Handling Housework when You Have a Bad Back

When you have back pain, housework can go from mildly irritating to literally agonizing pretty quickly. Here are some tips to keep your house tidy without the pain.

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Housework never seems to end. From picking up everyday things to heavy spring cleaning, housework is definitely work. Moving, bending, walking, straightening, lifting and shifting—all of it can take a toll on your back. For people already suffering from a spine problem or injury, housework can be far more than just an annoying daily chore. It can be downright painful, and we don’t mean in a metaphorical sense.

Woman doing housework with back painHousework can go from irritating to agonizing when you have back pain.

Housework and the Spine

“Any chore involving bending or lifting can be painful for those with spine issues,” explains Daniel Paull, MD, of Easy Orthopedics in Colorado Springs, CO. “This may include cleaning the bathrooms, or moving a heavy object in an awkward position. Activities that require repetitive bending and twisting such as chopping wood can be very painful.”

Maintaining your home involves moving the body in a way that involves and affects the spine and back. Consider how many times a day you simply bend down—picking something up off the floor or reaching for something in the shower. Now add a weight to that, such as a laundry basket or garbage and grocery bags. 

Now your spine is not just flexing and bending, but it’s also carrying any additional weight. When you think about how many times a day that happens, it can all add up to back pain and stiffness, even for those who don’t already have spine or back issues. 

“When it comes to back pain making household chores difficult, people tend to focus on the obvious activities, like lifting heavy items,” says Richard Yoon, MD, Director of Orthopaedic Research at Jersey City Medical Center – RWJBarnabas Health in Jersey City, NJ. “But it is often the little things we take for granted that can be the most challenging, such as standing for long periods to do dishes, or other chores that require you to stay upright. Chores that involve getting on all fours, such as cleaning in low areas, can also be challenge. Someone who has back and spine issues, depending on the severity, can be potentially limited in their ability to handle almost any household task.”

Gender Disparities

Women are often at a higher risk for housework-related back pain and problems, simply due to their propensity for doing more work around the house than their male counterparts. A 2021 study published in BMC Women’s Health noted that “[Physically demanding domestic labor] may significantly increase a woman's risk of experiencing [back pain].” 

According to a 2015 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, France, “The time spent on unpaid work such as household chores or shopping exposes huge gender gaps.” In the US alone, women between the ages of 15 and 64 are responsible for approximately 4.5 hours of unpaid labor (including routine housework, shopping, and caring for children and other household members) per day. Men of the same age group are responsible for around 2 hours per day. This puts women at a much higher risk of back pain and problems from simply maintaining the home. 

Older women are at increased risk. A 1999 study published in The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, stated that “there was a strong association between back pain and functional difficulties in older women.” The study further noted “women with severe back pain were 3 to 4 times more likely than other women to have a lot of difficulty with light housework or shopping. There was also an increased likelihood of difficulty with mobility tasks and basic [activities of daily living.] among those with severe back pain.”

How to Make Things Easier

Proper lifting and bending techniques are important for everyone, but they are absolutely vital for people with back and spine problems. Doing things the right way prevents further injury and increased pain. Don’t bend at the waist to lift – crouch and lift with your legs instead. Maintain proper posture. And consider your body weight. Added pounds means added weight, so it’s important to maintain a healthy weight so there is less stress on your whole musculoskeletal system. 

Pay attention to what you are lifting. Dr. Paull puts it very simply: “If it's really heavy, don't lift it, or get someone to help you.” He also suggests keeping your back straight the entire time you are lfting anything, even little things. “What you don't want to do is hover and curve your back; that's when you may hurt yourself.”

Dr. Yoon offers similar advice. “Proper technique is important no matter how young or old you are. Our first inclination is to bend at waist and go down, but this can easily put force on your back and strain or aggravate it. If you're lifting something off the floor, I recommend that patients go into a squatting position, or even down on knee, and then stand carefully, letting their legs do the work.” 

Daily exercise is also helpful. Just make sure you are doing the right kind of exercise if you already have back pain or a problem. Finding that information is right at your fingertips, says Dr. Yoon. “Just about anyone can access YouTube. It’s a great resource for instruction on back stretching and strengthening exercises. I threw my back out about 15 years ago, and to this day I still do daily strengthening exercises. For example, doing plank exercises each morning helps strengthen and stabilize my core, decreasing the possibility of pain and aggravation.”

When To See the Doctor

If you find that your pain is increasing or that doing simple things is becoming more difficult, it’s time to speak with a professional. Back pain and certain back injuries can be insidious. They happen slowly over time and then suddenly appear in a flash of agony or even disability. So it’s important to have the right medical professional to diagnose the problem and help find a solution. 

There are signs to watch for other than just pain. “Any sort of numbness or tingling down your leg may signal that your spinal nerves are irritated, and that you may need to rest for a while,” says Dr. Paull. 

“Some symptoms of spinal compression may actually be an emergency,” adds Dr. Yoon. “These include urinary incontinence, loss of balance, or a feeling that your legs are heavy, as if you are walking in sand.” Any of those signs may mean a trip to the ER, so a call to your doctor is definitely in order. 

Other signs to watch for are a tendency to lean forward (sometimes called “shopping cart sign,” according to Dr. Yoon), frequently dropping objects, pain that radiates down the legs or arms, and muscle fatigue that seems to come on suddenly. Many patients mistakenly chalk this up as being “normal” or being a factor of age. But the truth is they can be a sign of a more serious problem. 

It’s possible to maintain the health of your back and spine while still maintaining your home. Do things the right way, ask for help when you need it, and remember to rest between tasks. See your doctor about back pain and stiffness—even if it’s not the sign of an injury or problem, your doctor can help you find more ways to make those household chores easier.

Updated on: 04/29/21
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