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Monday Medical: Getting in front of back pain while at work

Mary Gay Broderick
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

While on-the-job back pain is a common complaint, it doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of your daily work life if you undertake some prevention measures.

“It really depends on the type of work you do,” said Allison Hamburger, physician assistant at UCHealth Occupational Medicine Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “But no matter what your job is, you can be proactive in the way you lift heavy objects, do repetitive tasks or sit at a desk.”

Preventing back injuries is a constant challenge for both employers and employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, back injuries account for one of every five workplace injuries or illnesses, with more than one million workers annually suffering from back injuries.



If you’re an employee:

While you might not be able to escape the physical demands of your job, here are some tips to stay out of the doctor’s office.

If you work in an office environment, Hamburger said prolonged sitting puts undue pressure on the spine and increases strain on back muscles. Her recommendations include:



  • Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes, touch your toes and raise your arms over your head.
  • Sit close to your desk with upper arms aligned with your spine, elbows at a 90-degree angle and hips slightly over your knees.
  • When sitting, you should be able to place your fingers under the back of your lower thighs. If this is difficult, lift your feet with a support such as a block or step. If you can fit your fist under the back of your lower thighs, you need to raise your desk or work station.
  • Hips and lower back should be positioned to the back of the chair. Using a pillow for lumbar support is a good idea, too.
  • Your gaze should land on the center of your computer screen when your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Rest your elbows on chair arm rests to take pressure off your neck and shoulders.
  • Use a standing desk as an option for part of the day.

“You need to be incorporating movement every day into your work life,” said Hamburger. “It doesn’t have to be for huge amounts of time. Just a few minutes every half hour or so can make a big difference to reset one’s healthy posture and reduce the strain on your back muscles.”

For those whose jobs involve manual labor, Hamburger advises:

  • Lifting techniques that include bending your knees and using the strength in your legs. Avoiding bending from the back.
  • Keeping heavy loads close to your body within your “power zone,” or between shoulders and knees.
  • Avoiding twisting or jerking movements when you lift an object.
  • Adding gentle stretches into your work day.
  • Paying attention to the weight of the load and using available equipment to assist you.
  • Wearing proper shoes and gloves to retain grip.

If you’re an employer:

Hamburger endorses creating a management guideline that includes:

  • Rotating employee heavy work schedule and instituting breaks.
  • Eliminating unnecessary lifting.
  • Organizing work so physical demands are gradually increased throughout the day.
  • Minimizing the distance that objects are lowered and lifted.
  • Using pallets, lifts and dollies for heavier objects.
  • Making sure employees don’t work with unstable loads.

Maintaining a healthy back

And finally, Hamburger said it’s a good idea to check with your primary care provider if you are experiencing prolonged or intense back pain.

“Seeing your doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner for an initial evaluation is a good way to get guidance on potential therapies and rule out any concerning or more dangerous signs and symptoms,” she said.

Anti-inflammatories are good initial management for pain, if tolerated. She also recommends gentle stretching and prescribed exercises, as well as working with a physical therapist if symptoms fail to improve after two weeks. With lifting-related injuries, a physical therapist can not only help set a path to recovery but can help assess a patient’s body mechanics to help prevent future injuries.

Hamburger is a big believer in daily exercise focused on spine and core health to maintain flexibility and balance.

“If we can build healthy habits into our schedule and appreciate what they do for our bodies, then we’re more likely to sustain them,” she said. “When you maintain your spine health, you lower your risk of being debilitated by back pain.”

Mary Gay Broderick writes for UCHealth. She can be reached at marygaybroderick@comcast.net.


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