality is that almost none of them do. Most people think that you need to "lift with your legs, not with your back," but this simplistic advice doesn't begin to describe proper lifting mechanics. When asked to simulate a proper lift in our office, patients invariably give evidence of how they hurt themselves in the first place, and they almost never incorporate even the most basic components of proper lifting mechanics. Bending and lifting properly is a learned skill; it requires some basic knowledge, training and practice.

The keys to proper bending and lifting are as follows:

* Make sure your lumbar spine is in its "neutral position." If you are unsure what neutral position is, have your doctor of chiropractic teach you how to find and hold the position with abdominal bracing (see next point).

* Maintain the neutral position with "abdominal bracing" (i.e. tightening the core muscles throughout the bend or lift).

* Spread your feet to widen your base of support. Get as close to the load as possible.

* Squat down to the load by bending your knees and hips. (Be sure to maintain your lower back in the neutral position.)

* Grab the load and keep it as close to your body as possible.

* Stand up using your thigh and buttock muscles, again being sure to keep your spine in its neutral position throughout the entire lift until completion.

Use your head

Think. Be smart. If you're not sure you can lift something without getting hurt, then you probably shouldn't. Get help with extra-heavy or awkward items. Be especially careful if you have to carry something up or downstairs, over curbs or doorways, or across slippery or uneven surfaces.

Don't let your guard down

Many people injure themselves just bending down to pick up a piece of paper on the floor or reaching across their desk to grab a pen. Or they pay special attention to lifting and carrying something properly, only to get hurt by putting the object down with poor body mechanics. Make proper posture and body mechanics a habit you practice 24/7. Also, don't be fooled into thinking that a lifting belt or low back support will fully protect your back when bending or lifting. While these assistive devices have their place, they can also give a false sense of security and are often used improperly.

By putting these tips into practice, you will be doing all you can to protect yourself from the debilitating effects of a back injury. For more specific information on exercise or proper lifting, contact your local doctor of chiropractic.

Drs. Michael A. Cocco and Timothy A. Sweigard are practicing physicians at Amity Chiropractic & Rehabilitation Center. Questions or comments can be forwarded to amitychiropractic@choiceonemail.com