Back pain is a major health concern for workers and is likely to affect 80 percent of adults in Britain during their lifetime.
Backs are complex structures comprising the interlinking vertebrae bones of the spine, cartilage or discs, muscles, tendons and nerves, and backs play a central role in supporting, moving and protecting our bodies. Any problems with our backs can have a debilitating impact on us physically and mentally.
Triggers of back pain can vary from one-off movements such as standing up from a sofa to ongoing triggers such as regularly lifting heavy items in the workplace. Very few cases of back pain are caused by serious chronic conditions but the impact on business is significant. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that there were 223,000 cases of work-related back problems in 2014-15 and that some 2.9 million working days were lost due to work-related back pain at an average of 13 working days lost per sufferer.
Fortunately, there are many steps that both employees and employers can take to reduce the risk of back pain and the consequent loss of work days, as well as treating the debilitating impact of this condition.
Causes of back pain
Serious back conditions or diseases are rare. It is minor strains, inflammation or pinched nerves that account for the majority of cases of back pain, frequent causes of which are:
- twisting or bending awkwardly;
- not sitting properly in a chair for long periods;
- driving for a long time without stopping for a break;
- repetitive strain caused by overusing certain muscles (e.g. when playing sport or carrying out heavy lifting at work);
More serious and chronic back problems are far less common and require medical treatment. They include:
- sciatica, slipped/prolapsed disc – lower back pain characterised by numbness and tingling along one leg;
- arthritis – stiffness and pain in the joints;
- whiplash – neck pain and headaches following an impact;
- pain caused by a spinal fracture.
Certain groups of workers can be more susceptible to back pain than others. Care workers, for example, whose work involves a lot of lifting, twisting and driving between appointments are particularly at risk. The back care charity BackCare estimates that more than 70 percent of unpaid carers in the UK suffer from back pain, which is highly disabling in a third of cases.
Other workers at a heightened risk of back pain include:
- office workers who sit at computers for long periods;
- long distance drivers;
- manual workers who regularly lift heavy weights, such as builders, agricultural or manufacturing workers;
- those who spend long periods leaning over to provide treatments such as beauticians.
Treatment for back pain
Most incidents of back pain are minor and short-term and can be overcome without a visit to the doctor. There are various self-help methods that can help sufferers of back pain make a recovery:
- Getting moving again as soon as possible after the acute pain has passed. Doctors no longer suggest bed rest but encourage patients to keep moving as soon as they are able.
- Using simple over the counter painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce the pain and enable movement.
- Using hot and/or cold compression packs to ease the pain – even taking a warm bath can help.
- Side sleeping to take the pressure off the back.
- Assessment, advice and treatment by a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor for a short period can help and some of these offer acupuncture too, which can help in some cases..
What employees can do to reduce the risk of developing back pain
Workers can do a lot to help reduce the risks of suffering a recurring back problem:
- Keeping fit by exercising regularly. Walking, swimming and cycling (even in a gym) are all good for building muscle strength around the back. Pilates and yoga are gentle ways to build up core strength that will help prevent back problems.
- Losing excess weight – being overweight puts greater pressure on the back.
- Stopping smoking – doctors believe that smoking reduces the flow of oxygen to the spine and can lead to the degeneration of the discs in the back.
- Improving posture. Being conscious of posture when sitting or walking can help protect the back by sitting up or walking tall rather than slouching. It’s advisable to take a short break from sitting every 30 minutes or so.
- Taking care when lifting. Employees should take advice on how to develop a good lifting technique, particularly if their job involves a lot of lifting. When lifting, the knees and hips should be bent, not the back.
- Managing stress – stress can worsen the experience of back pain but relaxation techniques can help.
- Taking regular breaks.
- Looking for advice. Workers suffering with a back problem should inform their line manager so that some thought can be given to whether the workplace environment is affecting their health. Advice can also be sought from the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). Employed people who have been off work for four weeks or more due to ill health can ask their GP or employer for a referral to Fit for Work. See fitforwork.org for more information. Those in Scotland can call 0800 019 2211 or visit fitforworkscotland.scot.
- Regular spinal strengthening exercises helps to protect the back from aches and strains and more serious back pain. Simple exercises can be found on NHS Choices.
What employers can do
Employers should consider how they can ensure the risk of harm to their staff is minimised from activities such as prolonged sitting, driving or manual handling and provide suitable training and support and should always act on any reports of ill health caused by or exacerbated by work. And, as part of the employer’s duty of care to staff, a risk assessment should be carried out, where required, to try to identify the potential sources of back pain in the working environment. Discussion with workers is likely to generate practical solutions to help avoid back strain at work. In addition, an assessment of a workers’ needs should be made when they return to work after an extended period of absence.
Employed people in England and Wales who have been off work for four weeks or more due to a health condition can be referred by their GP or employer to Fit for Work for a free occupational health review to help them return to work. Free work-related health advice can also be sought from the Fit for Work website, or by calling the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service in Scotland: fitforworkscotland.scot – 0800 019 2211.