To Avoid Back Pain, Read This Before You Lift That
New research finds acute back pain is often easily avoidable by keeping some simple strategies in mind
You heft a heavy bag of groceries or snatch your crawling baby away from the cat dish and — ouch — next thing you know you’re headed to the doctor with an awful backache. According to a new study, you might have saved yourself a trip, not to mention a lot of pain, by following a few smart strategies.
After surveying nearly 1,000 people who had recently seen a doctor for back pain, researchers in Australia found that many triggers of sudden acute back pain are easily avoidable. (The study did not look at chronic back pain, which is defined as pain that lasts for more than three months.)
Next time you need to lift something off the floor or haul a heavy load, keep these tips in mind.
Be especially careful in the morning
The study found that first back pain episodes were more likely to happen between 7 a.m. and noon. Why? It might have to do with the buildup of fluid in the spongy discs between the vertebrae in the back overnight, says physical therapist Karin Hilfiker, MPT, of Body Rebuilders in Bala Cnywyd, Pennsylvania. That can make you more susceptible to strains and to early morning pain, especially if you already have a disc problem.
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In the study, being distracted while lifting something was a greater risk factor for getting hurt than drinking alcohol. It makes sense: If you’re thinking about something else while you’re picking up a heavy item or a squirmy kid, you probably aren’t aware of how you’re holding your body or what it will take to safely lift the load. “It’s especially important to pay attention if you’re tired,” says Hilfiker.
Use good form
You’ve probably heard that you should lift with your legs — and that’s true, agrees Hilficker. “The muscles in your legs are stronger than the muscles in your back,” she says. When you pick up something from the ground, position your feet about shoulder-width apart, bend your knees and squat down to grab it. Use your leg muscles to stand back up with the item in your arms. Some other ways to save your back:
- Get a little closer. If you’re unloading groceries from the trunk of your car, grab the ones in the back and slide each one toward you before you lift it. “Bring it as close to your center of gravity as possible,” advises Hilficker.
The same tip applies when you’re toting a toddler or carrying a weeks’ worth of recylcables to the curb: Hold the kid or container as close to your body as possible.
- Do a little arabesque. Even when you’re picking up something light — a dropped napkin, a dog toy — it’s best not to bend at the waist. This will force you to lift the weight of your upper body as well as the object you’re picking up so your “light” lift isn’t as easy as you think. The better way: Rest one arm on something steady like a chair, table or the side of the car, extend one leg behind you and bend forward at the hip, allowing the extended leg to come off the ground as you reach down.
- Lean on it. Lifting a baby from a crib or picking up anything that forces you to bend over an object calls for a little help. “One strategy is to rest your knees, shins or hips against whatever you’re leaning over as long as it’s stable,” says Hilfiker.
- Do not do the twist. Swiveling your spine while lifting stretches some muscles while compressing others, says Hilfiker. This means that smaller, weaker muscle groups bear the brunt of the task. Rather than rotate to pick up something, turn your entire body to face the load you need to lift.