Back injury? You’re not alone. No one is immune to back and spine injury — and improper lifting habits are among the primary contributors to these injuries, both at home and in the workplace. Whether you occasionally move furniture or boxes around your house or you’re a new parent who continually lifts an infant car seat in and out of your vehicle, you are susceptible. If your job demands that you repeatedly lift and move heavy objects, you are at even higher risk. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one million workers suffer back injuries each year, with three out of four workplace back injuries occurring while the employee was lifting. According to OAM Orthopaedic Spine Surgeon Kenneth M. Kozlow, MD, back and spine injuries can range from short-term lumbar strain to more serious issues like disc herniation when the annulus, or outer covering of the disc, tears and the soft inner material can escape and cause nerve irritation. Recovery time and treatments vary, depending on the nature and severity of the injury; but the best medical advice is “prevention.” Armed with a few easy tips and a dose of common sense, you can significantly reduce your risk of back and spine injury in the first place.

Top tips to avoid back and spine injury. Dr. Kozlow offers these recommendations for preventing back and spine injury while lifting:

  1. Lift with your legs, not your back. Dr. Kozlow explains why this tip tops the list. “Your leg muscles are much stronger than your back muscles. Keeping your spine in a straight position decreases the stress across your ligaments, muscles, and discs. So, whether you kneel or squat, get down low, centralize the load, and use your legs to lift.”
  2. Hold items you are lifting close to your body. “The further away you hold a weight, the more force it generates on the core and spine,” notes Dr. Kozlow. “The same principle applies while you are seated. Studies show that the pressure on your discs is greatest when you’re seated and trying to lift something that’s way out in front of you.”
  3. Do not twist while lifting. Dr. Kozlow describes the proper technique as two steps rather than one fluid motion. “If you need to lift and move an object, break it into steps: lift the object, then turn using your feet, not twisting your back. This is critically important because the motion of twisting while lifting places the highest stress on your discs.”
  4. Don’t try to lift things that are too heavy. “This is just common sense,” says Dr. Kozlow. “Stay within reason on the objects you’re trying to lift, and if something is very heavy, make sure you have the assistance of another person or a piece of equipment.”

The best laid plans. Despite our best efforts, injuries can still happen. When they do, Dr. Kozlow has this advice. “The first thing to do if you hurt your back while lifting is rest for a short period.” The key word here is “short” — no prolonged bed rest, he notes. “We find that people do better the quicker they’re able to get up and resume light activities. Strains normally heal on their own in time, and anti-inflammatories, heat, and ice can all help the process.” But some injuries call for medical evaluation. “If the pain persists more than a few days or is severe enough to restrict normal activities, if the person develops symptoms down the leg, or if they develop changes in bowel or bladder function, they should seek medical attention,” advises Dr. Kozlow. “Changes in bowel or bladder function require emergency treatment; everything else would be routine.” And, of course, if you work in a physically demanding job and have had to take time off for a back injury, it is important to consult your physician about proper work conditioning before returning to the job.

More tips to come. In January, Dr. Kozlow will explore more tips for keeping your spine healthy and strong, so be sure to check back with the OAM blog next month.