Updated 18 February 2013

Back problems a major issue in SA

South Africa's workforce is suffering from severe discomfort and even disability due to problems which arise from low back pain.


South Africa’s workforce is suffering from severe discomfort and even disability due to problems which arise from low back pain. Although there are no official figures available on the cost of disability, it is estimated that worker disability in 1999 cost the economy more than R2 billion.

The vast majority of people have sedentary jobs. Whether one has a managerial position or one works in a factory, chances are that you would spend a large portion of your working day sitting down.

Backaches, after colds and flu, cause the largest portion of work absenteeism. Many things work together to cause backache. The largest contributor is a sedentary lifestyle and a lack of exercise, which in turn cause back muscles to weaken and become inflexible. It is not only the muscles that weaken, but also ligaments and connective tissue in the back, thighs, hips and lower abdomen.

Most backache is treatable with simple exercises. It is not often that backache needs surgery, if the following measures are implemented:

  • Aim for a good upright posture when sitting or standing. It's not necessary to have an extreme upright posture, but one that maintains the normal "hollow curve" of the spine. The spine is not absolutely straight; it has a natural "hollow" in the lumbar area where it curves inwards. One of the keys to beating low back pain is to maintain this hollow and avoid postures that cause it to flatten out or curve excessively outwards or inwards;
  • Standing: Try the following method to improve your standing and walking posture: stand with your back to the wall, with the back of your head, shoulders, buttocks and heels touching the wall. Now relax slightly. That is your ideal posture when standing;
  • Sitting: When sitting, sit upright and don't slouch or curve your back. Make sure that the height of your work surface is such that it doesn't cause you to bend or slouch forward. It's very important to use a chair, whether at work or relaxing, which provides support in the lumbar region - a small, firm cushion is ideal. Avoid sitting in one position for long periods. Stand up and move around at least every 30 minutes;
  • your employer to invest indecent office chairs that give proper back support, not the flat wooden ones that feel as if they could have done duty in the Spanish Inquisition. It is much cheaper for the employer to pay a little more for decent office furniture than to have employees miss work owing to back problems.
  • Get up and move around every now and then. It is not good for anyone to remain sitting in the same position for too long as the muscles get strained. Park far away or walk up a few flights of stairs to go to the toilet. It will give your back muscles a break.
  • Exercise: Strengthening the muscles of the back and abdomen helps to minimise the frequency, and possibly the severity, of future incidents. Make sure that you do not put severe strain on your back when exercising. Walking and swimming are excellent for safely improving overall muscle tone and strength;
  • Lose weight through dietary calorie restriction and aerobic exercise, as prescribed by your doctor;
  • In general, avoid sudden, quick or jerky movements with your back;
  • When lifting objects from ground level, don't flex your back and bend over - this can put great strain on the lower back. Instead, bend your knees and lower yourself while keeping your back straight. Alternatively, go down on one knee;
  • Don't sleep on a sagging bed, because it won't support your spine properly. Choose a firm, resilient sleeping surface that doesn't allow your spine to sag when it is relaxed in sleep. Avoid sleeping in the same posture every night and all night. A good sleeping position is known as the swimming position", because it resembles a person swimming crawl: lie facing downwards with your head turned to the left. Bend your left arm so your hand lies beside your face, and bend your left knee. Keep your right arm at your side and your right leg straight. Try alternating left and right sides if you wake up during the night;
  • If you already suffer from back problems, you should conscientiously apply all the above measures. When you are experiencing an episode of mild to moderate back pain, you should lie down on a firm, flat surface for an hour in the morning and the afternoon. Your place of work should have a facility where you can go and lie down, but, should this not be available, the floor will do perfectly well.

Although low back pain doesn’t usually become a problem before middle age, you are never too young to start protecting your back.

(Liesel Powell, Health24 updated March 2011)


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