Physio Myth Busters – Back Pain IS preventable at work – Tradies Part 3
I have not met a tradie yet who has not had a problem with their low-back. Unfortunately, most tradies and physical workers to put it simply, abuse their backs day in and out at work. Statistically speaking, there is an 80% chance, you will end up suffering from low-back pain. And if you’re a tradie, most likely the incidence rate is much higher. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Back pain is preventable at work and you can do physical work all day and maintain a healthy, strong back. But if you’re going to build a career doing manual work, you will need to implement some key strategies as listed below to prevent yourself from developing back pain.
This blog is for tradies and those who undertake physical work day in and day out. How you care for your back while working physically, in particular in your 20’s and 30’s, will impact your enjoyment of your work and life greatly.
What causes low-back pain:
There are lots of different things that can cause low-back pain. As a physiotherapist my role is in identifying the key contributing factors to a problem or working out the key risk and predisposing factors to a problem occurring. Back pain at work is rarely one-dimensional, but rather multi-faceted, with a number of factors contributing to someone developing low-back pain from their work. Addressing all of these contributing or risk factors is therefore essential and I encourage you to do your best at implementing the following in combination with each other.
Top 5 tips for preventing (and fixing) low-back pain in tradies and physical workers:
1. Optimise and manipulate your work environment – Analyse the demands of your work and understand the risks involved. Think about how you work, what’s required of you and plan ahead. Change the surface, height, process of your work and task to minimise low-back loading. Be smart with how you do tasks.
- Make sure you have the right equipment and lifting gear with you if required. Assess the weight of something before you lift it on your own!
- Use your legs and bum to lift, don’t use your back.
- Follow safe lifting techniques. Get help when required.
- Space out manual work where possible – variety is the spice of life and will help save your back! Don’t spend an hour bent over doing a repetitive task where possible!
- Use levers and pulleys for lifting.
2. Maintain optimal postures – Life is a series of postures. If you maintain poor postures repetitively, ie. Repetitive bending, lifting and twisting, you can expect a back pain to develop. Think about your posture and how you move.
- Use your big muscles – your legs to help lift heavy objects, not your small back muscles.
- Maintain safe lifting postures – neutral spine is ideal.
- Don’t slouch for hours driving in the car to the next job.
- Get a lumbar support for your car to help maintain neutral spine
- Don’t slouch at home on the couch – it will only make your back tighter and more prone to injury
- Set your shoulder blades back when lifting and carrying heavy objects or drilling, hammering or doing other manual tasks
- Vary your postures and avoid lifting, pushing or pulling from a prolonged flexed position or while in a twisted posture.
3. Always warm up! – The most ‘at risk’ time for your low-back to sustain an injury is when you body and back are not warmed up and after prolonged sitting. Warming up before you move, lift, bend and carry tools or supplies is crucial in preventing the likelihood of sustaining a low-back strain. A warm up helps get blood flowing and muscles warm and increases elasticity in tissues, therefore reducing the risk of over-stretching and straining low-back structures.
- The most vulnerable time for low-back strains and overload is when the back first gets moving after being stationary and sitting for a long time. So after a long drive to a worksite, especially in the morning it’s super important you warm up your back!
- Don’t lift heavy first up – start with lighter lifts and loads so as to make sure your back warms up and gets used to being used – otherwise your back injury risk is greater.
- Run through stretches when you first arrive at your worksite in the morning.
- Quick stretches after smoko and lunch breaks to maintain good back range – quads, hip flexor and gluts stretches are easy to do and help offload your back well.
4. Maintain good flexibility – Most low-back injuries are a direct result of overload. Where too much load is applied to the low-back joints, discs, ligaments and muscles and eventually strain or injury presents acutely or over a period of time. Maintaining good hip, low-back and thoracic spine range of motion and flexibility is essential in reducing the load placed on your low-back via your work. Stretching is mostly valuable to people who have a ‘stiff’ body type, more so than those who are hypermobile. For hypermobile workers, strength and stability are more required than flexibility in reducing the chances of low-back injury .
- See a physio and discover your body type – hypermobile (floppy), hypomobile (stiff) or somewhere in the middle.
- Get set up with a stretching and/or strengthening program to help support and de-load your low-back.
- Stretch in the morning and evening – 2 x day to prevent low-back pain occurrence and recurrence
- Set a reminder on your phone to remind you to stretch!
- Stretch after you eat and at smoko – quads, gluts and hip flexor stretches are all easy stretches to do on the go at work.
5. Get strong and stay strong – Core and hip strengthening really is the key to both preventing and fixing low-back pain. There are a number of ways and methods you can use to strengthen your back and honestly, it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, as long as you enjoy doing it, do it regularly and get the strength you are after. Engaging the muscles is really important also and this is where your local physiotherapist or personal trainer can help in teaching you how to use your core and hip muscles properly to support your back. Personally, I find with my clients clinical pilates is a fantastic, effective way to build functional core strength for your work duties.
- Typically gym programs are the favourite for tradies and physical workers in trying to build up core strength, but I recommend clinical pilates for those serious about building back strength and preventing or stopping work-related low-back pain.
- Make sure you are engaging your deep abdominal muscles. Ie. Transverse abdominus and multifidus which help to co-contract to support you back together.
- Do functional exercises – while bench pressing huge weights may give you huge pecs and look good, it’s not very functional. When do you ever lie down and lift 100kgs from flat on your back? Never. I recommend functional exercises involving legs, core and upper body together – these better help mimic your work activities rather.
- Don’t train in the gym using benches or lying down – these exercises are non-functional as you don’t sit down at work to lift things so why do it in the gym?
- Choose a personal trainer who understands and knows your back, especially if you have had a history of low-back pain.
- Clinical pilates – it’s not just for the ladies, guys – it is a very challenging way to work on building useful back and core strength and stability. Even guys who look good often realise through clinical pilates how much work needs to be done on their deep core back strength.
Don’t wait for low-back pain to start impacting your life and limiting your ability to work. Don’t put up with just working through low-back also. Take action, be proactive and you can prevent and beat low-back pain caused by your work. Don’t look back and say ‘I wish I had….’ Instead, love your back – look after it!
If you have presently got low-back pain or have had low-back pain in the past and would like to find out more about how to beat low-back pain, contact your local physiotherapist.
To having happy backs! Cheers!
Jacob Taylor (APAM)
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Derrer, D. T. (2014). Living with low-back pain: Getting through the day with low-back pain. Retrieved 19/5/16 from WebMD
Hides, J. A., Jull, G. A. & Richardson, C. A. (2001). Long-term effects of specific stabilizing exercises for first episode low-back pain. Spine. 26 (11), 243-248.
NHS (2014). Back pain at work. Retrieved 19/5/16 from Work Place Health