An old National Health Interview Survey from 1988 sought to find out which professions led to the highest incidence of back pain among workers. Not surprisingly, many of the jobs singled out involve rigorous physical labor: Construction work, cleaning jobs, auto repair, carpentry and nursing are all high-risk back pain jobs.
The above professions involve rigorous physical activity. Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found that one of the top jobs leading to back pain in addition to these others is hairdressing. While the job doesn’t demand heavy or frequent lifting, hairdressers likely suffer back pain due to prolonged periods of standing and poor body mechanics (e.g. slouching, twisting) while working on clients.
As computers have taken over much of our work and leisure lives over the past couple decades, more attention has been given to the negative health impacts of sitting. In 2005, The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy conducted a survey of 1,905 British workers who regularly perform work at a desk. Seventy percent of respondents said that they have experienced back and neck pain due to prolonged periods of sitting at work. See more on the survey at www.csp.org.uk.
What can we glean from the above two surveys? There are three types of jobs that are probably bad for our backs: Jobs that are physically demanding, jobs that require one static position for prolonged periods of time and jobs that encourage improper body mechanics.
Now, having chronic back pain doesn’t mean you necessarily have to quite your job if it falls in the high-risk category. There are certain activities people with back pain should generally avoid: heavy lifting, repetitive bending or twisting and operation of vibrating machinery or tools. Barring these activities, it is possible that measures can be taken to make your work environment more ergonomic, retaining your place in your profession.
Lumbar belts are common among construction workers and other physical laborers who are seeking to protect their backs. These not only lend extra support to the spine and lower back muscles but encourage proper posture and body mechanics as well.
If you work primarily on a computer, consider an adjustable work station. Some progressive companies like Google provide employees with standing desks. There are desks that can adjust to accommodate both sitting and standing positions. The most important thing is to move around frequently; whether standing or sitting, mix it up. Be militant about taking breaks and practicing proper posture.
For any type of work, posture and body mechanics training can go a long way to reduce and prevent back pain. Employers can hire ergonomic consultants to make the work environment more body-friendly and to teach employees about proper posture and movement patterns. If seeking help on an individual basis, consider investing some time in your own education. This can be pursued through self-study for free or under the guidance of a paid instructor. Dr. Kelly Starrett made this book, Deskbound, specifically for anyone “tied to a desk”. I highly recommend using the techniques taught in this book to help your pain and become mobile again.
Remember: Hard labor isn’t the only work-related back pain cause. An active lifestyle combined with proper movement patterns and posture are what will save your back at work.