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Sore Point: Dealing with Back Pain

Posted 12/22/2017 by UHBlog

We’ve got your back when it comes to back pain and injuries in the workplace. Ask us about preventative strategies and return-to-work guidelines to deal with back pain.

Man seen from back holding neck and lower back

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, eight of 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their lives.

“Back pain is extremely common in the workplace,” says occupational medicine specialist Mundeep Chaudhry, MD. “We see one or two new cases of back pain in our occupational health clinics daily.”

Besides being one of the most widespread medical problems affecting American workers, it's costly to businesses, too. A 2006 study by the journal Spine found that back pain costs employers an estimated $25 billion in lost workdays annually.

There are a number of reasons that back pain is so common, Dr. Chaudhry says, including:

  • Wear and tear. Age is often a factor in a person's back becoming less supple, which can lead to problems with the discs.
  • Poor hydration. The discs in your spine are like a little jelly donut made up of water. The less hydrated you are, the more this can contribute to back pain. According to Dr. Chaudhry, poor nutrition can also affect back health.
  • Arthritis. Spinal osteoarthritis can start with one or more of the joints in the spine and lead to problems.
  • Body weight. “Being overweight is one of the biggest contributing factors,” Dr. Chaudhry says. “The abdomen sways forward and puts pressure on the back.”
  • Lack of exercise. The core muscles, which include many of the muscles in your torso, abdomen, back and upper hips, need to be strengthened and strong to protect your back.
  • Ergonomics. The type of work you do can have implications on whether you're at risk for back injury.

Once an employee reports back pain, either suffered on the job or through daily living, there are a number of strategies an occupational health specialist will use to help with healing. Depending on what caused the back injury in the first place, some treatments might include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Steroids
  • Time off work for a few days if the disc is herniated
  • Restricted work activities, depending on what the employee can tolerate
  • Physical therapy if the employee isn't improving

“Generally, 80 percent of people will heal up in two weeks, and 90 percent will heal in six weeks,” Dr. Chaudhry says.

For people who think laying on the couch and resting will ease their pain, it's actually one of the worst ways to treat back pain, says Dr. Chaudhry.

“Regardless of what is causing the pain, movement is one of the most important things to help people recover from a back injury,” he says. “Studies have shown that people who remain active recover much faster from a back injury than those who sit in an effort to rest the back. Sitting still only makes the pain worse. For activity, all a person has to do is walk.”

The best approach is to prevent back injuries from occurring in the first place while the employee is healthy. According to Dr. Chaudhry, the most effective strategies are:

  • Encouraging employees to maintain proper body weight, perhaps through workplace incentives such as gym memberships or discounts on insurance premiums
  • Teaching proper lifting techniques that involve lifting with the legs, not with the back and avoiding twisting motions that can harm the back
  • Checking office ergonomics, preferably with a walk-through by an occupational therapist
  • Stressing the importance of keeping the core strong with specific exercises
  • Pre-employment testing to ensure the person being hired can lift and perform the manual tasks required

To learn more about University Hospitals' occupational health and safety services, connect with University Hospitals Employer Solutions for more information.

Mundeep Chaudhry, MD is an occupational medicine specialist for University Hospitals Occupational Health. You can request an appointment with Dr. Chaudhry or any other doctor online.

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