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Protecting Your Back in the Workplace

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

Next to the common cold, back pain is the most frequent reason for visits to the doctor's office. It's also the second most common pain complaint, after headaches. In fact, back pain is so widespread that more than three out of four of us will experience a disabling episode at some point during our lives.

According to Matt Roman, a physical therapist in the Department of Physical and Occupational Therapy at Duke University Medical Center, general lack of fitness is the single biggest risk factor for back pain. He also points to poor body mechanics when lifting.

"The myth is that we shouldn't ever bend forward from the back," he says, "but in reality the thing to do is to lift with legs or knees. It's not so much that you shouldn't bend forward, but you should bend forward from the hips, as opposed to bending from within the spine itself."

Roman says there are several lifestyle changes that can help prevent back injury.

"Smoking is a huge risk for back pain, as well as for a lot of other musculo-skeletal problems," he warns. "So is weight control. As little as five pounds of weight loss is the equivalent of 25 pounds of stress relief on the spine. I also advise a simple, exercise-based fitness routine. If there's a history of back trouble, it could include some back-specific exercises, but short of that, general-fitness exercises are recommended."

Roman also cautions that sitting down on the job can be harmful to your back. Sitting for prolonged periods increases pressure on the intervertebral discs in your spinal column, which help cushion your vertebrae.

"I'd call sitting a 'silent killer' for back pain," he says. "Stresses are greater in sitting than they are even in standing.

"Getting up and moving around for two minutes every half-hour can help you avoid pain. This is true for lower-back as well as upper-back and neck problems. I think the simplest thing is to set a reminder such as an egg timer or a reminder on your computer – something to require you or remind you to get up and move about. This is an easy and effective way to avoid the pain of prolonged sitting."

According to Roman, episodic, intermittent back pain can often be treated through conservative measures such as exercise and non-prescription medications. But he says there are warning signs when more intensive treatments are needed.

"If you begin showing signs of numbness or weakness in the foot or leg, you should definitely seek medical attention," he says. "Also, back pain can be related to bowel or bladder dysfunction. Certainly, if you're experiencing back pain that doesn't change when you change position, or go away at night when you lie down to sleep, you need to seek immediate attention."

Roman says improving the layout of the work environment, called ergonomic design, can also help reduce discomfort and prevent many workplace injuries. "The science of ergonomics is about making the work site fit the person, rather than the other way around. There are enormous ergonomic contributions to relieving some of the repetitive strains and positional strains at work sites."

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