Everything we do affects our back. Unfortunately, the back is not very resilient. Once the back has been injured, it will never be as strong as it was before the injury. How many times a day do we lift, push, pull, stretch, and otherwise put a strain on our back? Prevention is the key to protecting our back from injury during these activities.
Body mechanics is the proper way to move and position the body for different activities in order to prevent injuries. It is important to remember that our bodies do not stop functioning when we go home from work. We need to follow the same guidelines both at work and home.
The natural position of the back is an “S” curve. This is referred to as the neutral position. To keep the neutral position and for good posture, we need to learn to maintain a straight line, from midline of the ears, to the shoulders, to midline of the hips, to midline of the knees, to midline of the ankle. This means standing tall, pulling in our stomach, and tightening our buttocks. Think of it as a plumb line from the ears to the knees. Thiswill keep our back in a natural “S” curve. Our back needs to be maintained in the neutral position when sitting, standing, sleeping, reaching, and pushing. Many of us spend a large part of our day sitting. Sitting increases weight on the spine. Slouching can place an additional pressure on the back. Some possible solutions for proper sitting might include:
- Having a chair with maximum adjustability;
- Maintaining a neutral position;
- Moving frequently (take micro breaks); and
- Having adjustable work surfaces.
If your job includes long periods of standing, you should place one foot on a footrest. This technique raises the front of the pelvis and reduces the possibility of a swayback condition. Alternate from one foot to the other frequently. Adjust your work surface height to keep from bending over while working.
If your work area is a cubicle, you can adjust the desk height. If you have a regular desk, and cannot find a way to correct the height, adjust your chair to fit the desk and use a footrest. When arranging your work area or an agency storage room, consider each object carefully in order to avoid reaching overhead or bending over. Think about how often the object is used, as well as the weight of the object. The best lifting zone is between the shoulders and waist. Place heavy and frequently used objects near waist height. This reduces bending and twisting to reach the object. Place lighter objects either higher or lower than heavier objects. Use dollies or carts to move heavy objects rather than carrying them.
Pushing an object is much better for your back than pulling it. If you push, you can see over your load and use your legs, not your back. Keep the object in front of you and stay as close to the object as possible, as this gives you more control and direction.
Sleeping is very important to maintain physical and mental health. Most of us sleep between 6-8 hours per day. Even while asleep, you can injure your back if you do not maintain good back posture. To sleep properly you need to:
- Use a firm mattress;
- Avoid sleeping on your stomach — this can cause the back to sway;
- Place a pillow under your knees when sleeping on your back; and
- Place a pillow between your knees and keep your knees bent when sleeping on your side.
Some simple changes to your lifestyle can help protect your back from injury. When attempting to change your lifestyle, be realistic. A little bit of change is better than none at all. Try making small changes over a period of time. Make a commitment to walk around the block everyday as opposed to running five miles. Regular exercise can help you strengthen your stomach muscles, lose a little weight, and increase your flexibility. Cut down on your food portions rather than going on a liquid or strict diet. Be willing to try something different — new recipes, new sports, meditation, or aerobics.
Strain or Sprain?
Strain and sprain both mean something has been stretched beyond its limits. A strain refers to a muscle. When a muscle is strained, it has been forced to exceed its ability to work. Regular exercise can strengthen muscles and allow them to work harder and longer, which is important considering muscles are the spine’s workhorses. A strain or sprain can occur in ligaments (fibrous bands connecting bones together) or in tendons (bands of tissue attaching muscles to bones). A sprained ankle is a common example of a sprained ligament. The symptoms of strains and sprains are sudden, sharp, and persistent pain at the injury site, followed by swelling.
Strains and Overexertion
Although a typical office job may not involve lifting large or especially heavy objects, it’s important to follow the principles of safe lifting. Small, light loads (i.e., stacks of files, boxes of computer paper, books) can wreak havoc on your back, neck, and shoulders if you use your body incorrectly when you lift them. Backs are especially vulnerable—most back injuries result from improper lifting. Before you pick up a carton or load, ask yourself the following questions.
- Is this too heavy for me to lift and carry alone?
- How high do I have to lift it?
- How far do I have to carry it?
- Am I trying to impress anyone by lifting this?
If you feel that the lift is beyond your ability, contact your supervisor or ask another employee to assist you.
Lifting and Carrying
Eight out of 10 adults will have problems with their lower backs. Injuries usually occur because of two reasons. First, when back muscles are weak and, second, because of poor techniques for lifting and carrying. Take a few minutes each day to strengthen and stretch your back muscles.
Can you think of an occupation where you never have to lift? Lifting can be a large part of your job if you are a construction worker or an occasional task if you are an office worker. Because lifting is something everybody does at one time or another on the job or at home, you rarely think about it—at least not until your back begins to hurt.
Repeated incorrect lifting can result in a variety of injuries. Back strain is the most common type of injury and results from overstretching muscles. Damaged spinal disks, which health care professionals refer to as herniated disks, can be a serious, painful result of incorrect lifting. Using safe lifting techniques can help reduce the possibility of back injuries.
The goal of safe lifting is to maintain your back’s natural posture during the lift. Your back forms three natural curves: one in the neck; the middle back; and the lower back. Maintaining these curves in your posture while lifting minimizes pressure on your discs and gives you maximum lifting strength.
No single lifting technique will apply to all situations, but the following tips will help avoid back injuries during any type of lift.
Safe Lifting Steps
- Size up the load — look it over and decide whether you can handle it alone or if you need help.
- Ask for help if you need it. You’ll avoid many injuries if someone can assist.
- Inspect your intended path of travel for obstacles or other possible hazards.
- Take a balanced stance, place feet shoulder-width apart. When lifting something from the floor, squat close to the load.
- Bend at your knees, not your waist. Leg muscles are stronger and more durable than back muscles. Let your leg muscles do the work.
- Keep your back in its neutral position. Tuck in you chin so your head and neck continue the neutral back line.
- Lift by straightening your legs. Let your leg muscles, not your back muscles, do the work. Tighten your stomach muscles to help support your back. Maintain your neutral back position as you lift.
- Grip the object with your whole hand, rather than only with your fingers. Draw the object close to you, holding your elbows close to your body to keep the load and your body weight centered.
- For greater strength and stability, lift and carry the object near your waist.
- Never twist when lifting. When you must turn with a load, turn your whole body, feet first.
- Never carry a load that blocks your vision.
- To set something down, use the same body mechanics designed for lifting.
Teamwork is essential for loads requiring two people. In addition to the tips outlined above, you should also:
- Designate a leader in advance;
- Plan the lift;
- Lift and lower in unison and with no sudden moves; and
- Communicate with your partner during the entire move.
Lifting from a Seated Position
Bending while in a seated position and then coming back up places tremendous strain on your back. Also, your chair could be unstable and slip out from under you. Instead, stand and move your chair out of the way. Squat and stand whenever you have to retrieve something from the floor.
Exercises at Work
A daily routine of simple exercises such as crunches and stretching will keep your back and the rest of your body flexible, strong, and well-conditioned. Exercising your neck, back, and shoulders is easy, regardless of your occupation.
Check with your physician before starting any exercise program. Stop any exercise that causes pain or discomfort. If the discomfort is excessive or long lasting, see your doctor.
Exercise 1: Stand erect. Turn your head slowly as far as possible to the right. Return to the normal center position and relax. Turn your head slowly as far as possible to the left. Return to normal position and relax.
Exercise 2: Stand erect. Try to touch your chin to your chest slowly. Raise your head backwards slowly, looking at the ceiling.
Exercise 3: Stand erect. Try to touch your left ear to your left shoulder. Return to the normal position and relax. Try to touch your right ear to your right shoulder. Return to normal position and relax. Keep your shoulders level; do not bring them up to your ear.
Exercise 4: Stand erect. Raise both shoulders backward as far as possible and hold. Then relax.
Exercise 5: While sitting in your chair, bend forward and, if you are able, touch your hands to the floor.
Exercise 6: While sitting in your chair, grasp your leg at the shin and slowly pull it up to your chest. Repeat this with your other leg. If you have knee pain, place your hands behind your thighs and slowly pull.
Exercise 7: Sit up straight, place your hands behind your head and move your elbows backwards to pinch your shoulder blades together.
Exercise 8: Stretch your arms behind your back.
Exercise 9: Interlace your fingers with your palms facing away from your body. Straighten your arms and lift them toward the ceiling.
Exercise 10: Stand erect. Place your hands on your hips and bend backwards. Do this six times. Arching your back this way will help reduce lower back pains.