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You’ve just helped your friend carry loads of heavy boxes into his new apartment and now your back is hurting. Not only that, but you’ve planned a long car trip for the next few days. All of a sudden, you’re filled with trepidation at the thought of all those hours spent sitting.    

No doubt, back pain can cramp your lifestyle, not to mention causing lost days at work or other consequences. Such fall-out often spurs the legions with chronic back problems to learn proper body mechanics to ease pain, prevent flare-ups, and protect the back.

Although poor body mechanics can cause back pain, don’t always assume that they’re to blame, says Scott D. Boden, MD, director of the Emory Spine Center in Atlanta and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“Certainly, if you are doing a lot of lifting with bad mechanics, you can increase the risk of back injury or a strained muscle,” Boden says. “But I think it’s also important to understand that many back problems and even back injuries occur just with normal mechanics. The assumption that ‘I must have done something wrong’ really isn’t always true. Sometimes, somebody can just bend over to tie their shoe and they could end up with a disk herniation or an inflamed or irritated nerve root.”

However, good body mechanics -- defined as correct ways to move your body and back -- can certainly help. Here are a few pointers on how to lift, sit and stand properly.

Lifting: “You really want to lift with your legs, not with your back,” Boden says. “You want to squat down and pick it up and stand up, as opposed to bending at the waist.”

“Another thing that can be particularly dangerous is lifting and twisting at the same time,” he says.

For example, you might be lifting a box from the floor to a table behind you. “If you’re lifting and turning at the same time to put the box up on the table, there’s something about the combined lifting and twisting that is probably somewhat risky mechanics,” Boden says, “as opposed to bending at the knees, lifting up the box and literally turning your whole body with your feet, rather than twisting your back.”

Be realistic, too, about what you can handle, Boden says. “Know your limits and get help when you’re lifting something that you know is too heavy.”  

According to the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma (NISMAT) at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, these are step-by-step instructions for proper lifting:

  • Stand close to the object with your feet spread apart, about the width of your shoulders.
  • Squat, bending your knees and hips, while keeping your back in proper alignment.
  • Contract your stomach muscles.
  • Lift with your leg muscles, not your back. Take care not to lift and twist at the same time.
  • If you’re lifting the object with another person, do it in unison. One person should say when to lift, walk, and unload.

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