Back pain can make it hard to do your job. Understanding what causes workplace back pain can help you avoid it.
Whether it's dull and annoying or screaming for attention, back pain can make it hard to concentrate on your job.
Many occupations — such as nursing, construction and factory work — may place significant demands on your back. Even routine office work can worsen back pain if you fall into risky habits.
But you often can avoid back pain and injuries by understanding what causes them and focusing on prevention.
What causes back injuries?
Doctors aren't sure about all of the causes of back pain. In fact, most back problems are probably the result of a combination of factors. Some factors, such as family history, aren't preventable. You can control other factors, such as weight, fitness and flexibility, by changing your lifestyle. Still other factors are work related, and you may or may not be able to modify these to prevent injury.
Four work-related factors are associated with increased risk of back pain and injury:
- Force. Exerting too much force on your back may cause injury. If your job is physical in nature, you might face injury if you frequently lift or move heavy objects.
- Repetition. Repetition refers to the number of times you perform a certain movement. Overly repetitious tasks can lead to muscle fatigue or injury, particularly if they involve stretching to the limit of your range of motion or awkward body positioning.
- Posture. Posture refers to your position when sitting, standing or performing a task. If, for instance, you spend most of your time in front of a computer, you may experience occasional aches and pains from sitting still for extended periods. On average, your body can tolerate being in one position for about 20 minutes before you feel the need to adjust.
- Stress. Pressures at work or at home can increase your stress level and lead to muscle tension and tightness, which may in turn lead to back pain.
How to avoid injuries
Your best bet in preventing back pain and injury is to be as fit as you can be and take steps to make your work and your working environment as safe as possible.
Even if you move around a lot on your job or your job requires physical exertion, you still need to exercise. Regular activity is your best bet in maintaining a healthy back. First of all, you'll keep your weight in check, and carrying around a healthy weight for your body's frame minimizes stress on your back. You can do specific strengthening and stretching exercises that target your back muscles. These exercises are called "core strengthening" because they work both your abdominal and back muscles. Strong and flexible muscles will help keep your back in shape.
Pay attention to posture
Poor posture stresses your back. When you slouch or stand with a swaybacked position, you exaggerate your back's natural curves. Such posture can lead to muscle fatigue and injury. In contrast, good posture relaxes your muscles and requires minimal effort to balance your body.
- Standing posture. If you stand for long periods, occasionally rest one foot on a stool or small box. While you stand, hold reading material at eye level. Don't bend forward to do desk work or handwork.
- Sitting posture. To promote comfort and good posture while sitting, choose a chair that supports your back. Adjust the chair so that your feet stay flat on the floor. If the chair doesn't support your lower back's curve, place a rolled towel or small pillow behind your lower back. Remove bulky objects, such as a wallet, from your back pockets when sitting because they can disrupt balance in your lower back.
There's a right way and a wrong way to lift and carry a load. Some key tips for lifting the right way include letting your legs do the work, keeping objects close to your body and recruiting help if a load is too heavy.
Adjust your work space
Look at the setup of your office or work area. Think about how you could modify repetitive job tasks to reduce physical demands. Remember that you're trying to decrease force and repetition and maintain healthy, safe postures. For instance, you might use lifting devices or adjustable equipment to help you lift loads. If you're on the phone most of the day, try a headset. Avoid cradling the phone between your shoulder and ear to free up your hands for yet another task. If you work at a computer, make sure that your monitor and chair are positioned properly.
Adopt healthy work habits
Pay attention to your surroundings and comfort on the job. Take these steps to prevent back pain:
- Plan your moves. Reorganize your work to eliminate high-risk, repetitive movements. Avoid unnecessary bending, twisting and reaching. Limit the time you spend carrying heavy briefcases, purses and bags. If you're carrying something heavy, know exactly where you intend to put it and whether that space is free from clutter.
- Listen to your body. If you must sit or stand for a prolonged period, change your position often. Take a 30-second timeout every 15 minutes or so to stretch, move or relax. Try standing up when you answer the phone, to stretch and change positions. If your back hurts, stop activities that aggravate it.
- Minimize hazards. Falls can seriously injure your back. Think twice before wearing high heels. Low-heeled shoes with nonslip soles are a better bet. Remove anything from your work space that might cause you to trip.
- Work on coordination and balance. Just walking regularly for activity can help you maintain your coordination and balance. You can also perform balance exercises to keep you steady on your feet.