With all the lifting, stretching, standing, pulling, pushing, running, and turning nurses do during a typical shift, it’s no wonder so many of them complain of back pain.
One of the most essential and yet often poorly treated and supported parts of the body, nurses expect a lot from their backs. But it’s also a body part that’s used for nearly every action you make. Keeping it healthy should be a top priority.
According to the American Family Physician, chronic back pain is common. About 30 percent of the adult population reported at least one day of low back pain in the past three months. But the American Nurses Association puts that number at more than 50 percent when the people reporting pain are nurses. And 12 percent of nurses report leaving the profession due to back pain.
If you’ve ever hurt your back, you know you’ll do almost anything to avoid triggering what is often a debilitating pain again. Preventing back pain isn’t always possible, but there are lots of ways you can help keep it at bay.
1. Stay Strong
If you want your back to be strong, strengthen your core muscles. The stronger your stomach and side muscles are, the more support your back will get. Exercises like yoga, strength training, swimming, boxing, and Pilates all help, but so do everyday actions. When you’re sitting or standing, keep your back as upright and straight as possible. Don’t slouch at the computer and don’t let your shoulders roll when you’re standing. Keep your back aligned as much as you can. You’ll probably feel better just from those small adjustments, too.
2. Be Aware
If you’re aware of how your back is being positioned, you’ll have more opportunity to move it in a way to prevent injury or strain. When you have to pick up a heavy weight, use your leg muscles, not your back muscles. Get help to move a patient or if that’s not possible, see if you can use an assistive device to move someone. Be aware of how you are pushing or pulling people and equipment throughout the day so you are engaging the right muscles and not putting undue strain on the wrong ones.
3. Get Help
If your pain is constant and chronic, you need an accurate diagnosis to uncover the root cause of the pain. Back pain is complex and can involve lots of other body mechanics. Once you find out the cause, there are many treatments available including physical therapy, gentle exercise, or even acupuncture. Your physician might prescribe medication or surgery as well, but hopefully you can prevent your back from deteriorating to that point.
When it comes to work-related injuries, nurses get more than their fair share. So, what are you doing to protect your health?
Is more exercise one of your resolutions for 2014? Smart move. Regular exercise not only helps to control your weight, it may also help prevent injuries and colds. Consider this the next time you want to skip a workout. Strength training, cardio activity and stretching are preventive measures.
Nursing ranks among the top occupations for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Heavier patients, a shortage of nurses and the aging of the workforce add up to a recipe for injury. Being fit is not a guarantee you will bypass manual-lifting injuries, but strengthening core muscles may reduce the likelihood and help existing back injuries heal.
The best way to prevent back pain is to avoid heavy lifting. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health puts the limit on safe lifting at 35 pounds. Use the lifting equipment and other assistive devices in your workplace to prevent musculoskeletal injuries.
Other preventive measures to protect your health include:
✔ Speak up. If conditions are less than ideal when it comes to proper lifting equipment or your hospital’s safe-patient handling program, do not suffer in silence. Be an advocate for workplace safety.
✔ Wash your hands often. One of the best ways to prevent a cold or the flu is good hand hygiene. Keep viral and bacterial infections at bay by washing your hands throughout the day.
✔ Take care of your feet. Get proper-fitting shoes that provide good support. Add orthotics to treat problems such as plantar fasciitis.
✔ Take breaks. Give your body a rest by taking time to recover from daily stress. If you are new to the job, take breaks more often than seasoned workers to prevent injuries from fatigue.
Protect the health of your patients by protecting your own!
Robin Farmer is a freelance journalist with a focus on health, education and business. Visit her atRobinFarmerWrites.com.
Nurses are at a greater risk of back pain than many other occupations. According to a study by the University of Alberta’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine, 65% of orthopedic nurses and 58% of ICU nurses develop debilitating lower back pain at some point in their careers. Due to the nature of the job, it isn’t hard to see why. Nurses often work with poor posture (repetitively leaning and bending over bedridden patients, lifting and transferring heavy and slumped patients), so it’s no surprise that they have the greatest incidence of back pain.
Todd Sinett, a chiropractor and author of The Truth about Back Pain, says back pain sends more patients to the doctor than every other condition except the common cold and is the leading cause of job disability in people under 45.
“Nurses often suffer from back pain more than other professions because they are susceptible to many triggers that can cause back pain,” he says. “Standing for long hours, reaching over patients, and doing heavy lifting are all contributing factors to structural causes of back pain.”
He adds that back pain affects all ages and demographic groups, so all nurses, not just minority nurses, are equally at risk of getting lower back pain.
Michael Ho, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, adds that nurses’ high stress levels often causes chronic muscle fatigue and strain, which can lead to the eventual hardening of muscles, loss of range of motion, and early degeneration of the lower back structure.
“The subluxation of spinal joints over time causes premature degeneration of the facet joints and spinal disc,” he says. “Over time, degeneration of the disc causes herniation and irritation of spinal nerves. This, with the combination of tight muscles, joint restrictions, disc herniation, and nerve impingement can cause local back pain as well as radiating hip and leg pain.”
Poor dietary practices are the most overlooked causes of back pain, Sinett adds. Nurses tend to have long shifts that can make eating right difficult. Diets filled with caffeine and sugar elevate the body’s cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels often raise the inflammatory factors in the body, which can result in back pain.
“We are what we eat, so make sure that you are eating good, healthy, wholesome foods,” he says. “Plan ahead and make healthier eating choices [and] your back will thank you.”
Avoid Back Pain During Long Shifts
Even though back pain is quite common, it doesn’t make it normal. Sadly, some nurses have resigned themselves to living with some level of discomfort. But they don’t have to.
David Simpson, a chiropractor and owner of Gotham Healing Arts, believes a few simple changes such as proper posture and body usage may prevent nurses from sustaining injuries. He recommends the following tips for nurses:
Don’t slouch. The lower back or lumbar spine joints are like moist sponges, he says. Healthy joints contain a lot of fluid, and sitting for an hour squeezes most of the water out of this spongy tissue; quicker if you slouch. Without the water, your joints become brittle and susceptible to wear and tear.
Lift with your legs. “In spite of this advice, most lift improperly,” says Simpson. “Most people bend their knees first, but only for about 30 degrees, then they involve their back, and they start to bend at the waist, especially if the object is not directly under them.” Ideally, the back should never round like that of a low-humped camel. This body position puts pressure on the spinal joints, which leads to damage over time and will eventually turn into pain at some point in your life, he adds.
Erect, good posture. At best it is a bad habit, but there are practical biomechanical reasons for standing up straight, Simpson says. Proper standing helps you keep your normal spinal curves, reduces the compressive forces on those joints, and reduces the likelihood of painful episodes of back pain.
Sinett says stretching is one of the best back-pain-relieving exercises and suggests nurses stretch at least for 3 sets at 12 petitions each day. “Stand up straight, raise both arms above your head, and gently lean back approximately 35 degrees,” he says. “Extending the spine will counteract the forward hunch that nurses do by sitting in front of the computer and being hunched over patients.”
Overall, Ho stresses the importance of nurses taking care of themselves first. He recommends all nurses exercise, rest, and eat properly every day, and more importantly, get the treatment they need to relieve any minor problems in their back before it gets more severe and becomes more chronic in nature.
“It’s important to remember that it’s better to get rid of a mild back problem before it becomes a serious degenerative problem that can lead to disability,” he says.
Terah Shelton Harris is a freelance writer based in Alabama.
See Our Champions of Nursing Diversity
Sign up now to get your free digital subscription to Minority Nurse