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
"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
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
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.