Many people assume that low-back pain in the workplace is an issue that only affects those who have jobs that require some sort of physical lifting. However, lower back pain affects everyone it’s the most common reason people see a doctor other than the common cold.
“The truth is, back pain is not just for construction workers,” says David M. Weir, president of UPMC Work Partners. “It’s an equal opportunity health issue.”
Smart Business spoke with Weir about how to stop low-back pain from negatively affecting productivity in the workplace.
Why is low-back pain an important issue for employers?
For employers, low-back pain is an important issue because back problems are the single largest cost drivers in terms of days away from work, both for occupational and nonoccupational reasons. It is also the most common reason that people see a doctor other than the common cold. Studies have shown that back pain can make it difficult to concentrate on the job. According to research by Duke University, up to 80 percent of people will deal with back aches at some time in their lives.
Isn’t low-back pain at work mostly associated with certain jobs?
Certainly, there are some occupations that put special stress on backs such as nursing, construction and factory work. But even routine office work can hurt your back if you fall into risky habits. In many cases, back injuries, even those that occur on the worksite, are manifested over time. It’s a general degeneration of the body and core muscle fitness that leads to the problem.
Can someone learn how to prevent low-back pain at work?
Historically, prevention of back pain at work has been viewed as a ‘body mechanics’ problem. The thinking has always been that if employees are taught the correct way to bend, stretch and lift, they can learn how to avoid back injuries. But, in many cases, low-back pain is not caused simply by bad mechanics or by what someone does in the workplace. Often, it is more of a fitness issue in combination with a work-related issue.
Factors such as age and genetics can play a large role in terms of whom it affects. To a great extent, once you reach age 35, it’s not a question of if you’ll get back pain so much as when you’ll get it.
What is the biggest factor that drives back pain?
The lower back is a complex anatomy that protects the spinal cord, allows mobility, provides support of the spine and allows the attachment of many muscles that involve hip motion: standing and walking. Some causes of pain due to muscle or ligament strain are degenerative joint diseases, disc disease, spinal stenosis or osteoporosis as we age.
Many times back pain can result from a lack of overall fitness. Muscles, joints and bones all benefit greatly from regular physical fitness exercises.
People who lack good physical fitness are more likely to get back pain than someone who participates to some extent in regular exercise. And, persons with chronic lower back pain are most likely less fit than those who do not have it.
What can be done to combat low-back pain?
Over the years, loss control and safety programs have had a positive impact on the frequency of traumatic-type injuries involving falls, slips and trips, etc. What we are seeing more of is strains and sprains associated with overall fitness/core muscle strength than acute-type events.
One of the best ways to manage lower back pain is to improve general physical fitness with cardiovascular exercise, because that helps increase the supply of blood to all the tissues in your body. Regular stretching and movement are some of the best things you can do to prevent back injuries.
How can being fit help your back?
Being fit, which involves strength and flexibility, helps you maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases the risk of having lower back pain. Exercise also has a positive effect on mood, and having a positive mood is an important part of managing a chronic condition such as low-back pain.
What work-related things can you do to help avoid back injuries?
Even though the causes of back pain are not easily pinpointed and are probably due to a combination of factors family history, overall fitness, flexibility, lifestyle there are factors that are within your control. There are work-related factors that can impact your back. These include:
- Force. If you exert too much force on your back, you can cause injury, so jobs that require frequent lifts or moving of heavy objects can be a problem.
- Repetition. Overly repetitious tasks can lead to muscle fatigue or injury.
- Posture. Aches and pains can result from sitting still for long periods, such as in front of a computer. Adjusting your body every 20 minutes can help avoid problems.
- Stress. Pressures at work or home can increase stress level and lead to muscle tension and tightness, which can cause back pain.
What strategies can you employ at work to reduce the risk of back pain?
There are some things you can do to limit risk such as planning your moves, minimizing hazards, examining your workstation for potential issues such as proper chair height, position of monitor and keyboard, lighting, etc. But, remember back problems can be caused by many factors and your best defense is good body mechanics, following solid safety practices, and maintaining a physically active lifestyle.
David M. Weir is president of UPMC Work Partners. Reach him at (412) 454-8720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.