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Back Pain At Work - A Guide To Self-Care

Thomas Pinna
|
October 4, 2021

Back pain at work - a guide to self-care

Have you ever felt pain in your back while working, exercising, or after a long day standing or sitting? Did the pain start and persisted for a couple of days or more? Rest assured, you are not alone. Back pain is a very common issue in modern days and is one of the leading causes of people not being able to go to work. It is present all over the world, affects all ages and can impact every aspect of our lives.

First time back pain?

When it happens for the first time, recovery can be quick and easy if we act in a timely fashion. It is important to understand that back pain is a normal experience in everyone’s life and most often it does not mean something is badly wrong… even if it hurts so much! Don’t panic or get frustrated, seek professional advice if needed, and start understanding what elements may have contributed to causing it. You can take it easy for a couple days but remember, movement is the best friend for back pain. Every rehabilitation plan starts and ends with (sensible) movement.

Where to start?

Many factors influence how back pain starts and continues to cause pain. It is so important to view them all in relation to each other in order to achieve the results we want. For example, at work, not having a work setup that is ergonomically optimal can be just as bad as not moving or changing positions often enough; or not drinking enough water or not sleeping enough have just as big an impact as being very stressed or emotionally exhausted! And the list doesn’t end here... old injuries, bad physical habits and our unique body quirks play a part in the whole picture. Once we link all the dots and have a complete picture, we can manage all of these elements safely and effectively... so let's dig further. 

Self-Care 

When it comes to back pain, self-care should be synonymous with prevention. This is possibly the most important part of managing back pain and maybe the most difficult part of it. In order to approach self-care effectively we should try growing in tune with our body, listening to its needs and limitations. Our body is amazing at letting us know when something is wrong; pain tells us if we’re overworked or overstressed. The more challenging part, however, is preventing this from happening in the first place.

Physical activity

Physical activity has many wonderful effects on the body and mind. When we move, our joints get naturally lubricated, keeping them healthy and mobile, our muscles get perfused with fresh blood and grow stronger, and our nervous system receives a lot of great information from the body and secretes ‘feel-good’ hormones. Body and mind are happy. 

It is a fact, physical activities such as swimming, cycling or even walking have a positive impact on back pain. But you can also try alternative movement methods such as Yoga, tai chi and Pilates that aid joint mobility and muscle function, helping reduce back pain. One type of physical activity should not exclude the other. Quite the opposite, our body loves variability and less repetition. So, move often and in as many different ways because, though we cannot ask it to be the solution to all of our issues, it is definitely a good place to start.

Beware that not all back pain is the same. And if unsure about a specific form of exercise for your back, talk with your osteopath who will be able to answer your questions and advise you on the best options.

Stress

Stress naturally activates our fight-or-flight system, making our muscles tighten up and increasing our sensitivity to pain. And the downsides don’t end here, chronic stress, both physical and mental, is the cause of multiple issues. For example, prolonged stress is linked to an increase of heart diseases, digestive problems, reduced immunity, fatigue and reduced quality of sleep . It is important to create small routines in the day where we can actively de-stress through practices such as meditation, physical exercises or social breaks. 

The check-in times

Taking breaks from work to simply check-in with yourself is a really effective way to de-stress. Ideally, every hour you should find a few minutes to break from anything you're doing and be silent for a few minutes. Try to focus your attention on the breath going in through your nose and out through your mouth, all the while thinking about releasing tension across your whole body. This will improve your concentration when you resume a task, slow down your heart rate and make you more aware of your body for the next hour of hectic work. You can do this while laying down on your back or while sitting in your chair. 

Moving whilst working

By now we know that moving can be the antidote to back pain. Thus, moving whilst sitting at your workplace is a ‘must’. There are many creative ways to move without compromising on concentration and productivity. Move your spine by twisting your hips left and right, back and forward and so on. In addition, you can prepare yourself in advance to change workstation as often as possible, shuffling from desk to coffee table, to bed, to sofa, to kitchen table and so on  (you can find a detailed post about this in our blog Back Pain - Stop Talking Of Good Posture). If this is not possible, just try changing as many postures at your work-chair throughout the day, limit your time of immobility. Get creative! Remember that “motion is lotion” and there is no best posture because the “best posture is the next posture”.

Optimising your workstation 

Nonetheless, most of our time working will be spent at our desks and there are small considerations to take in order to ensure a correct set up and reduce your chances of getting back pain. Have you thought about looking at how you are sitting at your computer?  

  • Is your chair near enough to your screen so you are not having to lean your back or neck forwards?   
  • Is your chair at the right height so that your elbows are resting at right angles to your desk?   
  • If you wear glasses, are you wearing the right prescription?   
  • Are you changing your posture frequently?
  • Are you taking enough breaks from sitting? 

These are important things to check and can make a big difference to bad postural habits as you work from home.

Are you getting enough sleep? 

Good sleep is consistently shown to reduce the likelihood of pain. Sleep is a bit like your rejuvenating time: your body-repairs, memory improves, the immune system grows stronger and you effectively de-stress! So, make sure you have a regular sleeping schedule and good habits in place. Read our blog Why Sleeping Is So Important to know the ins-and-outs of sleep.

The water dilemma 

Water is the best drink in the world and on this we should all agree! More than 60% of our body is composed of water which helps keeping your cells alive and healthy, your blood system to work better, and is found in the bouncy fluid filled cushions (discs) between each of your vertebrae which absorb the daily loads put on the spine. So, some would say, hydration is an essential part of a healthy back.

There are many theories as to how much we should drink in a day. Some claim we should drink our body weight in kg x 0.033 litres daily, or at minimum aim to get 2 litres (equivalent of 4 pints) throughout the day. However, the evidence around these claims is very scarce and we know that everyone is utterly different when it comes to how much water they loose through exercising, sweating, urinating, faeces and so on. As important as it may be, water should not become an obsession. Our body is really good at letting us know when it needs a drink, all we need to do is listen to it. So, we advise people not to follow prescriptive rules but, rather, always do what feels right to you!

In summary, the best cure for back pain is prevention. Learning the staples of self-care is crucial to sustain our sedentary and repetitive work lives in the long term. Back pain depends on many factors acting at once, so make sure your body gets the right movement, exercise smart rather than hard, establish solid remedies to stress and sleep right; and as you get back pain ask yourself: which of these factors (if not all) has gone out of balance? Once we know, slowly but surely, we can start making changes.


By 

Thomas Pinna

Thomas completed a master’s degree in Osteopathy at Swansea University. He explores the interrelations between our physical and emotional health, and the neuroscience behind it, which led to publishing a research study in the renowned journal Frontier in Psychology. After graduating, Thomas joined the medical-equip Medical Volunteer International, providing Osteopathy for asylum-seekers at the Moria refugee camp. This experience strengthened his resolution to end health inequalities as it is often the case.

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