The causes of back problems

Your back is one of those things you take for granted. It must just do its job. Until one day you wake up and you can hardly move.

The bad news is that backache isn't something that just happens to other people. Almost eighty percent of people will suffer from backache at some stage of their adult lives according to Ina Diener, President of the South African Society of Physiotherapy.

But only 15% - 20% of people with back pain have tumours, inflammatory diseases or infections. The rest suffer from back pain resulting from incorrect posture while sitting or standing, picking up heavy objects incorrectly and a lack of exercise to strengthen the back and stomach muscles.

What exactly causes back problems?

At home
People who bend to pick up something and turn while doing so, often put their backs out. A typical scenario is someone picking up a child and putting it on the hip, or turning while picking up a heavy box, or bending down to help the family dog into the car. If you are not used to doing physical labour of this kind, and you suddenly decide to move a heavy cupboard by yourself or cart around boxes of books, you're looking for trouble. Many backs also show the strain when someone slouches on the couch – especially after hectic activity such as mowing the lawn.

In the office
Many backs show the strain when someone sits for a long time in a position where the knees are higher than the hips – this puts pressure on the back. Slouching on the couch may temporarily relax you, but it puts real strain on your back. People sitting for long periods of time behind desks also often develop back problems.

Studies have shown that almost no one who does a desk job escapes without running into back problems at some time during their lives. Weak stomach muscles cause the pelvis to be pushed too far forwards and the back forms an unnatural bend to compensate. Women who wear high heels and people who stand for a long time also often do not keep their backs straight.

Hard labour
People who do repetitive production work, who have to remain in hunched positions for long periods of time or who have to pick up and carry heavy objects in the line of their work, often injure their backs. Those who are on their feet all day, like teachers and cashiers are also at risk, as are people who walk around a lot in their jobs.

Incorrect driving posture, especially in taxi drivers and long-distance truck drivers, can also result in back problems. Sixty percent of normal motorists also complain of backache after a long journey.

When someone picks up something that is actually too heavy for one person to carry, major strain is placed on the back. To bend forwards by 20 degrees, increases the tension on the spine by 20 percent. To lean forward 40 degrees, increases the stress on the back by 100 percent.

So what can people do to prevent back injuries?
If incorrect posture, a sedentary working life or excessive stress causes 80% of back injuries, then there must be things that can be done to prevent this agony that many people experience. The good news is that there are quite a few things you can do to stop yourself from being doubled up with back pain for days.

The following tips come from the South African Society of Physiotherapy:

  • Make sure the chair you sit on at work is not too high or too low. A chair that is too high, causes you to hunch your shoulders, bend your back forwards and a head that is bent forward. Sit with your back against the backrest. Your knees should be bent at an angle of 90 degrees and you feet should be firmly on the ground. Your computer screen should not require you to look down at a greater angle than 15 degrees.
  • When you pick up things, do so with your whole body and not just with the muscles in your back. Stand in front of the object, place your feet on both sides of it, with your hips and shoulders pointing in the same direction and your back in a straight line. Bend your knees and your hips rather than your back. Go down on one knee and pick up the object as quickly as possible, as this reduces the stress on your back.
  • When driving, you have to adjust the seat so that you can easily reach all the pedals. The hands should be placed in the ten-to-two position on the steering wheel. The angle of the seat must be such that it support the lower back. The seat must be fairly low, so that the knees are slightly bent. When driving for long periods of time, it is recommended that you stop every two hours and do some stretching exercises for at least 10 minutes.
  • Exercises that strengthen the stomach muscles and the trunk muscles are essential. Walking is very good exercise, but it is important, according to Diener, that the stomach muscles should be pulled in, otherwise extra stress is placed on the back. Swimming is also a very good exercise for those who are at risk for back problems, as swimming strengthens the muscles in the upper body, without placing undue stress on the back.
  • Workers who spend long times hunched over, especially construction workers, should stretch their back muscles at least once every hour. Workers who have to pick up heavy objects, have to do stretching exercises and warm-up exercises before they start their daily task.

- (Susan Erasmus)

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