If back pain seems like a common complaint among your coworkers, that’s because it is. Studies show that:
- 4 out of 5 adults will experience back pain
- Back pain is the second-leading cause of missed work time among adults between 20 and 50 years old
- Back pain is the most costly healthcare problem among workers
Because the back is so essential to a variety of movements, it’s no surprise that back injuries are common in the workplace. Whether your job involves heavy lifting or sitting at a desk for long periods of time, you are at risk for developing back problems. But with a proper understanding of the causes of back pain, you can assist with preventing and treating back pain in the workplace and the steps you can take to avoid serious injury.
Causes of Back Pain in the Workplace
The two most common back injuries workers face are strains and sprains to the muscles and ligaments of the back. A strain occurs when a muscle is overworked, especially when the muscle is weak to begin with. It will not happen suddenly, but rather develops over time. By contrast, a sprain happens when one sudden movement causes a tear in the ligaments that hold the different parts of the back in place.
There are several other factors that can put you at higher risk for these injuries which include, but are not limited to:
- Poor lifting technique or posture
- Osteoporosis and arthritis
- Poor physical conditioning
As you can see, some of these risk factors are under your control, while others (like aging) are not. No one can completely eliminate the risk of back pain, but there are simple steps you can take to prevent back injuries.
While we often seek “miracle cures” for common conditions, it’s important to understand that back pain is linked to both lifestyle choices and your everyday physical movements. That means you have the power to make adjustments and decrease your risk, but it will take work.
There are 3 main approaches to preventing back pain that all workers should keep in mind:
- Improve physical conditioning (strength, flexibility, and fitness)
- Use proper lifting technique
- Avoid sitting or standing in one position for long periods of time
As is the case with many common health conditions, obesity is a major contributor to back pain. When your body is forced to carry excess weight, it puts significant strain on your muscles, ligaments, and joints. Losing weight through diet and exercise is a crucial first step towards reducing your risk of back pain. Remember to start slow and consult a doctor before beginning a new exercise program.
In addition to losing weight, it’s important to focus on improving strength and flexibility throughout your body, since the back is connected to so many different muscle and ligament groups. Activities like yoga or pilates can be very beneficial in not only increasing your flexibility, but also reducing stress, and helping you sleep better at night.
If your job involves heavy lifting, using proper technique is essential. For example, use the “diagonal lift” technique shown in the image below to maximize the strength of your legs and reduce the amount of strain on the back. Also, be sure to hold the object close to you, as this prevents your back from bending awkwardly from the weight of the object.
[Insert lifting technique images from pages 3 and 4 of Vol 21 No. 4 issue]
These days, more and more workers find jobs in offices that involve long periods of sitting. While heavy lifting seems like a more logical cause of back pain, sitting or standing in one position for several hours each day can be just as dangerous for your back. If you have an office job, there are 3 simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of back pain:
- Improve your posture, both sitting and standing
- Get up and walk around, or change positions, every 30 to 45 minutes
- Perform simple exercises while at work (see image below)
If you’re already dealing with back pain, you should immediately see a doctor. He or she can help diagnose the specific site and cause of the pain, and that will determine the best way to treat it.
In most cases, physical therapy sessions are recommended to target problem areas and improve strength and flexibility, while also easing pain. Other approaches to pain relief, such as heating pads, medication, and massages can also provide short-term relief. However, it is absolutely essential to improve strength, flexibility, and conditioning to truly eliminate back pain.
There is no “quick fix” to preventing or treating back pain, but there are simple adjustments you can make to your lifestyle that will help.