Back pain at work: Here are 6 little-known facts

Between half and 84% of the Belgian population will suffer a back complaint at some time or other. Back pain is a common phenomenon, but people are often unaware of the causes and remedies. Are you aware of these 6 scientifically-based facts?

1. A specific physical complaint is the exception

Only 15% of all back complaints are caused by a specific physical ailment. These include a hernia, fracture or tumour. The remaining 85% is classed as ‘non-specific low back pain’. Generally, the exact cause is unclear, or there are a number of simultaneous factors.

  • Lack of exertion
    A strong back needs exercise. Indeed, it is not healthy to sit down too much or for too long. In this video we show a number of simple exercises for those sitting in front of a computer.
  • Overexertion
    There is also evidence that jobs involving physical exertion risk causing back pain. For example, remaining in a bent position for long periods of time or manually lifting loads. Furthermore, tough physical work hinders recovery. Lifestyle may also have an impact on back problems: obesity puts considerable strain on the spinal column.

The art is therefore to find a balance between healthy physical exertion and sufficient variation in movements. Plus, in doing so, you boost not only your physical but also your mental health.

2. Mental health can also affect back pain

In addition to physical strain, mental stress also has a negative impact on back complaints. For example, stress, insomnia or anxiety. This does not mean that pain will disappear if these issues are resolved. However, psychological problems add tension to muscles and nerves and can therefore exacerbate existing pain.

Persistent back pain seldom means that your muscles or nerves are damaged. The nervous system often becomes oversensitive due to mental strain and the fear of movement. In that case, back pain is not a sign of an injury, but of a disrupted and oversensitive nervous system. This means you must keep moving in order to recover.

Furthermore, there is the risk of a vicious circle emerging. Back complaints cause stress, and this tension then worsens the pain. Conversely, a sense of control at work and the availability of a confidential advisor help to prevent lower back problems.

3. It is important to drink plenty of water for a healthy back

Water not only clears the toxins in the body, it is also essential to drink plenty for a healthy back. The intervertebral discs in the back consist largely of water and are like shock-absorbent ‘sponges’. When working or exercising, the pressure on the intervertebral discs increases. A lack of water also means that the back muscles perform less effectively.

4. So, the message is to keep moving if you are in pain

Bed rest, painkillers and medical scans: three things that back patients often resort to. But by no means always the right approach. Medical imaging often fails to bring relief, while surgery can sometimes even do more harm than good.

Intuitively, we tend to associate pain with the risk of physical damage. In the event of (imminent) damage we must rest to allow our bodies to recover and to stop things from getting worse. However, this is seldom the case with back pain. In fact, when pain is acute and there is no specific injury, it is important to keep moving. After all, in most cases the sudden back pain is harmless and will disappear by itself. It is recommended to continue your daily activities, including work, which is an essential part of the recovery process. In addition, an active programme of exercise with a physiotherapist or doctor is a good idea. The load is then gradually increased.

With the campaign ‘No scan without a plan’, the FPS Public Health wants to encourage people with lower back pain to exercise more before having X-rays and CT scans done.

Usually, a radiological examination is not indicated and does not influence the healing process. In the exceptional cases where a radiological examination is indicated, the doctor will always frame this examination within a larger plan of action.

When it comes to overexertion due to ‘heavy physical demands of the job’, the first step is to remove the obstacles preventing a return to work. This involves the prevention adviser, employee and employer optimising the working conditions: (temporarily) reducing the strain with adaptations to the workplace or tasks, taking into consideration possible psychosocial risks.

If the pain becomes chronic, then a multidisciplinary approach offers the best chance of relief. For example, muscle-strengthening exercises in combination with healthy lifestyle adjustments. A good first step in this case is a discussion with the general practitioner, occupational physician or prevention adviser.

5. Prevention reduces back pain by up to 20%

A poster demonstrating a good posture when sitting down will certainly not resolve all back complaints. However, there are clearly benefits to be gained with prevention. A holistic approach, combining various physical and psychosocial activities is particularly useful. Examples include ergonomic adjustments in the workplace and the provision of support with mental issues.

By applying an integrated strategy in the workplace, the number of employees suffering from back pain is decreased by 20%, according to an OSHA report. The approach has even greater impact when involving employees and creating support.

These exercises are an effective measure for a stronger back.

6. Driving a car has an impact too

The average employee spends 38 hours a week at work. This means it is essential to consider under and overexertion in the workplace. However, it does not stop there. Driving a car while at work or commuting to and from work increases the risk of back complaints.  

In fact, Belgians spend an average of 53 minutes per day behind the wheel. Proper adjustment of the car seat and varying the sitting position not only boost safety but also help to prevent back pain. This infographic summarises the dos & don’ts.

How to exercise during a car journey? We give you some tips in this video.

An integrated approach for back complaints

Limit back complaints among your employees with an all-round strategy. Experts at Mensura will join you in looking at the options. Questions? e-mail us. We’re happy to help!