It's only Monday and you're already wishing it was Friday. Sound too familiar? Is work really that bad or is it that you just don’t enjoy what you’re doing? Or is it perhaps that the cause of your anguish really has nothing to do with your job, your career, or your colleagues? Chances are, the one thing that can make any work seem a lot worse than it actually is the one thing you take to work and even take it back home with you. I’m talking of course about your back.
Most of us take our back health for granted until the day that it causes great discomfort. To this day, back pain is the number one reason why people make appointments to see their doctors, and in most cases, not until the pain has become unbearable. Identifying back pain is easy and can range from dull, nagging aches, to stiffness, to unexpected sudden twinges or spasms. The more difficult part, but most critical, is being able to identify how you developed the back pain in the first place.
Some common presumed causes of back pain would be picking up a heavy object improperly, bending over awkwardly to pick up something that was dropped, or sleeping in a goofy position. While all of those causes could certainly lead to back pain, they were more the proverbial “stick that broke the camel’s back” of poor body mechanics and muscle imbalances. After a while, something has to give. The real culprit in the imbalances we experience is not just from all the sitting, standing, or lifting we may do at work, but how our bodies have to adapt to all of the sitting, standing, or lifting.
Let's take sitting for example. Due to the amount of time most people spend sitting, the body must gradually adapt itself to that position. This happens in a number of ways. The first thing it must adapt to is how the weight goes through the hips and pelvis. Then, there is the way in which you sit - upright, slouching, or something in between. But what’s most important and often overlooked is what happens to the postural, core, and support muscles while you're sitting. For example, the hip flexors (crease where the thighs and hips meet) will get tight from being in a shortened position, and the opposing muscles, the gluteus maximus (a.k.a. the butt) will get weak and atrophy from being in a relaxed state. The simple combination of tight hip flexors and weak glutes is what ultimately becomes a "muscle imbalance." The result of these muscle imbalances will be postural dysfunctions of the pelvis and spine. These imbalances send both the spine and pelvis into abnormal positions, the combination of which can be devastating to a person with a healthy back (the back that goes out from bending over to pick up a simple paper clip) and catastrophic for a person suffering from any form of back pain (i.e. bulged disc). What you must understand is that these imbalances are the direct result of what you do in your everyday life - sitting, the activities of your job, and your own personal habits. What can you do about it?
The good news. Back pain is highly preventable and even if back pain already exists, can be treated and remedied without any without medications or drugs. To prevent back pain from occurring, here are some action steps to take:
If your job requires you to sit, get up and move around every 20 minutes, even if not just to stand up. While sitting, sit with your legs in different positions and try to keep the legs moving. Stand up when the phone rings or when you have to read something. Bottom line – stay off of your bottom as much as possible
If your job requires you to stand all day long, be sure you have quality footwear and a neutral shoe insert. Body mechanics start when our feet hit the ground. It is best if your feet are in the most neutral position possible. One negative body pattern that many people fall into is to continually shift their weight from one foot to the other. The problem with this is that most people eventually find that one leg will be more comfortable than the other, and then that leg will get most of the weight most of the time. This will wreak havoc on the pelvis and spine. Better to put equal pressure on each foot as much as you can, and learn to correct when you catch yourself shifting your weight or leaning on one leg too much.
A third obstacle on the job can be situations where you have to lift anything over 10 pounds repeatedly. Again, it's not the activity itself that puts you in jeopardy; it's your body's inability to tolerate the stress of the weight. In other words, you should be able to lift anything you want to and not have any difficulty doing it. The problem occurs when your body is suffering from the muscle imbalances and postural dysfunctions discussed earlier. So, when you lift that object and get injured, the body was already in a compromised state, and it just needed that last bit of stress to send you in to a painful situation.
It's an unavoidable fact of life at work, and it can also play a role by causing your muscles to tense up, which makes you more prone to injury. Stress also lowers your tolerance for pain. In some cases, minimizing stress on the job can be a daunting task, but deep-breathing exercises, walking around the block, or even talking about your frustrations with a trusted friend can help.
The best and most reliable ways to prevent and treat back pain is good old fashioned exercise (specifically designed to address muscular imbalances), flexibility training, yoga, regular massage treatments, and proper rest (a good bed is worth its weight in gold). You only get one body…take good care of it.