How to prevent back pain in the workplace
If you want to try to avoid injury to your back, particularly if you work in a largely desk-bound job, the first thing to do is to work up to any gym or exercise program slowly. Don’t suddenly start weightlifting because you will hurt your back, especially if you’re over the age of 40. Be careful with boot camps.
The second thing is, in most workplaces, there’s a manual lift person—usually a health and safety representative— who are appropriately trained to advise on manual lifting techniques. If you are involved in a job that involves repetitive bending and lifting, then it’s very important that you have education in safe lifting techniques.
Those in an office space job need to think about back pain caused by lack of activity. If you want to go about preventing back pain in the workplace because you sit for long periods of time, then getting up every hour and stretching your legs is good.
Should you go to the gym?
Making sure you maintain fitness and core weight is beneficial. If you do have an episode of back pain, get treatment and don’t lift anything. The classic is somebody injuring their back and then deciding to go to the gym to make it better, and then making themselves worse.
So what are the signs that you’ve got a back problem—how do you know that you shouldn’t be going to the gym? That depends on the severity of the discomfort. If your back pain is bad enough to require medication, then you shouldn’t be going to the gym. If you’re getting any nerve symptoms in your arms or legs and numbness, tingling or pain in the arms or legs, you need to see a doctor.
About 60 to 70 percent of back pain will settle down if you just do nothing, including taking any painkillers. A large part of this is the human body healing itself. Severe pains—and pains resulting from what we would call an organic cause, such as a herniated lumbar disc, or some sort of actual injury to the back that requires specialist treatment—aren’t very common.
The right way to sit
I think it is important for people who work in desk jobs to use ergonomic chairs. But the commonly accepted idea that sitting up straight can be helpful in preventing back pain isn’t necessarily correct. We’ve shown with patients with disc injuries that the pressure in the disc is higher when you’re sitting up straight at 90 degrees on the chair, and if you actually slouch back a bit, the pressure on the disc is less. So that’s an old wives’ tale that’s not actually true. It’s actually better to slouch back a bit rather than sit up straight.
The current trend of using standing desks can be useful to some. It’s not clear exactly how useful it is in preventing back pain—there’s not a high standard of research to say that it’s a positive intervention. Most people who can’t sit for long periods of time find it useful.
About Dr Richard Parkinson
Dr Richard Parkinson is a Fellowship trained neurointerventional neurosurgeon and minimally invasive spinal surgeon based in Sydney. He has been performing minimally invasive and complex spinal surgery for 18+ years and has built his reputation on his conservative approach to surgery. He operates at Sydney’s leading private hospitals and has performed surgery on a very significant volume of patients requiring both straight-forward and complex spine surgery. Read his full biography here.