When “ho, ho, ho” turns into “Oh, no, no – not my back!” then it’s painfully clear even Santa can get back pain from toting around all those presents during the holidays. But understanding how – and how not – to lift and carry gifts, decorations and other bulky items goes a long way toward preventing a Christmas catastrophe, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
Our backs are most at risk when doing activities involving bending, lifting, reaching and twisting – movements necessary not only to carrying and wrapping gifts but donning lights and garlands on homes and trees, Dr. Liu says. That’s why the holidays unfortunately are prime time for back injuries that can curtail festivities for even the most gung-ho of Santa’s elves.
But understanding these risks is the first step toward preventing holiday back injuries, says Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “The best way to avoid back injuries is simply to foster habits that reduce the strain you place on your back,” he explains. “Just like Santa, we can’t always avoid lifting, but we can reduce the amount of pressure placed on our backs when we do so. Carrying a sack over one shoulder, for example, breaks a cardinal rule of spine health: Don’t use your back like a crane. Keep your spine in alignment by bending your knees when you lift, allowing your legs to do the work.”
Maintaining proper form to prevent back injury
What are some of the other top ways to prevent back injuries related to lifting and carrying? As you deck the halls, Dr. Liu offers these easy-to-remember tips to maintain proper form:
- Check the weight of every load before you lift it by pushing it with your hands or feet to see how easily it moves.
- Be sure the weight of the item is balanced so it won’t shift after you’ve picked it up.
- Get a tight grip on the object before lifting.
- Use a ladder when hoisting something over your head.
- Get as close to the load as possible before moving it; avoid reaching.
- Keep your body facing the object while lifting and don’t twist.
- Move slowly and smoothly, since hurried, jerky movements can strain back muscles.
- Try to carry items in the space between your shoulder and waist, which places less strain on back muscles.
- Avoid walking on slippery, uneven surfaces – like an icy roof! – while carrying things.
- Place objects up off the floor, such as on a table, so you won’t have to reach down to pick them up.
“The odds may be against Santa, since 80% of adults will suffer from lower back pain at least once in their lives,” Dr. Liu notes. “But in addition to taking all of these precautions, we can also minimize our chances of following in Santa’s footsteps in other ways. Keeping weight under control and avoiding smoking – even that Christmas pipe – can also protect the spine.”
Santa’s back hurts anyway? Possible treatment choices
What if, despite your best efforts, you’ve injured your back in the midst of merry-making? Treatment choices are wide-ranging, including:
- Home-based measures such as rest; applying heat or ice; and taking over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen for pain relief.
- Physical therapy.
- Epidural steroid injections, which deliver anti-inflammatory medicine directly into the spinal region to reduce swelling.
- Radiofrequency nerve ablation, a minimally invasive procedure during which a small current is delivered to nerves surrounding the spine to disrupt their ability to transmit pain.
- Spinal cord stimulation, which sends pulsed electrical signals to the spinal cord to control chronic pain.
- Minimally invasive endoscopic surgery, which uses tiny incisions to remove damaged spinal disc material, relieve pressure on spinal nerve roots and other pain-eradicating measures with minimal blood loss and a quick recovery.
Pain that lasts beyond a few days should be brought to a physician’s attention, Dr. Liu advises. Conservative measures are first used to alleviate back pain before more invasive or surgical procedures are considered. If back pain is severe and/or lingers beyond 6 to 12 weeks, surgery may be a strong option, he says.
“It’s always comforting to know there are many ways of easing back pain resulting from holiday mishaps,” Dr. Liu says. “But if you’re playing Santa this year, be as generous to yourself as you are with everyone else on your list by remembering to lift and carry in a back-healthy way.”
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