Covid-19 has certainly redefined the workplace as many employees continue to work from home. Prolonged hours sitting at a workstation that may not be optimal has also changed the way we define workplace health and safety. It may be more important than ever to pay close attention to designing an ergonomic workstation, changing position, and stretching regularly to prevent injury.
Since 1894 Labor Day has been designated as the national holiday that pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. Research supports the notion that healthier employees are happier and more productive. When employers encourage healthy behavior and safety at work, they benefit in many ways. For example, in addition to improving job satisfaction and productivity, healthy employees save money by using less sick time, worker’s compensation benefits and health benefits. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 percent of employers” health care costs are related to chronic medical problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Deconditioned, overweight employees are more likely to suffer from these preventable conditions and are at greater risk for injury. Employers, please consider using this holiday as an opportunity to start a health promotion program at your workplace…have a health fair, offer healthy snacks, encourage walking, smoking cessation, exercising at lunch, and offer fitness club stipends.
Lower back pain, one of the costliest illnesses to employers, is one example of a problem which can be prevented with a good health and safety program. It is widely accepted in the medical community that the best treatment for lower back pain (LBP) is prevention. Keeping fit, (flexible and strong), practicing good posture, and using proper body mechanics are essential in the prevention of LBP. At our clinic, significant time and effort is spent emphasizing the importance of these concepts to our patients, employees, and the businesses we work with through industrial medicine programs. A comprehensive approach can produce significant reductions in LBP injuries through an onsite safety program which promotes education, wellness, body mechanics, lifting techniques, postural and stretching exercises and ergonomics.
As little as 10 extra pounds puts great stress on your lower back. It also makes it more difficult to maintain good posture. Eat well, exercise regularly and don’t smoke. Smokers have a much higher incidence of LBP and failure from lower back surgery.
Good posture is critical for a healthy back. When sitting, standing or walking maintain a slight arch in your lower back, keep shoulders back, and head over your shoulders. In sitting, use a towel roll or small pillow in the small of the back.
Perform postural exercises throughout the day. Most of the day we sit, stand, and reaching forward and bend our spine. These exercises are designed to stretch your back in the opposite direction of flexion. Please perform slowly, hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat 6 times each 6 times per day.
Chin Tuck: Tuck your chin back to bring your head over shoulders.
Shoulder Blade Pinch: Pinch your shoulder blades together.
Standing Extension: While standing, put your hands behind back and extend lower back 10-20 degrees.
Good Body Mechanics and ergonomics are also important in the prevention of LBP. When lifting, think twice. Think about the weight, shape and size of the object. Think about where the object is going and the surface resistance of the floor. Does it require two people to lift? Can I safely lift that high or bend that low?
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Part II of II
I think we would all agree, technology is a wonderful thing. However, like all good things, it comes at a price. Students and workers alike are suffering from the many physical effects of sitting for too many hours...especially with COVID-19 home confinement! Studies show the impact of prolonged sitting, especially with poor posture, are multifaceted: pain, headaches, vision problems, poor concentration, excess fat storage with weight gain. Studies strongly support the use of using good posture, ergonomic workstations, posture stretches and frequent changes of positions, including the use of standing desks to prevent pain and injury as we discussed last week in part I.
The Problem is Gravity!
The average head weighs 10 to 12 pounds and when tilted down at a 45 degree angle the forces of gravity are multiplied by 5. While reading, studying or working on the computer with poor posture, one must support 50 or more pounds of pressure on the neck, middle and lower back for hours on end. It is no wonder why this activity is associated with headaches, neck and back pain, numbness and tingling in arms and legs, muscle spasms etc. Some studies report the lifetime prevalence of neck and shoulder pain in office workers as high as 80%.
Spine problems can be prevented with good posture and proper body mechanics. Poor posture and improper body mechanics subject the spine to abnormal stresses that, over time, can lead to degeneration and pain. Good posture and proper body mechanics and frequent changes in positions, can minimize current spine pain and prevent recurrent episodes. Posture is the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity. Good posture involves positions that place the least amount of stress on the spine. Good posture maintains the spine in a “neutral” position. In a neutral spine, the three normal curves are preserved (a small hollow at the base of the neck, a small roundness at the midback and a small hollow in the low back). When viewed from the side, the upper back appears straight with a small hollow in the lower back.
Standing: Feet should be shoulder width apart. Distribute body weight evenly through both feet. Do not lock knees. Maintain a small hollow in lower back with “tailbone” slightly tucked down. Lift the breastbone by drawing shoulder blades back and down. Make chin level. Earlobes should be in line with the middle of shoulders. Relax jaw and neck muscles by resting tongue on the roof of mouth.
Sitting: Sit in a firm, high-back, straight-back chair. Buttocks should touch the back of chair while maintaining a small space between the back of knees and the seat of the chair. Distribute body weight evenly on both hips. Maintain an arch in the low back. A lumbar roll is recommended. It is a foam roll, 4” to 5” in diameter and 12” long, placed at belt level. Place feet flat on the floor with hips and knees bent at a right angle. Keep knees even with or slightly higher than hips. Use a footstool or footrest if necessary. Do not cross legs! Lift the breastbone by drawing shoulder blades back and down. Earlobes should be in line with the middle of shoulders. Position the armrests properly allowing elbows and forearms to rest with shoulders relaxed. If armrests are too high shoulders will shrug up and if too low will cause slouching.
The following exercises should be performed throughout the day as a break from sitting, studying or working at home, school or the office. They should be performed gently, slowly, held for 3-5 seconds and repeated 5-10 times. The exercises should only cause a slight stretch but NOT PAIN.
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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.