Understanding Back Pain

What’s behind happier employees? In part, healthy spines. With a focus on back health, HealthyBlue is now offering a workshop on understanding what causes back pain, as well as how to treat and prevent it.

Work shouldn’t hurt
Back pain is one of the most common work-related injuries and is often caused by ordinary work activities such as sitting in an office chair or heavy lifting. In fact, injuries resulting from poor workplace ergonomics account for 34 percent of all lost workday injuries and illnesses. Simple changes can help prevent back pain and maintain spine health.

Back-friendly posture
If your job involves sitting at a desk or workstation, consider alternating standing with an adjustable desk or workspace. While you are seated, these tips can help your spine health:
• Place your monitor directly in front of you at least arm’s length away, with the top no higher than eye level. Place the keyboard and mouse nearby to prevent excessive reaching and back strain. As you move from sitting to standing, adjust the work surface height accordingly.
• Keep your head directly over the shoulders. Don’t “crane” your head and neck forward.
• Sit and stand up straight (your mom was right). Slouching puts more pressure on the discs and vertebrae of your back. Use the lumbar support and avoid placing more body weight on one side than the other. Adjust your chair so your feet comfortably reach the floor. If not, use a couple of telephone books or a foot rest to raise the knees level with the hips.
• Also follow these seating tips during meetings, conferences and while you are seated in other office chairs.
• Shift your weight when standing, and take frequent breaks to walk around your workplace and stretch a bit.

More ergo
Get more detailed guidance on proper ergonomics in your workspace from the National Institutes of Health here.

Lift right
• If your job involves lifting, follow these steps to use your large, strong leg muscles instead of your smaller back muscles, which will help prevent back injuries and strain:
• Get close to the load.
• Keep the curve in your back as you stay in an upright position as you squat to pick up the load.
• Tighten your core (stomach) muscles as you lift to support your spine. Resist the urge to hold your breath.
• Lift with your legs. Mentally put the energy of lifting into your leg muscles. Keep the object close to your body.
• Don’t twist. Instead, pivot and actually turn your feet, not just your back.
• If carrying something with one arm, switch arms frequently.
• Heavy load? Ask for help.
• Overhead load? Use a stepstool to elevate yourself so the load is at least chest level (even better: waist height). Pull the object close and lift (use your legs!).

Driven to succeed
• When driving to, from and for work, sit smart for less back discomfort:
• Sit with your knees level with your hips.
• Consider a rolled up towel or back support behind your lower back for added support.
• Sit a comfortable distance from the steering wheel, and keep about 10 inches between the center of the airbag cover and your chest. The headrest should support the middle of the head to keep it upright.
• On commutes and drives longer than two hours, take a quick break; walk for a few minutes and stretch out before resuming your trip.
• Work flight? In an airplane seat, position your legs at a right angle and ask for a pillow or blanket to prop up your feet and keep stress off the lower back. On longer flights, move around (see if there’s room in the aisle or back of the plane for some quick back stretches).
• Of course, use your seat belt.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration
National Institutes of Health
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Lonna Whiting is an editor in the Communications department at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.