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Monday, January 25, 2010 - Protecting the Back – A Delicate Balancing Act - SJH RehabCare’s Lifespine Program Offers Back Health Tips

VINELAND, NJ (January 22) – An estimated 19 million working days are lost each year due to back problems experienced on the job.  In fact, back pain is the most common cause of work absence after colds and flu.

You may be able to list some common causes of on-the-job injuries – loads that slip, falls, and repeated heavy lifting.  But there are some not-so-obvious culprits, including poor body mechanics, prolonged activity, and fatigue.  Problems also occur in occupations where consistencies of tasks are a challenge.  For example, many healthcare workers have back problems because the patients they assist are of different heights and weights with varying needs.

Most employers today have recognized the effects of workplace back injuries and have adopted safety and health measures to head off problems before they occur.  While these initiatives have helped improve statistics for accidental injuries, they still do not adequately address the problem of non-accidental or overuse injuries, which are not so predictable.

Although the causes of back problems and pain are as individual as you and your colleague, there are some basic principles that both of you should know.  By making concentrated adjustments in your working environment and your daily activities, you can help prevent potential harm to your back.

A good starting point is a lesson in body mechanics, or how movement and posture affect your back.  A balanced spine is made up of bones (vertebrae) and pads of cartilage (disks) arranged in three curves.  Your cervical curve (neck) supports your head.  The thoracic curve is your middle back, which is supported by your rib cage.  But your lumbar curve (lower back) is your skeletal support center, balancing your entire body.  This extra load and the mobility of the lower back make it most susceptible to injury.

Maintaining the natural curve of your spine at all times will allow you to have “good posture.”  So what does that mean?  That means keeping your head up and in proper alignment over your shoulders, keeping your shoulders back, and keeping your stomach muscles strong and tight.

When sitting, keep your back relatively straight.  Slouching may be more comfortable, but it puts extreme pressure on your spine.  If you’re a desk jockey, it may be worthwhile to invest in an ergonomically designed chair, which supports your lower back and makes it difficult and uncomfortable to slouch.  Keep your knees and hips at a 90-degree angle, and adjust your seat so that the work surface is elbow high.

If you work with a computer, elevate the monitor so that you don’t need to raise and lower your head when looking at either the keyboard or the screen.  The top of the screen should be at eye level.

Prolonged static posture is the enemy!  Doing anything that keeps the spine still – like sitting for hours in front of a computer terminal – is stressful and heightens the risk of back strain.  Even if you are sitting with correct posture, holding the same position slowly diminishes your tissue elasticity. 

The solution is simple.  Change positions frequently.  At least once an hour, stand and stretch.  Take a short walk.  Stand up while talking on the phone.  When possible, take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Do anything to create movement in the back and free up the muscles and joints.

It’s especially important to maintain good body mechanics when lifting.  More than half of back injuries involve lifting.  Lifting from the floor is particularly hard on your lumbar curve.  Use a diagonal foot position, with one foot in front of the other, and get as close to the load as possible.  Keep the load as close to your body as you can and use your legs as much as possible when standing up.

Strong, flexible muscles help keep your natural spinal curves in their normal, balanced alignment.  Strong abdominal and back muscles can act like a brace to support your lower back.  And if thigh, hip, and buttock muscles are strong and flexible, they can do more of the work of lifting and moving.  The only way to maintain strong, flexible muscles is through regular physical activity and exercise.

Maintaining a balanced spine throughout the day may at first feel as challenging as walking a tightrope.  But how well you perfect the skills of proper posture and body mechanics can mean the difference between a fatigued or injured back at the end of the workday and a healthy one.

The LifeSpine program at SJH RehabCare and SJH Sports RehabCare provides treatment, education, and prevention techniques for people with lower back problems and pain.  For more information, contact (856) 641-7875.

SJH is a nonprofit, integrated health care system, providing access to a continuum of health services. SJH provides hospital services, numerous community health clinics, home health services, and specialty services, which serve the medical and health care needs of Southern New Jersey residents.