Expert Tips for Avoiding Back Injury at Work

It’s not just high-impact labor jobs that cause back pain. Do you sit all day and use a computer? You’re at risk too. See our expert tips for avoiding back injury at work.

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For most people, going to work each day is a simple fact of life. But, whether you fight traffic to the office or commute to the kitchen table, you risk back pain or even back injury at work. It almost doesn’t matter what you do for a living, or how you do it—sitting or standing, lifting crates or pushing a pencil, it all can have a negative impact on the health of your spine and the muscles in your back.

Man suffering from back and neck injury from office workWhether you work from home or on site, stay on your feet all day or stay in a chair, your job may be putting you at risk for back pain.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the United States Department of Labor, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are one of the most common reasons for missing or having to restrict time at work. Certain occupations, such as physical labor, can make a person more prone to such problems, but even office workers aren’t safe from spinal WMSDs. Prevention is key, along with seeking treatment as soon as possible if pain or injury occurs.

Who's at Risk for Back Pain?

WMSDs that affect the back and spine are a worldwide problem. The World Health Organization published Priority Medicines for Europe and the World 2013 Update and stated, “In the United States, an estimated 149 million work days are lost every year because of low back pain, with total costs estimated to be US$ 100 to 200 billion a ...” A shorter 2017 update suggests the problem has clearly persisted; the WHO identified lower back pain as the leading cause of disability in the world.

The National Institute for Occupations Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, listed five primary risk conditions for WMSDS:

  1. Routine lifting of heavy objects
  2. Daily exposure to whole body vibration (e.g. you use a jackhammer or drive a forklift)
  3. Routine overhead work
  4. Work with the neck in chronic flexion position
  5. Performing repetitive forceful tasks

Back Pain at the Office

That list may lead you to believe that the risk is mostly to people who work in jobs where a lot of physical labor is involved, but don’t be fooled, says explains Michael Goldsmith, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics in North Bethesda, MD. Reason number four is extremely common for anyone who works at a computer. If you look at screens all day, you’re primed for cervical spine flexion, which can lead to neck pain and upper back pain.

“Prolonged sitting creates a tremendous amount of pressure and weight on the lower back.,” explains Dr. Goldsmith.

Puja Shah, MD, an interventional pain medicine specialist and anesthesiologist at DISC Sports and Spine Center in Newport Beach, CA, agrees about office workers being at high risk for back and spinal WSMDs. “When we are sitting for eight hours a day, we are not utilizing our core abdominal muscles nor our paraspinals/back muscles that allow us to have a strong foundation,” says Dr. Shah.  The more we sit and under-utilize these muscles, the more we dive into the vicious cycle of slouching, poor posture and increased stress on muscles that are not getting activated.” 

What You Can Do to Avoid Back Injury at Work

You don’t have to quit your job to prevent back pain or keep it from getting worse. “Whether an individual works at a desk, is a high impact laborer, or is an athlete, they should never have to choose between a career or their spine health,” says Dr. Goldsmith. “With today’s advancements in medicine, there is almost always a solution for relieving pain and getting a patient back to their regular levels of activity.”

Be mindful about basic ways to keep your back and spine healthy. It’s nothing you’ve never heard before; lifting with the legs and not the back, maintaining a healthy weight with a healthy diet, and dynamic stretching before physical activity all help.

Overall physical fitness is also vital. That includes not just exercising regularly but also knowing when to rest and give your body a break. “Whether you are in a career that involves sitting at a desk, or a career that requires you to be active daily, what is most important is your daily fitness routine,” says Dr. Shah.

If you have a more active job, she says, focus more on recovery in your off-hours and maybe just stick with a nice stroll. If you’re sedentary most of the day, Dr. Shah says you might want to hit the gym, the pool, or the track.

Working with Your Spine Specialists After Back Injury at Work

If your pain is constant or you think you have an injury, it’s time to see a medical professional. The right diagnosis leads to the right treatment, which can include anything from rest to surgery. Physical therapy and pain management are common prescriptions for back pain at work.

Chances are that chronic back pain won’t be solved with just medication, says Dr. Shah, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “Ideally, each patient should have a personalized treatment program which includes medications (as appropriate), physical therapy and interventions, such as injections, if indicated,” she says. “A multidisciplinary approach to chronic pain is key, and the most therapeutic approach for long-term benefits.”

One thing Dr. Goldsmith is very cautious around is opioids. A 2015 review in BMJ suggests opioids won’t help you get back to work faster, and pain control is only effective in the short-term. “While I treat each patient individually, treatment for back pain should generally not include opioids. Opioids are addictive medications that don’t solve the root of the problem. The biggest issue with back pain is inflammation, which can be better addressed through anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy and exercise.”

While work may be a necessity, work-related back pain doesn’t have to be. Take care of yourself and be aware of simple things you can do to prevent problems. If a problem already exists, see your doctor and find out what treatment you need. Work shouldn’t be a literal pain. Be smart and be careful so your time away from work is relaxing and pain-free.

Updated on: 03/01/21
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