Hold Your Horses – It’s Time To Look After Your Back

Back Pain

West 1 Physiotherapy & Pilates may be based in the depths of Britain’s largest city, but if your daily or weekly life features horses, you need to read this. And even you don’t own horses or even know a horse, you still need to read it because the advice I’m about to give you will be useful to everyone.

The other day a friend of mine asked me if getting a firmer mattress would make any difference to someone with lower back pain (the answer, I’m afraid, is no, it won’t – a good mattress will support a healthy back, but on its own it won’t cure one that’s already damaged – you’ll need physiotherapy for that).

He seemed quite relieved at this answer because his wife – the owner of the back in question – was trying to persuade him to spend £2,500 on a new ergonomically advanced mattress to replace a Tempur mattress that was only 11 months old and had cost well over £3,000.

But I digress. I’m not here to talk about mattresses any more than I already have. I’m here to talk about horses and physiotherapy. Or, more specifically, about safe lifting and physiotherapy.

When I drilled a bit deeper into the possible reasons why my friend’s wife might have back pain and what she was doing to get it treated, I discovered the root of the problem: a large Irish Sports Horse named Freddie.

In truth, the problem wasn’t Freddie himself – who I’m told is a rather handsome 16.2 dun (whatever that may mean) but rather the lifestyle that horse ownership imposes on the people who look after them.

Now, I’ll be honest, when this conversation started you could fit what I know about horses onto the back of a postage stamp and still have room over to write your memoirs. So, I’ll ‘fess up now that some of the horse-related facts that follow are the result of a post-conversation Google session.

This, then, is what my friend’s wife’s daily and weekly routine entails:

Every day, she lifts, empties and refills two standard 10L buckets full of water weighing a combined total of 44lbs and ferries them to the tap and back to Freddie’s stable – a total of 120 yards, with one bucket in each hand.

Just for context, 44lbs is about the same weight as two adult human legs. Don’t ask me how I know that, I just do.

Every day, she mucks out Freddie’s stable, bending and twisting to pick up horse droppings and wet bedding and then bending and twisting again to fork them into a wheelbarrow.

She then lifts and rolls a full 50L capacity wheelbarrow, also weighing around 40lbs, to the muck trailer where she will unload it in much the same way as she filled it – with the added task of reaching up to put all the muck on the top of the pile.

Add to that picking up the horse’s feet to clean them every day (horse’s legs are heavy and not all animals are compliant, apparently), lifting 15lbs of saddle onto and off the horse’s back, transporting a 30L water container weighing 60lbs (the equivalent of a male elephant’s penis – again, don’t ask), lowering and raising a heavy ramp to get the animal on and off a horsebox and suddenly it’s not difficult to see why the poor woman has a back problem!

If you’re not a horse owner and you’ve made it this far, congratulations – it hasn’t all been in vain because although you’re unlikely to be carrying heavy buckets, barrows and tack here there and everywhere, the lessons for the equestrian-minded are just as applicable to you.

At some point in our lives, we all have to lift something heavy and the chances are we don’t pay much attention to our posture when we do it. But we should, because posture is at the root of the vast majority of the problems we see in our physiotherapy clinic on a daily basis.

The misconception many people have is that lifting heavy objects is a bad thing. In fact, the weight of anything (as long as it’s reasonable) is almost irrelevant. How you lift it, on the other hand, isn’t.

If my friend’s wife worked on an equestrian yard and was paid for her time, it’s almost certain she would have been given training on how to do all the jobs she does – untrained – on a daily basis now.

So here are the top four things to consider when you need to lift any sort of substantial weight – even a weight that is well within the limits of your muscle strength.

  1. Adopt a stable position. This should be with your feet apart and one leg slightly forward to give you stability. You should wear shoes that won’t slip.
  2. Get a good grip: Make sure you have a firm hold – many of the manual lifting injuries we see aren’t caused by the lift itself, but by twisting and contorting to catch the item being carried.
  3. Bend in the right places: knees and hips, which distributes the stress evenly, rather than at the waist, which puts undue stress on your lower back.
  4. Keep the weight close to you: make sure the most weight is closest to your body. This helps you to stay upright – having the weight away from your body will cause you to lean towards it.
  5. Put it down the same way: When you lower the weight to a surface, do it in the same way you picked it up.

My friend has been spared the cost of a new mattress that would have been of little use in resolving his wife’s back problems. However, what she does need now is physiotherapy. She had been on an NHS waiting list for many weeks – but she’s now having private sessions to put her back on the road to recovery.

If you’re suffering from back pain and would like advice on the best way to resolve it, or you’d just like some advice about other steps you can take to look after yourself, – please get in touch.

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