It turns out that certain specific combinations of activities up your odds for back injury more than others. (Photo: Getty Images)
The World Health Organization reports that, at one point or another, roughly 10 percent of the global population experiences a bout of back pain. However, medical experts haven’t yet come up with a truly effective way to prevent it.
A new study published in Arthritis Care & Research, gets a little closer. Experts examined different combinations of a dozen modifiable risk factors and found that exposure to these risks increase the odds of developing lower back pain.
The study was conducted in Sydney, Australia, and asked 999 subjects entering clinics for back pain to share their exposure to 12 different key risk factors in the 96 hours before they started experiencing discomfort. From there, researchers measured the increased risk of experiencing back pain following each of the “triggers.” They were:
- heavy loads
- awkward positioning
- handling of objects far from the body
- handling live people (think: holding your squirming toddler)
- handling live animals
- unstable loading
- engagement in moderate or vigorous physical activity
- sexual activity
- a slip, trip or fall
- alcohol consumption
- being distracted
- being fatigued
A new bout of lower back pain increased across a range of triggers, including a 2.7 times greater risk for those engaging in moderate or vigorous physical activity, and a 25 times greater odds if you happened to be distracted.
Related: 7 Weird Reasons Your Back Hurts
Researchers also combined triggers, and saw significant jumps in risk, as well: For instance, manual tasks involving heavy loads associated with awkward posture upped the odds of back pain by 6.2, and when manual tasks were associated with feeling fatigued, odds of back pain increased by 5.3. Likewise, physical activity in general bumped the risk of back pain by 7.7 if a person was also feeling fatigued or tired.
Maybe most interestingly, the researchers found that people were most likely to experience back pain between 7 AM and noon each day. The scientists suggest this may have something to do with the fact that subjects were more commonly exposed to triggers involving awkward posture and lifting cumbersome objects during this morning window.
Even though there’s not a ton of research on effectively curbing the back pain and injury epidemic, there are still a few things you can do right now to avoid back pain, says Michael Jonesco, DO, an internal medicine and sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Here are three major keys to prevent back pain:
Warm-ups aren’t just for sports. No matter what, if you’re going to be doing a physical task — whether that’s lifting a dresser or changing a tire on your car — you need to move your body before you say go. “In terms of injury prevention, you always need to do some sort of warm up activity,” Jonesco says. “I’m not even necessarily huge on stretching, but you can do something like running in place or jumping jacks.” You are simply priming your body (back included) for movement.
That whole awkward-position factor from the study is true: back strain frequently happens when you engage in an activity that’s repetitive, or stay in one position for a prolonged time, says Jonesco. “This can put tension on the low back muscles, and as they fatigue, you’ll get even more pressure on your ligaments and tendons, leaving you vulnerable for injury that takes a long time to heal, or may even be permanent,” he says. The solution is to seek a comfortable position first, and then take breaks and adjust as necessary so you’re not totally locked into one place. “If you need to fix your sink, for instance, don’t just start tinkering away,” Jonesco says. “Use cushioning, and find a comfortable spot first.”
Related: 8 Everyday Things That Cause Pain
Listen to your body
Jonesco says mindfulness is a crucial aspect of avoiding back pain, because most know (at least subconsciously) when muscles are strained or tweaked — but many ignore it, especially if they’re already “distracted” with a task, per the new research findings. This can turn a minor problem into a full-blown bout of back pain if you’re not careful. “Our bodies feed us limitless information, and our brain filters out which signals we need to pay attention to,” Jonesco says. “When we’re focused on a task, it’s easy to tune those out. Listen to your body for those discomfort signals, and then move or change positions as necessary.”
And if you need to stop lifting that dresser or changing that tire, stop. “Swallow your pride,” says Jonesco. “If you feel that stress in your lower back, then don’t try to finish what you’re doing. Avoid that activity.”