Back Problems

Back pain

Back pain is a fairly universal experience. Some see it as an inevitable legacy of our evolution, the result of turning a body designed to hang from a horizontal spine into a vertical spire, where a carefully balanced mechanism of muscles and joints must support organs and tissues pulling the column of vertebral bones downwards.

What happens at work?

Back problems often start at work. Take an office worker who typically spends up to 40 hours a week hunched solid over their desk, nurses who need to frequently lift patients, a taxi driver bent into the driving seat for more than 25,000 miles a year, a farmer constantly lifting sacks, seeds and machinery, or a checkout assistant sat on a poorly designed chair at her till all day (57 per cent experience lower back pain each year).

Our backs may be put under prolonged strain by our jobs and its hardly surprising that something within the delicate balance of bones and muscles so often fails.

What injuries do we suffer?

The result is traumatised, bruised or inflamed muscles (which may go into spasm), damaged ligaments, misalignment of tiny vertebral joints or damage to the discs between the vertebrae.

Sometimes a back problem directly follows an injury but often it appears quite unrelated to any specific event. It can be difficult to establish clearly what damage has been done to the back (back pain is too common to routinely use expensive MRI scans to investigate the problem) but there is no denying the misery of back pain.

Abnormal strains on the back at work are more likely if:
  • you're generally unfit: this makes all injuries more likely
  • you're overweight: this puts extra stress on the back
  • your job involves lifting, bending or moving heavy objects: lifting badly is a common cause of back problems at work
  • your job involves being seated in one place for long periods of time. An unchanging posture can put prolonged abnormal tension on the back
  • your work involves frequent use of a telephone without a headset 31% of office workers who use a telephone for at least two hours a day and also use a computer have lower back pain
  • there's a high level of stress, anxiety and tension in your job, or at home. This can generally increase muscle tension throughout the body and increase the chances of a sudden sprain
Reducing your risk

There is a lot you can do to reduce the risk to your back from your job. Your employer should help you they may be legally obliged to provide training and appropriate equipment for you or give you regular breaks. But it is also in their interests to keep their workforce healthy it's estimated that each year in the UK 180 million working days are lost due to back problems, costing UK business millions of pounds.

One way to tackle the problem is to apply ergonomic principles to adapt the workplace to suit each specific worker, depending on what their job involves and what their physical make up is. Computer ergonomics, for example, will minimize the risk of repetitive injury, neck strain, lower back pain and leg pain.