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Is Your Job a Pain in the Back?

Your project is late, your phone won't stop ringing, and your back is acting up again. If that scenario sounds entirely too typical, your stressful work life may be a key cause of your aching back.

Stress Seeks the Weakest Link continued...

Catherine A. Heaney, PhD, is the co-author of one of the few studies specifically examining the relationship between stress and the risk of developing a back injury. She and her colleagues had 25 men and women fill out personality questionnaires and then lift boxes under stressful (i.e., being yelled at by a supervisor) or nonstressful conditions.

The stress of being yelled at made some of the participants more likely to lift the box in a way that put particular strain on the back. People most vulnerable to reacting this way in the face of stress had introverted and intuitive personalities. This research is published in the December 2000 issue of the journal Spine.

"What our study shows is that psychosocial stress affects the way people move when accomplishing their job tasks," says Heaney, associate professor of public health at Ohio State University in Columbus. "For some people, it increases the loading on the spine, which ultimately is likely to put them at increased risk for low back pain."

What's Eating Your Back?

How do you know whether your back pain is caused by physical or psychological factors? Many experts say they are able to tell the two apart.

"A typical complaint is severe back pain but mostly from Monday to Friday," says Federico P. Girardi, MD. "They get relief during the weekend even though they may be sitting all day watching TV."

That's a sign the primary cause of pain is work stress, says Girardi, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Spine Care Institute of the Hospital for Special Surgery at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.

Doctors also use physical exams, patient histories, and tools such as X-rays and MRI scans to determine the cause of back pain.

Preventing Back Pain

So where does this all leave the everyday Joe who wants to avoid developing back pain?

First, the basics. You've probably heard this before, but it merits repeating: Anyone who must sit at work for long periods of time should try to keep both feet on the floor, with their knees slightly higher than their hips, says Archie A. Culbreth, DC, director of the Culbreth Chiropractic Clinic in Savannah, Ga., and president of the Georgia Chiropractic Association.

It's OK to occasionally cross your legs or put your feet on a stool or leg rest, he says. Sit firmly against the back of the chair. Chairs with built-in lumbar support, or special supportive cushion, can also be helpful. Get up, move around, and stretch once or twice every hour.

"Sitting puts 11 times more pressure on your lower back than standing, walking, or lying down," he says.

If you have to stand for long periods of time at work, put one foot up on something, like a low stool, and alternate which foot is raised. Change positions often. Avoid bending and twisting at the waist, especially twisting as it can cause damage to the disks in your back. If you must lift heavy items, bend at the knees, keeping your back straight. Keep objects as close to your body as possible while lifting.

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