Christmas time: Mistletoe, Wine and… Back Pain

African american man wearing santa claus hat standing by christmas tree suffering of backache, touching back with hand, muscular pain

  • Sedentary nature of festive season exacerbates issues for back pain sufferers
  • Expert provides tips to help avoid back pain – Small tweaks can have significant impact

The general deconditioning and stress that takes place over the festive period can play havoc with back health, according to a leading UK back specialist who recommends some simple activities to keep back pain away.

Established day-to-day routines are often replaced by a constant cycle of social engagements, shopping and organisation in the weeks leading up to the big day. From carrying overloaded bags and hanging hard-to-reach decorations, to watching excessive amounts of festive TV and overindulging in alcohol and sugar-rich foods, the festive period takes its toll and can lead to chronic back pain.

According to Michael Fatica, co-founder and lead consultant osteopath from, the festive season is ripe with opportunities to either aggravate existing back issues or trigger new ones. He says: “To manage most causes of back pain, a combination of ‘fitness and fuel’ is essential. For example, strength-based exercises help to build core, hip and back strength, and a diet of adequate protein strengthens muscles and supports healing. Ultimately, this approach protects your back from injury.

“However, at a time when our backs are under the most considerable stresses and strains, they can be neglected more than ever. Healthy eating and drinking habits, in addition to exercise regimes, are often replaced by an increase in calories, sugar and alcohol intake and a decrease in nutrient rich foods and water.

“This results in an increase in body mass, which can have a significant effect on back health and our propensity to injury, as weight gain naturally puts extra stress on the back. Additionally, this sort of weight gain goes hand-in-hand with a decrease in muscle mass, which is a key factor with back pain.”

Michael believes the immense stress placed on our bodies, and in particular our backs, cannot be underestimated. “It’s the cumulative effects of the demands of the festive season, and in such a condensed time frame, that can see many of us in chronic pain by the time New Year arrives. It’s crucial, therefore, that everyone, particularly those with existing back issues, put some preventative measures – often just small tweaks – in place.”

To help mitigate some of the risks associated with back pain this festive season, Mr Fatica recommends the following tips and modifications:

  • Avoid sitting for more than 60 mins at a time. Get up, fidget, stretch your legs. Anything to prevent the body and back from seizing up.
  • Switch to back packs for shopping. Rushing around, carrying heavy bags and waiting in long queues can cause issues. A back pack, as opposed to multiple ‘hand held’ bags, is advised for even-weight distribution across the back. Frequent, smaller shopping trips are also recommended instead of long, drawn-out trips that last the whole day.
  • Take a towel on car-journeys. Long car journeys, sat in the same, compromising position, could potentially be aggravating, particularly if you have an existing lower back issue. Use a small rolled up towel to support the natural arch in your lower back.
  • Resist the allure of sugar! Sugar spikes and their resultant lows is going to do no good what-so-ever for your motivation to get off the sofa and do some exercise. Not to mention that many with inflammatory issues find that excessive sugar only exacerbates any existing symptoms/pains.
  • Eat lots of protein-rich foods. Protein is key for strengthening lumbar muscles and supporting healing. It is also generally more satiating, so having a higher protein meal, particularly prior to any social engagements or parties, will typically result in you feeling more satisfied and therefore less likely to snack. Remember, the average person can put on one to two pounds over the festive period, with the back taking on all of this additional strain.
  • Take workouts down a notch. Do not push yourself too hard in your workouts at this time, focusing instead on a 75-80% intensity workout. This will offer numerous benefits without running the risk of pushing your body too hard while it’s under-supported, and perhaps a little sleep deprived.
  • Use the kitchen table to wrap presents. This may seem obvious, but this activity is frequently carried out with the shoulders, neck and back hunched over whilst sat on the floor. This can place immense strain across the back, so switch to the kitchen table, which is more ‘back friendly’.
  • Take a pillow if staying away from home. Unfamiliar mattresses and pillows when staying overnight with guests can cause unexpected back niggles. Take two of your own pillows, one of which can be placed between legs to by re-align the spine, pelvis and, in turn, help take pressure off your spine.


Michael also recommends the following ‘relief strategy’, encompassing simple exercises to perform at the end of the day, to help counterbalance stress and strain placed on the back and manage any ‘flare ups’ over the festive period:


Bed Decompression for 3-5 minutes:

  • Lie across or off the end of the bed with the edge of the bed in your armpits, arms dangling down at the sides. Your back and legs should be relaxed

  • Simply press your arms into the side of the bed to gently stretch the length of your spine

  • Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds, relax and repeat. You can do this repeatedly and even play around with some deeper belly breathing to decompress your spine in a gentle and rhythmical way

  • When finished, slowly get off the bed – do not rush! Try just a few times at first, then build up to the full 5 minutes


This is a really effective way to relieve the pressure placed on the spine, particularly after a long day spent travelling.


Towel exercise for 3-5 minutes:


  • Roll up a bath towel tightly to approximately the size of a foam roller

  • Lie on your back with knees bent

  • Engage your core and lift your bottom and back off the floor

  • Place the towel in the small of your back

  • Relax slowly onto the towel – it should support the natural arch of your back

  • Place your hands on your tummy and relax

  • Afterwards, engage your core and roll your body to the side to dismount, do NOT lift your bottom


This exercise flows nicely after the bed decompression to support the natural lordosis, curve, in your lower back.


Contrast bathing for 3 minutes for 18 minutes (3×3)x3


  • Alternate heat and then ice for 3 x minutes each

  • Three successive repetitions of this, specifically over the lower lumbar spine, works well at the end of this relief routine

  • This can be done three or more times per day, as required, to provide regular relief while your lower back is trying to heal


This works to directly improve the drainage of excess inflammation in the lower back, something that is often the real aggravator of back pain symptoms.


“Even very small changes can help offset many of the festive challenges our bodies will face over the coming weeks and help ensure the celebrations run smoothly. Importantly, any form of exercise that helps to strengthen the back and core muscles can help us move into the new year in a much healthier and back-friendly way.”

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