"There's a million things," says Joel Press, MD, medical director of the Spine and Sports Rehabilitation Centers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "Things like trying to pick up an air conditioner and throw it into the back of your car, or gardening for six hours in one afternoon. Or playing 36 holes of golf without stretching first. It's all good for my business."
The price of carelessness is back pain that can range from a few days' aches to the constant pain of a herniated disk. The preventive measure is simple: learn how to use your back sensibly.
Before focusing on the right way to lift, review the following common lifting mistakes that easily lead to a back injury:
Allowing the back to curve forward while you grasp an object, then lifting by straightening the back
Bending at the hips but keeping the legs straight while grasping and lifting
Twisting the back while lifting or holding, usually by turning the shoulders, but not the hips
Holding an object away from the body
Lifting a heavy object (or child) above shoulder level
Attempting to lift an object that's too heavy or awkward for one person to safely lift
Underestimating the need to be careful when lifting a light object
Back injury is best avoided at all costs. Once you have injured your back, it becomes more vulnerable to future injury. A back injury can alter your entire quality of life and possibly your livelihood, especially if it returns or becomes chronic.
Poor lifting technique can injure your back in various ways:
Muscle or ligament strain—or tiny tears in the muscle or ligament—commonly results from a combination of poor body mechanics and too much of a burden on your back muscles.
Spinal disc injury is often caused by forward bending of the spine and poor lifting technique. A spinal disc that is squeezed by the vertebrae above and below it can bulge or break open ( herniated disc ), causing back and leg pain and numbness ( sciatica ) and occasionally bowel and bladder problems.
Vertebrae can become damaged during awkward lifting.
Follow these basic rules to protect your back while lifting:
Keep a wide base of support. Your feet should be shoulder width apart, with one foot slightly ahead of the other (karate stance).
Squat down, bending at the hips and knees only. If necessary, put one knee to the floor and your other knee in front of you, bent at a right angle (half kneeling).
Maintain good posture. Look straight ahead, and keep your back straight, your chest out, and your shoulders back. This helps keep your upper back straight while maintaining a slight arch in your lower back.
Slowly lift by straightening your hips and knees (not your back). Keep your back straight, and don't twist as you lift.
Hold the load as close to your body as possible, at the level of your belly button.
Use your feet to change direction, taking small steps.
Lead with your hips as you change direction. Keep your shoulders in line with your hips as you move.
Set down your load carefully, squatting with the knees and hips only.