Shut Up and Walk!

74621_man_on_cell_phone[originally published in KCN, January 2004]

Remember the hoopla that surrounded the potential link between cell phone usage and brain tumors?  Well, thanks to some researchers Down Under, the “Hoopla Spotlight” might be shifting a bit and casting some light on good ol’ back pain.  Yes, it’s true, according to scientists at Australia’s University of Queensland.  They say it all boils down to the way we breathe.

Our bodies, they explain, are designed to exhale when our feet hit the ground — offering us a protective mechanism in which to shield our spines from sudden jolts.  Talking and walking, however, disrupt this protective pattern and leave our spines exposed and vulnerable to excessive physical stresses.

The research was headed by Dr. Paul Hodges  at the university’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.  He and his colleagues enlisted a group of volunteer walkers.  With the volunteers on treadmills, half  the group was instructed to walk and read a prepared script or describe objects, while the other half was instructed to walk in complete silence.

The volunteers were wired so the researchers could measure the activity of their protective trunk musculature while they walked.  Those that simply walked in silence showed properly functioning trunk muscles, while those that chatted away had less spine-protecting muscular activity and thus exposed themselves for the development potential back problems.

The scientists elaborated more on this interesting finding at a Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans.  They said that the difference in muscular activity between the groups occurred because of the way our brains prioritize activities.

The lead researcher for the study explained this further in a BBC News Online report recently.  Dr. Hodges was quoted by the report stating that “muscles often perform multiple functions at the same time and the brain prioritizes these tasks according to their relative importance, which means that the accuracy of joint stability often comes second and places the person at greater risk of injury.”

So, you might be wondering, as was I, why are we attacking cell phones?  It sounds as if walking and talking — cell phone or not — is a potentially risky proposition.  The scientists agree.  According to the BBC News Online article, the researchers state that “people who talk to each other while walking could be at risk of damaging their back,”  but, as the article continues, “people who use mobile phones while walking may be particularly at risk, not least because they are likely to spend more time doing it.”

Pretty interesting stuff.  It just goes to show you that we are constantly learning about the human body — and have so much more to learn.

Let’s face it, though, most of us talk, at least on occasion, while walking.  If this study is correct, it really underscores the need to have our spines checked on a periodic basis by a chiropractor — even if we’re feeling “fine.”  Chiropractors are experts in detecting and correcting areas of spinal dysfunction and stress and ultimately enabling the spine to mechanically operate better.  This means you’ll be in a better position to absorb the excessive shock that your spine will likely undergo during your next conversational walk.   What you should realize, though, is that conditions such as lower back pain usually do not come on instantaneously — but rather slowly accumulate in the background over time.  As our spines keep score of all the extraneous stresses that they undergo, they eventually “cash in” with full-blown, screaming back pain during the most unsuspecting activities, such as sneezing, picking up a pencil, or just waking up — giving us heightened clarity of the classic euphemism “The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back.”

It’s ironic that walking, something that we doctors have purported as being therapeutic for the spine, might just end up being a “double-edged sword” in disguise — having the potential to be dangerous only if one opens his mouth.  Dr.  Matthew Bennett, a spokesman for the British Chiropractic Association, told BBC New Online,  “This is something we will now have to add to our list. People with bad backs should watch the way they bend to pick things up, shouldn’t sit for too long, and now it would seem shouldn’t talk with someone they are walking with.”

As for this recent study and its relevance to low back pain, I’m still unsure how to apply it.  It’s definitely something I haven’t considered before, but I’m not yet convinced I need to make a blanket statement discouraging walking and talking, whether or not a cell phone is involved.  I plan on keeping an eye out, however, for future studies to see how this apparent correlation plays out.  For now, though, I think I’ll file this one under “Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time.”  Of course, if you want to play it safe, you should only reserve walking and talking on your cell phone if the phone call you’re making is to your chiropractor.  By the way, my number is (360) 297-8111.

_____________

sources used for this article:
Why mobile phones my hurt backs.  BBC News Online.  11/18/03.                                      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3279809.stm
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