SAFETY SOLUTIONS: My Back Hurts
National healthcare statistics: In the United States,
back disorders account for over 24 percent of all
occupational injuries and illnesses involving days
away from work, according to the National Institute of
Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Worker Health
Personal impact: About 80 percent of back injuries are
short in duration, and workers are able get back to normal
health. In the short-term, they may experience pain
and reduced functioning. For some, the pain and suffering
is long-term. And for a small percentage of people, it is
lifelong. For employees with long-term, disabling musculoskeletal
injuries, lifetime earnings may drop significantly.
These employees may also suffer a loss of independence
and a diminished quality of life.
Back pains are among mankind’s earliest and most
enduring afflictions. It has been estimated that two-thirds
of industrial workers, and more than half of all office workers,
have suffered at least one back injury by age 65.
About 85 percent of the patients one occupational health
doctor sees for back problems have strained muscles in their
"lumbar" region—the lower back. Lower back pain, he says,
is usually set off by a specific movement at a specific moment
in time. Lifting, falling or trying to catch or break the fall of
an object are the most common actions that cause such an
injury. At that instant, the person may feel a snap, a popping
sensation, nothing at all or immediate agony.
Being in a hurry is a major element in back injury cases,
this occupational health expert has found. If a person
would just take the time to get a forklift instead of trying
to pick up the too-heavy object, or get the ladder instead
of just reaching for something too high, a possible injury
could probably be avoided.
Understanding your spine can also help. Constructed of
24 connected segments of bone and cartilage called vertebrae,
it provides structural stability for the body. Spongy
discs between the vertebrae cushion the bones while also
bonding them together and providing the mobility that
allows twisting, bending and flexing movements. Also
holding the vertebrae together are muscles and ligaments.
Within the bones and protected by them is the spinal
cord, the control center of the nervous system.
If the springy disc material between the bones of the
spine loses some of its bounce—which can happen simply
as part of the aging process—then the stress of some particular
movement may cause the disc to bulge or even
break, with spongy tissue spilling out. This "herniated"
disc can press on an adjacent nerve, causing pain, numbness,
tingling or painful muscle spasm.
Conditioning exercise is also a part of good back pain
prevention. Your goals are to improve flexibility of the
back (swimming and walking are great for this) and to
strengthen both back and stomach muscles, to provide
proper back support.
Here’s what doctors advise for those who do have an
injury that results in acute back pain: Stop. Get into bed
for the first terribly painful period. You may want to use ice
to reduce swelling or heat to ease muscles. Anti-inflammatory
medication or muscle relaxers given to you by your
doctor will help muscle spasms, too. Add a board underneath
a too-soft mattress.
Here are some precautions that can help protect your
back from injury:
In from one to five days, you should be able to move
again, although in easy ways. In fact, it’s important that
you do begin to move at this point, to increase flexibility
and strength. Allow discomfort and your good sense to tell
you how far you should go.
Follow the safe lifting practices we’ve stressed so often.
Sit and stand upright without slouching.
Minimize stress on the lower back by avoiding overweight.
Sleep on your back, with a cushion under the knees, or
on your side
Don’t maintain one position for a long time—take a
Long-term recovery may depend on your physician’s
help and adhering to the preventive measures already
mentioned. Doesn’t this emphasize how much smarter—
and more comfortable—you’ll be by taking those preventive
steps in the first place?
(This article was based on information from the
American Physical Therapy Association.)
For more information, click on the author biography at the top of the page.