When your spine is aligned properly, your body maintains a relatively straight line from your head down to your shoulders and back, as well as your hips, knees, and feet.
Having proper alignment goes beyond maintaining a good posture — it can also help prevent long-term pain. Misalignment may impair your range of motion, and severe issues can affect your quality of life.
There may be signs that your spine is misaligned, along with pain around several joints in the body. Exercising and stretching can help, along with making simple changes to your daily routine. In some cases, severe misalignment may require medical treatment.
Here’s how to tell if your spine is misaligned, and steps you can take to find relief.
Your spine is a column of bones, called vertebrae, that extend from the bottom of your skull to your pelvis. It provides stability and support for your upper body.
But your spine does more than stabilize your back. Any sort of misalignment can affect other parts the body, too.
Possible signs that your spine is out of alignment include:
- chronic headaches
- lower back pain
- neck pain
- knee pain
- hip pain
- frequent illnesses
- excessive fatigue
- numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- one shoe that wears out before the other, due to walking abnormalities
Spine misalignment can eventually cause more serious issues that extend beyond mild pain and discomfort. If your spine isn’t aligned properly, you may be at increased risk of:
- chronic pain
- joint stiffness
- slouched posture
- reduced range of motion
- decreased mobility
- discomfort when sitting, standing, and laying down
- permanent joint and bone deformities
- broken bones, especially in the spine
- respiratory issues
Just as spine misalignment happens over time, correcting it requires a long-term effort. You can start by being more aware of your spine alignment and making sure you stretch your body and get regular exercise.
More severe cases of spinal issues may require medical care or surgery. Talk to a doctor to see which strategies are best for you.
Exercises and stretches
If you’re like many Americans, you likely sit for most of the day at work and for entertainment. This may exacerbate your back pain and lead to poor posture. It can also affect the alignment of your spine over time.
You can help reverse such effects with exercise and stretching.
Walk and stretch
One way to combat the negative effects of sitting is by taking walking breaks throughout the day. This helps to ease the pressure off your sit bones and low back.
You can take brisk walks throughout the day, fitting them in before work, during your lunch break, and after dinner.
Consider the following tips to get the most out of your walk:
- Before you start, make sure your head and shoulders are in a straight line with your hips and legs.
- Roll your shoulders up and then back so that you aren’t shrugging forward.
- Walk only as fast as you can maintain a good posture — if you slouch at any point, you’re better off taking smaller strides.
Planks are recommended by fitness instructors, as well as physical therapists and chiropractors. When done correctly, they strengthen your core muscles in the back and abdomen, which can take unnecessary pressure off your spine.
To perform a classic plank:
- Position yourself onto your knees and your forearms, making sure that your elbows are in line with your shoulders.
- Step your legs back so that you’re on your toes, keeping the pressure in your heels as you tighten your glutes and abdomen. Keep your shoulders back and your chin slightly down.
- Hold this pose for 30 to 60 seconds at a time.
- You may also practice a variation called a high plank, which is done on your hands instead of your forearms.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you have likely done more than a few cat-cow poses. This pose stretches out the spine and alleviates pressure from the lower back and shoulders.
To do a cat-cow:
- Come onto all fours, with your hands and knees bearing equal weight. Start with a neutral spine.
- As you inhale, look slightly up and drop your abdomen toward the ground.
- As you exhale, bring your chin toward your chest and bring your belly button toward your spine.
- Repeat as often as you’d like, making sure that you move with your own breath.
Swap your office chair for a stability ball
Using a stability ball as a chair can help reinforce spinal alignment throughout the day. If you’re considering a stability ball chair:
- Start out by sitting in it 15 to 20 minutes at a time, two to three times per day.
- Bring your belly button in toward your spine to contract your core muscles.
- Sit up tall with your shoulders back and your feet planted firmly on the ground.
A chiropractor is a type of medical professional that specializes in both the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, including the spine.
One of the most common chiropractic treatments is called a spinal adjustment, or spinal manipulation. The chiropractor will have you lie down, and then they will physically adjust your joints and tissues to reduce pain and inflammation. They may also use a hand-held device called an activator.
You may notice improvements in your spine alignment after undergoing chiropractic adjustments in regular intervals over a long period of time. Your overall mobility may also improve.
In addition to spinal manipulation, a chiropractor may teach you mobility exercises, such as planks, to help strengthen your core muscles. They may also offer nutritional counseling and other healthy lifestyle advice.
If exercises, medications, and spinal adjustments haven’t been effective, you may want to consider surgery.
Corrective surgery for spinal misalignment may be considered when:
- nonsurgical methods have failed to improve severe pain
- there are neurological symptoms
- symptoms have become rapidly progressive
- quality of life is affected
Misalignment is often corrected with spinal fusion surgery. During this procedure, the spine is fused in a correct position with screws and rods.
There are numerous devices that claim to “fix” your spinal alignment in the comfort of your own home without having to see a doctor.
Examples include compression wear, posture pumps, and inversion tables. The problem with these devices is that they may treat pain in the short term, but may not necessarily help align your spine in the long term.
Other devices may be helpful for short-term pain relief, such as TENS machines. You can buy these devices at your local drugstore. They only provide temporary pain relief and don’t correct spine alignment issues.
Another consideration is your sleeping alignment. Sleeping on your back is the best for your spine, but it may not be feasible if you snore or have sleep apnea.
You may sleep on your side with a pillow between your knees, but shouldn’t sleep on your stomach, as it is not good for your spine or neck.
Getting the right mattress can also help your back. A medium-firm mattress can help support your joints without causing collapse. Placing towels and seat cushions in your chair can also offer support for your lower back and hips.
If you experience recurring back pain despite exercise and lifestyle changes, see a doctor. They may refer you to a chiropractor.
You should also see a doctor if back pain or gait issues are interfering with your mobility. In addition to prescribing medical treatments, a doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who can guide you through exercises to strengthen your muscles and improve your movement.
Call a doctor right away if you experience bladder issues or a loss of feeling in your legs and feet.
Minor issues with spine alignment may not be a cause for concern. But it’s important to see a doctor if you have any signs of misalignment to help prevent complications. If you’re able, consider exercising, stretching, and sitting less to help relieve pain and strengthen your core.