Back injuries are common and lower back pain is a frequent complaint often heard from people of all ages and backgrounds. Recent figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) state that lower back pain has a lifetime prevalence of 60 to 70% in industrialized countries. This means that 60 to 70% of people would have experienced low back pain at some point in their lives.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all, your lower back area is responsible for a lot of weight bearing and it supports a wide variety of movements, a combination that makes it naturally more prone to injury. Unfortunately, a major contributor to back pain is the one activity that most people spend the majority of their time doing – working.
To investigate this, researchers from the University of Sydney did a worldwide study looking at lower back pain caused by ergonomic risk factors at the workplace. They found that low back pain is responsible for almost one third of all work-related disabilities, making it a significant work-related burden.
What causes low back pain?
Low back pain can be caused by problems with the spine (herniated discs or “slipped disc”, osteoarthritis of the spinal bones, compressed nerves) or with the muscles and ligaments of the lower back. However, it can often be quite difficult to pinpoint the exact source of back pain. In fact, the most common form of back pain is ‘non-specific back pain’, where the specific muscle, joint or ligament causing the pain is unknown.
Around 95% of all back pain is estimated to be non-specific and it is often referred to as back strain or back sprain.
Although the exact cause of low back pain is often unknown, certain factors can make it worse, such as the unavoidable process of aging. Your spinal discs, bones, and ligaments naturally age and degenerate as you grow older, making you more prone to back pain.
But worryingly, Scandinavian researchers found that poor workplace ergonomics can actually accelerate these age-related changes and make them unnecessarily worse. By regularly placing excess load on your spine, the spinal discs, as well as the ligaments and muscles supporting your spine, will be worn down quicker.
At work, this excess loading on your lower back can be in the form of active pressure, as a result of lifting heavy objects or from strenuous physical movements that need you to twist or bend your torso.
A more sedentary job doesn’t spare you from this excess load either, as lower back pain can also be due to static loading. Static loading occurs when you are remaining still or ‘static’ in awkward postures that place unhealthy pressure on your lower back for extended periods of time. To imagine this, think of a sedentary office worker uncomfortably hunched over a desktop or laptop, for hours on end, in a poorly designed chair.
Apart from that, excess vibration can also cause undue strain on your lower back. This is commonly experienced in jobs that involve driving vehicles like trucks or buses, and operating tractors or similar kinds of vibrating machinery.
How to reduce work-related back pain?
The burden caused by back pain goes beyond physical discomfort. Back pain can affect your mood and has even been linked to depression. It can also stop you from being productive at work and incur all sorts of increased costs, from medical bills to days off work.
Luckily for you, there are several steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting low back pain.
1. Keep it moving
While at work and even at home, avoid sitting still in one position for long periods of time. Moving is a simple but highly effective way to reduce the amount of static pressure placed on your lower back.
Even better, upgrade your workstation to be more movement friendly, such as by adding an under desk elliptical or even a sit-stand workstation, which has been shown by research https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29115188 to reduce back pain in office workers. For more ideas on incorporating exercise into your work routine, check out our article on easy ways to get active at work.
2. Take regular breaks
This is especially important if you work on a regular desk and chair that hasn’t been designed with ergonomics in mind. Try to take regular breaks from work away from the desk.
During your breaks, make sure to get up, walk around and stretch your legs. A break would relax your back and activate other muscles for a change, allowing you to work even more productively when you return to your desk rejuvenated.
3. Improve your equipment
Having good posture (upright neutral spine, relaxed shoulders, supported elbows and wrists) goes a long way in reducing back pain. But despite our best efforts, it can be difficult to be conscious of posture all the time, especially if you are trying to focus on work! A more strategic approach is to make sure your workstation supports good posture without you having to try too hard.
In a nutshell, ensure that your chair supports your back and neck appropriately. Adjust the height of your monitor to allow you to look at the screen comfortably without straining. Place your keyboard at an angle and height that relaxes your shoulders and supports your elbows. For more details, here are the specifics on creating an ergonomic office.
4. Work on your core
The midsection of your body is stabilized by your deep core muscles, among others. But if your core is weak, your back muscles have to pick up the slack to compensate for this weakness. Therefore, doing exercises that work on your abs to improve core strength will go a long way in preventing or reducing back pain.
In fact, a 2017 study done on patients with non-specific back pain found that core stabilization exercises are even more effective than physical therapy.
Exercise routines that emphasize core strengthening such as yoga or pilates may just help ease your back pain as well.
To strengthen your core and lower back, here are some simple exercises recommended by physical therapists Bob Schrupp and Brad Heineck.
5. Improve the way you lift
If you lift heavy things on a regular basis, pay particular attention to your lifting technique. To reduce the pressure on your lower back, instead of bending and lifting, aim to squat and lift.
Activate your abdominal muscles to support your lower back while you lift and bring the object you are lifting closer to your body.
Try to spread your lifting throughout the day and intersperse the lifting with less strenuous activities in between. If an object is particularly heavy, consider pushing instead of pulling. Finally, if something is simply too heavy to lift, do not force yourself and risk straining your back.
6. Consider you seating
Whether you like to sit or stand is completely up to you. In fact, many people like to do both throughout the day, so they will use an adjustable desk which allows them to switch between the two.
If you prefer to sit, then there are many options of office chairs available to you which promote a better, more ergonomic posture. One of the chair types we recommend is a kneeling chair, very effective at reducing pressure on the lower back, hips, and forcing you to engage your core.
Most importantly is to make sure you get a chair that you can calibrate to your own measurements for maximum comfort and ergonomic benefit.
Even though most non-specific lower back pain often improves with exercise and lifestyle modifications, some of the rarer causes can cause lasting disability if not treated promptly. Therefore, do not take back pain lightly.
If your back pain is severe, lasts longer than a week or two, was caused by a sudden injury to your back, or if the pain starts to go down your legs with symptoms such as numbness or tingling, see your doctor for a comprehensive assessment.
Otherwise, we hope the recommendations above help you improve your back health. A pain-free work environment really does make such a positive difference to our health and happiness. Improving your workplace and lifestyle habits to avoid workplace-related injuries is truly worth the effort.
Dr. Praveena Asokan, MBChB has a background in medicine, having graduated from the University of Leicester before working in various hospitals. Her additional experience as a medical researcher helped her transition to a career as a writer, and she now enjoys researching and writing on a number of health-related topics.