Back pain can lead to work absence: here's how to avoid it
Sit up straight with your shoulders back and relaxed. We can’t have you reading an article about low back pain and give it to you at the same time.
This would be adding to the problem, as there is already an eye-watering number of working days lost each year to lower back pain.
Bosses don’t like it - they lose money. The government does like it - the country loses money. And, most importantly, you don’t like it - it can hurt like hell and cause a multitude of problems if you miss work for a while. So, just how serious is it? And how can you and your employer try to avoid it or deal with it effectively?
Prevalence of lower back pain
Unfortunately, lower back pain isn’t just a mythical ailment that Californian teens cite at dispensaries. It is a very real, very common issue that will affect the majority of us throughout our working lives. Fortunately, however, the severity of it is often overstated.
This doesn’t mean that you should carry on as if nothing is the matter if your lower back is in agony. What it means, in fact, is that you probably won’t be one of the few who’s lower back pain is a symptom of a sinister underlying problem.
But let’s take this moment to tell you to get checked out just in case. Just don’t bother freaking out and starting the heartfelt farewells to your colleagues.
Lower back pain is accountable for the largest proportion of work-related absence in the UK. That is, of all the reasons for which you might miss work, lower back pain is the most common. Not the cold. Not the Strictly finale. Lower back pain.
It was reported in 2014 that back pain is the leading cause of disability globally. And while much more solid research needs to be done to provide details to such self-report studies, it is clear that employers and employees must take it seriously.
The risk of experiencing lower back pain increases as you grow older. So, as if you need told again, looking after yourself in and out of work as you move from your 30s right to retirement is essential for both you and your employer. Blending self-care at home and at work can be beneficial for everyone.
Causes of lower back pain
It’s well known that medicine has a lot to learn regarding the back. This absolutely doesn’t mean we know more than doctors - they should still be listened to. What it does mean, is that we must be wary of potentially harmful “miracle cures” and treatments that are unsubstantiated. In fact, it is rare that lower back pain has a single, identifiable cause.
Often, a variety of causes will contribute to what you are experiencing. So, looking after yourself holistically is likely to both help prevent and deal with back pain.
Inactivity, particularly as you grow older, won’t help your back. And, for example, lifting an anvil as you are bent double and twisted to the side is usually a pretty good way to cause a nasty spell of lower back pain and absence from work.
Although, the literature around lower back pain has failed to conclude that a sedentary working life is directly accountable for lower back pain. Inactivity, in general, seems to be a contributing factor more than whether or not, or how, you sit at your desk.
The more we research the links between mental wellbeing and back pain, the more we realise that completely intangible causes can also be key contributors, making back pain all the more difficult to treat. Some people who live a very healthy, active lifestyle, can still present with lower back issues; while some people who sit down for days on end with their shoulders hunched won’t.
So, as well as simple lifestyle causes, there can also be neural and emotional factors at play in the onset of lower back pain. ‘Psychosomatic’ is a cool word, but a mysterious and difficult to treat phenomenon. Psychosomatic is not equal to non-existent. So, even if there isn’t a biological ‘cause’ for your current agony, it is still real and is still worth being treated.
Dealing with lower back pain
Life can be unfair. It can often feel like you’ve been selected at random by the devil to have your back continuously pummelled by rocks. However, there are measures you can take to shorten the duration of the pummelling and return to normal activities as soon as possible.
First things first. See a doctor. Right. Next.
Secondly, if you can, move. If moving causes you a world of pain that you simply cannot overcome, call a doctor and try to rest. But, if your back allows you some simple movement, staying bed-ridden will usually just increase stiffness and can prolong your misery.
With this in mind, returning to normal activities as soon as possible can be a good treatment in itself. This doesn’t mean hurry back to work. It means that attempting your normal activities should be a priority, especially building in more active movements to your routine. And, if it shortens your absence from work due to lower back pain, all the better.
You may have had self-proclaimed psychologists (your mates) telling you that it’s all in your head. Even if this is the case, which they have no way of knowing, just because it is psychological doesn’t mean the pain doesn’t exist. If you experience it, it needs to be addressed.
So ask yourself, is your lifestyle healthy? Is your work-life balance healthy? Are your emotions healthy? If some or all of these are not, then trying to work on these will improve other aspects of your health, as well as potentially helping ease your lower back pain.
There is some promise in the areas of mindfulness-based stress-reduction (your yogas, your meditations, even your CBTs), that is worth trying yourself. What you may have gleaned, so far, is that a lot of measures you can take to deal with back pain essentially are good for your overall health. Win-win.
The complexity of lower back pain is hard to overstate. Take the example of painkillers - little pills of joy for some, or for others, useless and risky placebos. They don’t seem to be more effective than dummy pills in studies. This is even the case for many opioids. Plus, these should never be long-term solutions where it’s possible to use alternatives such as lifestyle change.
So, the conclusion one might draw after reading multiple paragraphs that frame low back pain as the enigma from hell is that you shouldn’t bother trying to treat it. It will either get better or it won’t.
Don’t fall victim to this defeatist thinking! It may be hard to envisage a life without lower back pain and work absence, but it is possible. What is often required is a holistic approach involving your GP and will-power. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, such as yoga, can be very beneficial, as can simply becoming more active.
Preventing lower back pain
A good way to get your employees to come to work more is to help them avoid ailments such as lower back pain. Prevent lower back pain, prevent a lot of absence from work.
A common method of prevention has come under fire from many sides. Parking yourself on an exercise ball at your desk. It has been said that, as well as strengthening your core, it also helps with the alignment of your spine.
While exercise balls’ ability to provide spinal realignment has been thrown into doubt, strengthening your core can only be good for your back. And, sitting on an exercise ball does strengthen your core. So, sit away!
As mentioned earlier, the jury is still out on the extent of the negative effects sitting at your desk have on your lower back. It’s been shown that having an active lifestyle away from work will usually make up for whatever potential damage sitting at work does.
So don’t worry yourself into lower back pain by fretting about your hours on the chair. Instead, join a gym class, or lobby your employers to invest in a cycle-to-work scheme. Incidentally, these are both things that Perkbox can help with.
And finally, regular check-ups and physio are always the best forms of defence against lower back pain.