Back pain is one of the most common complaints among Americans. About 60 to 80 percent of Americans experience some kind of back pain at some point in their lives, and around 11 percent of American adults report back pain each year. In addition to being uncomfortable, back pain can be an extremely expensive health problem. Americans spend over $50 billion each year on low back pain treatment and lose an additional $100 billion each year from lost wages, lost productivity, legal and insurance overheads and family impacts.
So why is back pain such a common problem? While age, extra weight and poor posture are major contributors to this trend, many who suffer from back pain list a back injury as the cause. Injuries, whether minor or major, can be frustrating and uncomfortable to live with, making daily tasks much more painful. Even worse, these injuries can result from simple daily tasks as much as they can from heavy lifting. If your job involves a great deal of heavy lifting, however, you’re especially at risk for back injuries.
To help people who regularly lift objects better protect their backs from injury, we’ve developed a few tips for heavy lifting, as well as preventative measures you can take to protect your back and how to tell if a back injury requires medical attention.
Common Sources of Back Injuries While Lifting
Most people have experienced some amount of back pain because of lifting heavy objects. Whether you simply had poor form at the gym one day, were helping a buddy move a TV or simply misjudged the weight of a box of holiday decorations, you’re probably aware of how painful these injuries are and how easily they can occur. When lifting is a large portion of your job, you’re even more aware of this.
Some of the most common sources of back injuries while lifting include:
• Incorrect Posture: One of the most common causes of low back pain is incorrect posture while lifting an object. Many people bend forward to pick up an item, which reverses the natural forward curve of your spine, placing increased stress on your spinal discs, joints and muscles. The same can be said when arching your back more than normal to lift something overhead or compensate for a too-heavy load. When done repeatedly, these activities can end up straining your back and damaging your bones, joints and muscles to the point where they cause you pain.
• Too-heavy Load: Frequently, people will attempt to lift something too heavy for them to handle. When picking up such a load, they can strain and stress their backs in the attempt to lift, especially if they use incorrect posture. The strain doesn’t end there either — without adequate muscle strength to handle such a load, the stress of the weight falls heavily on the back as the body struggles to compensate for the increased burden.
• Unstable Load: Another common cause of lifting-related back injuries is a shift in the load. When carrying boxes with loose materials, the weight distribution may change while you’re holding it, causing a sudden reaction to the shift in weight. Often, we react by arching our back or tensing a muscle too quickly — this can cause serious injury, including a back injury.
How to Avoid Injury When Lifting
The above sources of back injuries can be easily prevented by taking a few precautions while lifting. Some of the most important lifting tips include:
• Use Proper Posture: Do not bend forward to pick up an object. If the object is narrow enough for you to straddle it, squat next to the object and lift with your legs, keeping your back straight. To help minimize strain on your back, try to keep your head and neck in an upright position — look straight ahead and slightly up instead of looking down. This helps your back naturally maintain its forward-curved position, protecting your back through the motion. Additionally, try to keep the object close to your body, and hold it between your waist and your shoulders — this places less strain on your back by keeping the object near your center of gravity.
• Check the Object: Before you attempt to lift an object, be sure to test it first. Check to see that the contents are balanced and packed in a way that they won’t move around when you lift it. Push on the object lightly to get a feel for the weight of the object. You may also want to check for handles on the object, or good gripping points. If during these checks you find that the object may be difficult to lift, try to find ways to make it easier on yourself. Re-pack the contents so they won’t shift, remove some of the contents to relieve some of the weight or find handles or a dolly to help you.
• Warm up: Before lifting anything, stretch your legs and back to prepare them for work. If need be, walk around or start with some lighter objects before moving to the heavy stuff so you prepare your body for the work it is about to do.
• Observe Your Surroundings: Where is the object located and where is it going? Be sure you know these things before you begin moving the object. Make sure you have enough room to lift the object safely — if necessary, clear a space. If lifting from a high area, make sure not to lift over your head — use a ladder. Take note of any problem areas, such as slippery or uneven surfaces you have to carry the load over, and avoid them if possible. If you must walk over those areas, take precautions, such as ramps or slip-proof shoes. Be aware of where you’re going — be sure to have enough visibility around your object to identify obstacles, such as stairs.
• Avoid Overworking Yourself: Take numerous breaks between lifts, especially if you’re lifting multiple objects over a long period. Also, avoid lifting objects that are too heavy for you — a wounded ego is less painful in the long run than an injured back.
• Wear Proper Footwear: Do not attempt to lift heavy objects in improper footwear, as this can place extra strain on your back. Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes tied tightly to your foot to avoid slippage.
Exercises for Preventing Back Injuries
If your daily activities include a lot of lifting, whether it be at home or at work, following the above tips may not be enough to prevent injury. You can take a few other preventative measures to stave off pain from lifting. This involves developing strong and stable “core” muscles, or muscles in your abdominals and back. These supporting muscles can help protect your back from injury, and can be strengthened with some simple exercises.
Some of the basic exercises you can do to prevent back injuries include:
• Stretching: Always remember to stretch before and after strenuous physical activity. Make sure to gently stretch each part of your body, with special care to stretch your hamstrings and lower back, as strain in these areas are more strongly linked to back pain.
• Cardio: Yes, cardiovascular workouts are essential for developing your core. How do you think you stay upright while walking? A simple stroll can get your blood pumping and warm up your core for exercise. Typically, a good 10-minute walk is sufficient every day, more if that is the only exercise you get during your day.
• Abdominal Tightening: This easy abdominal exercise requires you to lie on the floor, keeping your knees bent and your feet parallel to the floor. Arms should be at your sides. Initiate the movement by tightening your lower abdominal muscles and pulling your navel in — like your pulling it toward the floor. Avoid using your buttocks or legs to accomplish this. Hold this position for five seconds before releasing, and repeat five to ten times.
• Prone Press Ups with Arms Straight: This exercise strengthens both your arms and core. Set up the move by lying on your stomach with your hands resting flat on the ground by your shoulders. Begin the move by pushing against the floor with your hands. Allow your back to bend as you press your upper body away from the floor. Make sure to keep your hips in contact with the floor and maintain a gentle chin tuck through the move. Without straining your back, come to the height of the move and hold for a second or two before lowering yourself slowly back down to the ground.
• Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch: For this stretch, keep one knee on the ground with the top of the foot flat against the floor. Your other leg should be in front of you, flexed at a 90-degree angle with your foot flat on the ground for stability. Slowly, using your hands for balance, shift your weight forward by flexing your forward leg even further. Keep your torso straight as your kneeling leg extends below you. You should feel a stretch along the front of your hip. Hold this for about 15 seconds before releasing, then alternate legs.
• Supine Hamstring Stretch: This is an important exercise to do before lifting because it prepares your legs to do work, alleviating the strain on your back. Set up the move by lying on your back with one leg straight and the other leg bent. Keeping your back flat against the floor, begin the move by bringing the knee toward your chest and grabbing the back of your thigh with both hands. Straighten your raised knee until you begin to feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold your leg here for a few breaths before releasing your thigh and slowly lowering it back down to the ground and switching legs.
• Superman on Table: Set up this move by lying face down on a bed, bench or other comfortable raised surface with your head hanging slightly over the edge and your arms at your sides. Tucking your chin as you move, lift your head away from the floor until your back is straight. Simultaneously, draw your shoulder blades down and toward the middle of your back and raise your arms a few inches away from the surface of the bed. Hold this for a few breaths before slowly releasing back down to the bed.
• Cat-Camel: Get on your hands and knees with your arms directly below your shoulders and your knees bent at 90 degrees below your hips. Slowly round your back up toward the ceiling and hold it for a few breaths, then let your back sag toward the floor and hold it for a few breaths. Repeat this a few times with slow and controlled movements, making sure to use your entire back for the movement.
• Gastroc Stretch on Wall: Set up this move by standing upright in front of a wall. Place your hands against the wall and extend one leg straight back, bending your front leg as you do. Keep your heels on the ground for the entire stretch. You should fee a stretch along the calf of your back leg.
Doing these exercises in sets of 3 to 5 repetitions four times a week at minimum can help you build the strength you need to reduce and prevent back pain. Generally, it will take around 6 weeks to see results. Make these exercises a part of your daily routine to help you maintain a healthy core and a protected back.
Though these exercises can help prevent or even reduce back pain, it can do more harm than good in some cases. If you’re experiencing acute back pain, please consult a physician or spine specialist before attempting any of the above exercises.
Easing Back Pain
If you do end up hurting yourself while lifting an object, you may wish to visit a physician. If the pain is mild, however, there are ways to ease it. These include:
• Exercise: While exercising may not seem like a great idea after an injury, light exercise can help speed up the healing process by increasing blood flow. A short walk or short stints of activity can do wonders for the healing process. Make sure you’re comfortable with an exercise before attempting to perform it, and if you’re experiencing acute pain from your injury, it is best to consult your doctor or physical therapist before attempting any exercise program.
• Maintain Proper Posture: When standing or sitting, always maintain proper posture, with your spine straight and shoulders back. To check your posture while standing, stand with your back to a wall — the back of your head, shoulders and bottom should all touch the wall if your posture is correct.
• Using a Lumbar Roll: Improving your posture while sitting reduces back pain by helping your spine naturally readjust to its proper position. Placed in the small of your back, a lumbar roll supports the natural forward curve of your spine by placing pressure on this area of you back. If you don’t have a designated lumbar roll, a bath towel or paper towel roll will work in a similar way.
• Ice and Heat: Regularly apply ice to the more painful areas of your back — this can help mitigate your pain and reduce inflammation at the injury site. Do this several times a day for a few days, at which point you should switch to heat. This can help relax your muscles and increase blood flow to the affected area. Warm baths are just as good as a heating pad for this.
If your back pain is more long-term, these measures may not be sufficient by themselves, and you may need to make more significant lifestyle changes. Some of these include:
• Weight Loss: If you’re overweight, your back muscles are under more stress than they need to be. Look into weight loss programs to help reduce the stress on your back.
• Get a New Mattress: An old, lumpy or soft mattress can cause extra strain on your back while you’re sleeping. Look into a medium-firm mattress, which tends to be better for people with back pain.
• Quit Smoking: Smoking reduces blood flow throughout your body, and that includes to your lower spine. This can result in spinal disc degeneration. Smoking also slows down the healing process if you’ve already sustained an injury.
When to Seek Help
If you’re experiencing pain after an injury sustained from lifting an object, taking the above steps may help. Often, back pain caused by reversible problems will usually go away within a few days at most. However, if your pain continues for over a week or is unusual or severe in any way, you need to seek medical help or physical therapy for your lifting injury.
You should consult your physical therapist if:
• The pain lasts more than a few days
• The pain is acute or chronic
• The pain is caused by a non-traumatic injury
• The pain is intermittent
While some of these cases can be something more severe, most cases of pain caused by lifting are the result of a simple strain. A physical therapist can help you determine the source of your pain and how to manage it. They can also help point you in the right direction with your lifestyle, making recommendations for changes to your daily habits that can help you heal faster and prevent further injuries.
Some injuries, however, do require the expertise of a physician. See your doctor if:
• Your pain is the result of trauma
• Your pain lasts more than four to six weeks and is worsening
• Your pain is severe and/or constant
• Your injury causes you weakness, numbness or a tingling sensation in one or both legs
• You experience sudden and unexpected weight loss
• You experience abnormal swelling
Who to Get Help From
If you’ve sustained a work-related lifting injury and need the expertise of a physical therapist, we can help. We provide work and industry services for rehabilitation following work-related injuries. In addition to treating existing injuries, we can help you learn how to prevent future ones. Our goal-oriented treatment programs and specially-trained therapists strive to get injured workers up and running as quickly and as safely as possible with customized care plans, involving manual therapy, strength training, training in proper lifting, bending and sitting techniques and modalities.
To maximize the speed of your recovery, we offer evaluation within 24 hours of your referral, early morning and evening appointments and custom care plans tailored to your line of work. Additionally, we will keep ongoing communication with your employer and physician to ensure your care is the best quality possible!