There are some jobs that would automatically join the list of usual suspects when it comes to being at risk of back and neck pain – or any musculoskeletal pain – at work.
Those which involve lots of manual labour – construction and landscape work, warehousing and gardening, for example – are obvious contenders. Others might include nursing where there’s a need to physically manipulate patients, factory work or any job which involves a regular or persistent need to bend or to lift heavy loads.
But you may not be aware that even a sedentary office existence could be taking a heavy toll on your back, neck, spine and joints.
In fact, if you’re in the type of job where your risk of musculoskeletal injury is obvious – a construction worker, for example – then the chances are that assuming you work for a professional and reputable employer, that risk has already been assessed and all reasonable steps have been taken to mitigate those dangers and keep you safe.
But because sitting at a desk all day would seem on the surface of things to be quite low on the risk scale, there’s a good chance either your employer hasn’t properly considered your physical welfare or that you haven’t been given the training and skills needed to play your part in staying fit.
If, as many of us do, you spend your day staring at a computer screen, then the likelihood is that you have poor posture that’s busy creating problems you may not yet be aware of, but which will accumulate over time and eventually manifest themselves in joint or muscle pain.
Look at this list and see which apply to you:
If just one thing in that list is part of your daily working life, then you’re already at risk of experiencing some degree of musculoskeletal pain or discomfort in the future.
So, what can you do to mitigate that risk and reduce the chances of having to receive medical care to resolve back pain, shoulder and limb pain issues?
Ergonomics – or fitting your workspace to your individual needs – is a big part of musculoskeletal health in the work place and it’s not unreasonable to ask your employer or, if you have one, your occupational health/HR team, to look at what can be done to help give you a working environment that protects your physical health.
It’s also in their interests to look after you. Quite apart from the fines that employers face if they’ve either failed to carry out a workstation assessment or have ignored its recommendations, sickness absence through back and neck pain accounts for millions of lost working hours for UK businesses, costing billions of pounds in reduced productivity and additional staff costs.
Although the Government, through the Health & Safety Executive, requires employers to take reasonable steps to protect staff welfare, there’s also an onus on you to take reasonable steps to look after yourself as well. One way of doing that is to follow the next few steps.
Okay, this is important.
If you work at a desk, sit with your feet flat on the floor, your back straight against the back rest and your head square to your shoulders (basically, a good rule of thumb is for your ears to be directly above your shoulders).
Be aware of any tendency you may have to round your shoulders, which will make you hunch down and lean forward.
Your thighs should be angled slightly downward to ease the burden of torso weight on your lower back, so raise or lower your chair as necessary to give a gentle slope to your legs.
If you use a PC, the screen height should be such that the centre of the monitor is at the same level as the tip of your nose. This makes it easier to keep your head level and square to your shoulders.
If you use a laptop, see if your employer will invest in a second screen so it’s easier to maintain this working position.
Exercise is great for dispersing physical stress and tension, so take regular breaks from your desk (the HSE recommends a 5 to 10 minute break for every 50-60 minutes of work – and regular, shorter breaks are more beneficial than, say, a 25 minute break every 3 hours). Not only does this relieve any pressure on your muscles and joints, it also raises your heart rate, encouraging oxygenation of the circulatory system, which is great for general health.
Screen breaks also give your eyes a rest and will reduce the chances of headaches or migraines.
If the nature of the job makes hard to move around the office, try to stand when you can – for example, if you’re on the phone and don’t need to see your screen.
We’ve all done it. We take a break from the screen and what’s the first thing we do? We reach for our smartphone and start scrolling … Facebook updates, footie news, personal email, the Kardashians on Twitter.
And what does that mean? It means the time we’re supposed to be giving our limbs, joints and muscles a bit of respite is spent with our heads bent, putting unnecessary pressure on our necks and shoulders.
So even if you make a deal with yourself to only look at your phone once in the morning, at lunchtime and once in the afternoon, it’s better than constantly looking at the small screen in your hand every free moment you get.
Whether you have a sedentary job or a manual role, the advice is the same: if you’re bending to pick something up, however heavy or light, bend at the knees, not at the waist. Your back will thank you for it in the long run. If you’re in a manual job, your employer should offer you specialist training to ensure you life and bend safely.
At West 1 Physio we provide expert advice and consultation on best practice in the workplace, offering ergonomic risk assessment for businesses of all sizes. And if you’re an individual who’s suffering with pain related to work, contact us to make an appointment for us to assess you.