I posted this article last year at the beginning of the pandemic as more and more began to work from home. Although many are now returning to their places of employment, quite a few companies have extended the WFH scheme as they have found it works effectively for their particular business.
To give you an idea of how common backache is around the world; it is estimated that nearly 10% of the global population will experience either acute (one off or occasional event with recovery) or chronic backache (constant and disabling). There are a number of proven factors such as weight, height, age and of course occupational posture but generally the causes of lower back pain in particular are very hard to diagnose.
Back pain is one of the leading causes of disability but it also results in one of the biggest financial burdens on health services and industry around the world. An estimated 25% of all sick leave is the result of back problems with billions of pounds and dollars in medical costs.
In a paper published by the World Health Organisation it mentions the number of work days lost in a year due to back problems in the UK alone as over 100 million.
“Low back pain is the single biggest cause of years lived with disability worldwide, and a major challenge to international health systems. In 2018, the Lancet Low Back Pain Series Working Group identified a global problem of mismanagement of low back pain.” WHO
Work from Home and lack of Health and Safety Regulations.
Most businesses where staff are working at desks and on computers will have a some guidance on best work practices to prevent issues such as back pain or repetitive strain injury. But what about when hundreds of thousands of office workers are at home and using computers.
Will their chairs be the right height, or their screens be at the right level?
Some of the pictures I have seen of people working from homes seem to be of laptops on knees, working on the sofa or sat on the floor with a laptop on a coffee table, or even when in bed. None of which will be good for posture and likely to result in back or neck pain.
Most people when experiencing lower back pain will reach for over the counter pain-killers. Whilst these may be effective in the short-term, they only mask the symptoms and do not address the cause of the back pain. If it is chronic, it becomes very easy to become dependent on the tablets, and very likely that the body will develop a tolerance. The nervous system, particularly the brain and spinal cord become less able to interpret the actual levels of pain you are experiencing requiring increasingly more medication over time.
This results in most people taking more pills that is good for the body. Apart from the risk of addiction, it can seriously damage your endocrine system (hormones) and this can impact many functions within in the body reliant on hormones for health. One condition in particular, Osteoporosis is already a risk factor for women following menopause, but with a consistent use of painkillers the impact on bone health can be very severe.
Unfortunately, since the cause of back pain can be difficult to diagnose, it is likely that your doctor is simply going to move your medications to the next level to opiods such as Tramadol which are highly addictive if used long-term. I have experience of this with my mother who had chronic hip pain and in her late 80s and early 90s was prescribed Tramadol. Very difficult for the person suffering the pain and those who care for them.
Where to start.
Most back pain is the result of posture issues due to your own physical condition or your work environment.
I was a tall child and am nearly 6 foot in height and it was very easy to assume a slouching posture when around others who were shorter. Thankfully I spent a few years studying ballet which taught me to both stand and walk correctly. But I have counselled many middle-aged men and women who spent their teen years in a slouch and have developed lower back problems as a result.
Our weight makes a difference as it throws your posture out of line very easily. If you pick up a sack of potatoes that weighs 5kilo, and hold with both arms in front of you and walk around for ten minutes, you will find exacly what being overweight does for your lower back. Just ask any pregnant mum to be! Add another 50lbs or so and you are going to end up with chronic back problems as you get older.
How old is your mattress? As you sink into its soft embrace each night and toss and turn throughout the night is it any wonder that you wake in the morning and find it difficult to bend to get into your trousers! It is recommended that you change your mattress every seven years and choose one that supports your body neutrally from shoulders, buttocks, heels but without being too hard. If you suffer from lower back pain it is generally recommended that you use a middle range support mattress and not one that is too hard.. This can result in pressure points along the body.
Do your pillows support your neck adequately during sleep or are you using too few or too many?
Check all your postions when driving. You should be leaning slightly forward and your seat should be positioned so that your knees are level with your hips or slightly higher. Always stop and stretch regularly when on a long journey.
Lifting heavy objects either as a one off or consistently as part of your work environment is a leading cause of back problems. Firstly, don’t lift heavy objects and carry them if you can avoid it as it will not only damage your back but also your hips and knees. If you must lift any object you need to bend at the knees to ensure your legs are producing the lift not your lower back.
Sitting at a desk ( and if you are reading this, you are) is one of the leading causes of neck and back pain… not to mention eye strain! You may find this post very useful in finding the best posture for your own environment. What’s the proper way to sit and work?
What can be helpful.
I would definitely recommend exercise and I have some flexibility exercises from my book Turning Back the Clock that you may find useful. Do not be overly ambitious, just begin very slowly and build up strength and flexibility over time. Take into account the level of pain that you are already experiencing and adapt the exercises as needed.
We can maintain our flexibility and actually improve it as we get older. The main reason we get stiff as we age and develop back pain is because we stop moving our bodies into different positions. The body is designed to move, not stay sitting, or slouching, the majority of the time!
Three simple exercises to increase flexibility and help prevent backache
Number One: Stand with hands by your side and as you inhale your breath, raise your arms slowly until they are above your head in a straight line with the rest of your body. At the same time as you raise your arms also lift your heels to stretch the whole body upwards, whilst on tip toe. When you exhale lower the arms slowly and the heels back to the floor it is also a balance exercise so it helps develops concentration and focus. Keep your eyes fixed on a point during the exercise. Repeat 7/8 times.
Number Two: It is important not to do this exercise if you have a chronic back problem. But it may help prevent it developing. Also only do a gentle arch to start with and increase the height over a period of weeks.
Go onto all fours. Hands placed on the floor under the shoulders and your knees under the hips. Imagine what a cat looks like when it gets up to stretch after napping. It arches its back up into the air.
Now with the back flat, exhale and arch the spine up, dropping your head into a relaxed position. Your abdomen is drawn up to support the spine in the arched position. Pause to feel the stretch. Inhale slowly flattening the back again. Pause. Exhale; slowly arch the spine up again etc. Always working slowly. Repeat at least 8 times.
Number Three: This posture is universally recognised as one of the best to help lower back pain but again make sure that you do not attempt if you are very sore. Take it gently over a period of time.
Lie down on your back. Inhale taking your arms back above your head, exhale bringing the right knee to your chest with your hands around it, to draw it in closer. Inhale as you lower your arms back down to your side and your leg back on the ground. Exhale bringing the left knee up with hands on it…and continue 8 times to each knee. Then 8 more times with both knees coming to chest together.
Then relax and lie flat for several minutes to appreciate what you have done and enjoy the benefits of the movements and deep breathing.
Other forms of exercise. When you reach a level of fitness that you are comfortable with then take to another level. For some Yoga, Tai chi are wonderful for keeping the body supple and I find that swimming strengthens my muscles and helps keep my body in alignment.
This post from Performance Sport & Spine is very good.
What about Nutrition and alternative therapies.
There are some natural inflammatory foods that you can include in your diet and also some herbs that can also help including Feverfew, Devil’s Claw and Ginger.
Pineapple contains an inflammatory property called bromelain which not only helps break down protein we eat but can reduce pain and swelling as a result of rheumatism or strains.
Anti-oxidant rich and colourful fruits and vegetables are the ones to go for, particularly greens such as spinach and broccoli that contain high levels of Vitamin K and berries
Moderate whole grains (especially if weight is one of the causes of your back pain):Oats, brown rice and wholegrain breads as fibre may have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Healthy fats found in nuts, oily fish, grass fed butter, olive ois, avocados
Beans:They’re high in fiber, plus they’re loaded with antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory substances.
Apart from the herbs that I have already mentioned I have found using turmeric or taking the active ingredient curcumin helpful with inflammation. This spice works better in combination with black pepper so when adding to food do so together. Also if buying a supplement check to see if it has black pepper as an ingredient.
I also use White Tiger Balm which is used extensively in Chinese medicine.. A small pot goes a long way and I have used for over twenty-five years. The balm contains aromatic oils such as camphor, peppermint and cloves and you can rub well into joint or area of the back that is painful.
Remember that this is not intended to replace the advice that you are given by your doctor or chiropractor.. However, prevention of backache is not only very beneficial for us personally but might reduce the billions of dollars and pounds burden on industry and our health services.
©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2021
I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-three years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines, radio programmes and posts here on Smorgasbord.
If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here::Sally’s books and reviews
Thanks for visiting and I am always delighted to receive your feedback.. stay safe Sally.