A leading Australian neurosurgeon explains the best ways of preventing workplace back pain.
As most of us spend a large proportion of our time in an office environment, getting up and moving around is the first line of defence in preventing back pain.
If you want to try to avoid injury to your back, particularly if you work in a largely desk-bound job, the first thing to do is to work up to any gym or exercise program slowly. Don’t suddenly start weightlifting because you will hurt your back, especially if you’re over the age of 40, and be careful with boot camps.
The second thing is, in many workplaces, there’s a manual lift person – usually a health and safety representative – who’s appropriately trained to advise on manual lifting techniques. If you are involved in a job that involves repetitive bending and lifting, then it’s very important that you have education in safe lifting techniques.
Those in an office space job need to think about back pain caused by lack of activity. If you want to go about preventing back pain in the workplace, because you sit for long periods of time, then getting up every hour and stretching your legs is good.
The right way to sit
I believe that it is important for people who work in desk jobs to use ergonomic chairs. But the commonly accepted idea that sitting up straight can be helpful in preventing back pain isn’t necessarily correct. We’ve shown with patients with disc injuries that the pressure in the disc is higher when you’re sitting up straight at 90 degrees on the chair, and if you actually slouch back a bit, the pressure on the disc is less. So that’s an old wives’ tale that’s not actually true. It’s actually better to slouch back a bit rather than sit up straight.
Standing desk chairs
The current trend of using standing desks can be useful to some. There are many different styles and brands on the market but they all keep you in a standing position while working at a raised desk. These chairs are based on the fact that the pressure on the disc is highest when you’re sitting. Likewise, the pressure is greatly reduced when you’re standing. The theory is that using a standing chair reduces the risk of worsening a back injury or causing a back injury in the first place. It may work, but I haven’t seen any strong evidence supporting that conclusion.
Should you go to the gym?
Making sure you maintain fitness and core weight is beneficial. If you do have an episode of back pain, get treatment and don’t lift anything. The classic is somebody injuring their back and then deciding to go to the gym to make it better, and then making themselves worse.
So what are the signs that you’ve got a back problem—how do you know that you shouldn’t be going to the gym? That depends on the severity of the discomfort. If your back pain is bad enough to require medication, then you shouldn’t be going to the gym. If you’re getting any nerve symptoms in your arms or legs and numbness, tingling or pain in the arms or legs, you need to see a doctor.
About 60 to 70 per cent of back pain will settle down if you just do nothing, including taking any painkillers. A large part of this is the human body healing itself. Severe pains – and pains resulting from what we would call an organic cause, such as a herniated lumbar disc, or some sort of actual injury to the back that requires specialist treatment – aren’t very common.
(Want to know how to introduce an injured employee back into the workplace? Read this.)
Six tips to prevent back pain
- Get moving – If you sit for long periods of time – it’s important to get up and stretch your legs every hour.
- Use ergonomic chairs – Use a comfortable ergonomic chair in a slightly slouched position to protect the back.
- Be careful how you lift – Don’t lift more than 10 or 15 kg out in front of you and try to keep the weight as close to your centre of gravity as you can, rather than reaching out.
- No twisting – Don’t twist your body at the waist while lifting. Avoid forcible bending, twisting or pulling as much as you can while carrying heavy weights.
- Look after yourself – Maintain your health, weight and lifestyle – excess weight and body fat puts unnecessary pressure on the back and increases the risk of injury.
- Stop smoking – The silent killer for backs, smoking increases the risk of degeneration in the lumbar disc and it increases the risk that you will herniate the disc again, if you’ve had a disc herniation. In the event you need a lumbar fusion, smoking increases the risk it won’t work as it reduces the amount of oxygen to the disc and releases toxins into that disc.
Dr Parkinson is a highly trained neurosurgeon who has performed groundbreaking and complex surgery on some of Australia’s elite sportspeople and recognised as a leading expert in sports injuries.