“Hygiene 1: A science concerned with establishing and maintaining good health. 2: Conditions or practices conducive to good health.”
From The Merriam Webster Dictionary.
Most of us associate the word hygiene with cleanliness but the dictionary defines it more generally as those “conditions or practices conducive to good health”. Civilized people usually brush their teeth every day and many of us take a shower or bath on a daily basis also. Eating right and getting some exercise and even taking vitamins can be an important part of our everyday health maintenance program. Many of these common practices are taught to us as children by our parents and even in school as part of our general physical education. And just like we need to learn to read, write and do some arithmetic to get by in this world, it is also equally important to learn how to take care of our bodies and our health.
Yet the kind of physical education many of us experienced in school comprised a lot of activities that may not have stood us in good stead in preparing us for the rest of our lives. Baseball, soccer, basketball, weight lifting, gymnastics, wrestling and track and field all certainly all have their place in any program of physical education. In the final analysis, though, they may not really be the kind of skills that will help us maintain our health and well being as we lead our lives and grow older. The exertions and stunts that characterize what usually passes as physical education may be appropriate for teenagers and people in their early twenties but what about those of us who make it into our 40s, 50s and older. And how many of those young athletes who engaged in all those exertions, strains and stunts in their youth end up broken and nearly crippled by the time they get to 40? Many of them are laid low by middle age by the slings, arrows and insults their bodies took when they were younger.
One of the areas that could be emphasized (but rarely is) when we receive our physical education is how to take care of our spines. Although we all know we have spines, we usually only have the barest knowledge of what the structure of our spines is really like and even less knowledge of how we can take care of them. We find as we age that our neglect and ignorance of our spines generally comes back to haunt us. Back pain must be one of the commonest complaints and ailments for people in our times. Look at the proliferation of orthopedic doctors, osteopaths and particularly chiropractors now. In some cities and towns there are more chiropractors than MDs. Doesn’t this tell us that a lot of backs are hurting out there? And as helpful as these practitioners can be, we can’t rely on their ministrations every day of our lives, and yet every day we may need to do something to maintain the integrity and health of our backs and spines. It is these daily practices conducive to spinal health that we might call “spinal hygiene.”
We have all seen cats and dogs engage in their own versions of spinal hygiene. They stretch and limber their backs quite effortlessly or else roll their backs on the ground until they are satisfied that all is as it should be. Animals are still in touch with some natural impulses and moves that help maintain their spines. By rolling their backs and stretching and relaxing they are giving themselves the kind of treatments that humans probably could also use. Many of us, without much thought, like to move and stretch when we get out of bed in the morning. Have you ever lied down on a firm floor and felt your back sink towards the floor and elongate as you continued to relax?
Our own feelings of ache and tension can be our guide in treating our backs. Doing what seems to relieve those little aches and tensions might be just the kind of treatments we need to do, on a daily basis, to avoid the bulging discs and contracted muscles that characterize the more seriously ailing back. This is preventive medicine, and we should ideally learn these things when we are young from our parents and our teachers but unfortunately rarely do. Just as we brush our teeth and wash our hands and face as part of our daily health regimen, we someday may limber our backs and open our spinal joints as part of a regular program of spinal hygiene.