July 5, 2017
More than one million injuries are sustained in the workplace each year. Back injuries, in particular, account for 1 in 5 of these injuries and is the single leading cause of disability worldwide.
At Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, we frequently treat patients suffering from occupational back pain. While some work-related back pain can be attributed to poor posture, the majority of injuries are caused by improper lifting technique. The truth of the matter is that lifting even a light load off the ground puts more strain on the body than many people realize. Simply put, there is no such thing as a “simple” lift. Any time an object needs to be moved, it requires proper technique.
Here are the steps to follow in order to avoid back injuries while lifting a heavy load.
Proper Lifting Technique
1. Evaluate the Load and the Surrounding Environment
First and foremost, determine if the load can be safely handled. Do not attempt to lift a load if it appears too heavy or difficult to handle. The surrounding environment should allow for proper footing and be free of potential tripping hazards.
2. Position Your Body Close to the Load
Position your body close to the load with your feet shoulder width apart and one foot slightly ahead of you.
3. Squat Down with Your Back Fully Straight
Squat down close to the load. If possible, squat until you’re “below parallel”, meaning your hip joint is at or below the level of the knee joint. Many individuals only squat until their hip is parallel with their knees, creating a 90 degree angle or an L-shape; however, research suggests that dropping below parallel activates the larger muscles in the lower body. When the body is able to rely on these larger muscles, less stress is placed on the other areas of the body.
Also ensure that your back is fully straight and not just vertical. To keep your back straight, move your shoulders back and push your chest out more. You can also tuck in your chin to help straighten your back. When lifting a large load, you may bend at the waist in order to keep the load close to your body.
4. Securely Grip the Load
Grip the load, keeping it close to your body. At this point, if you are still certain that you can safely handle the load and maintain a straight back, you can proceed.
5. Slowly Lift the Load with Your Legs
Use your body weight to initially lift the load from the ground and then continue to lift by straightening your hip and pushing with your legs. As you lift, avoid twisting your torso. If you must change direction, turn your body by taking small steps and leading with your hips. Moreover, it’s important to maintain a straight back the entire time. Bending the back moves the load away from the body. The resulting leverage increases the stress on the lower spine and nearby muscles.
A lift should end with your legs fully straightened and the object resting between mid-thigh and shoulder height. Holding an object above shoulder height puts stress on the upper back, shoulders, and arms.
6. Set Down the Load
Slowly squat in order to lower yourself and the load to the ground.
Dangers of Poor Lifting Technique
The back is one of the most complicated regions of the body. Broadly speaking, the back consists of two major muscles groups; an interlocking series of bones referred to as vertebrae; a series of intervertebral discs that separate and cushion these bones; multiple facet joints that provide the back with movement; numerous ligaments that connect and stabilize the spine; and, most importantly, the spinal cord. Poor technique can harm any and all of these structures.
The majority of injuries caused by improper lifting techniques are either muscle strains or ligament sprains in the lower back. A muscle strain occurs when weak muscles have been overstretched or torn. A ligament sprain, on the other hand, occurs when the fibrous tissue between bones has been stretched or torn. While seemingly simple injuries, both strains and sprains can cause severe lower back pain.
Discs are located between the individual vertebrae of the spine and function as shock absorbers. Poor technique can cause vertebral discs to shift out of alignment. When this happens, the discs can come in contact with root nerves or the spinal cord, causing tremendous pain. Discs are also at risk of rupturing or, in other words, breaking open. A ruptured disc, otherwise known as a herniated disc, occurs when a crack develops in the wall of a disc and its inner contents are pushed out into the spinal canal. Similar to a bulging disc, a ruptured disc is painful and requires treatment from an orthopaedic specialist.
Each section of the joint contains facet joints which are what provide the spine with its flexibility. When these joints have been injured, they stiffen. Many patients describe this stiffness as “buckling” or “locking up.” An injured back joint will also cause lower back pain and potentially refer pain to the buttock or thigh.
The Role of Physical Conditioning
While the majority of lifting injuries result from improper technique, some are simply the result of trying to lift a load that is too heavy. In order to avoid these injuries, individuals should know how much they can safely lift. If an object seems too heavy, ask for help. If lifting heavy loads is a necessary, everyday activity—whether due to an occupation, sport, or otherwise—then individuals need to focus on improving their overall muscle strength. The lower muscle groups (quadriceps and hamstrings), upper muscles groups (trapezius), and core muscles (abdominals) are all utilized at different stages of the lifting process.
Prior to lifting a load, individuals should stretch their lower back, buttocks, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip, abdominals, and calves; however, stretching is a good habit to everyone to develop in order to prevent other orthopaedic injuries that may occur throughout the course of the day.
What to Do When You Injure Your Back
Despite the vast amount of education focused on proper lifting techniques, back injuries continue to persist at an alarming rate, especially within the workplace. It is estimated that about 80% of adults experience back pain during their lifetime and, while not every instance of pain is the result of an injury, practicing proper lifting technique will help millions avoid harm.
When you experience back pain, the sooner you meet with an orthopaedic specialist, the sooner you can be on the road to recovery. We can accurately diagnose your condition and guide you towards the most effective treatment.