Nursing is among the occupations at greatest risk for back injury. Studies of workers compensation claims have shown that nursing personnel have the highest claim rates for back injury of any occupation or industry. And various studies confirm that about half of nurses complain of chronic back pain, many to the point of considering leaving or actually leaving the profession. “The primary reason that nurses suffer back injuries so often is simply that they are doing their jobs,” says Dr. Kaliq Chang, interventional pain management specialist at the Atlantic Spine Center. “Patient handling tasks such as lifting, transferring, and re-positioning patients are typically performed manually, without the aid of a mechanical lift. Continuous repetition of these activities over years causes cumulative trauma to the spine and, inevitably, painful back disorders.”
The risk of back injuries to nurses isn't news to the hospitals and nursing homes that employ them. Many have training classes on proper lifting mechanics and other means of injury prevention. But there are several reasons that the injury rate remains stubbornly high. Some are personal: Nurses may be subject to factors such as age, genetics, poor posture, poor lifting mechanics, or being overweight and out of shape. Others reflect the demands of today's healthcare environment: Increasing numbers of elderly people require more care and help with daily activities, and the obesity epidemic means more patients are heavier and more difficult to move. “The bottom line,” says Dr. Chang, “is that even with awareness of these factors and even when exercising all the proper precautions, there is simply no way to avoid the stresses that repetitive lifting and turning of patients put on the spine.”
Tips on Injury Prevention:
Dr. Chang recommends steps nurses can take to minimize the risk of injury. The most important is to keep the spine in good condition. “A healthy back is your best safeguard against injury,” he says.
- Stay healthy: Control your weight, get plenty of rest, and don't smoke. Try to get 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity – walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and foods that are rich in calcium like dairy products and green leafy vegetables.
- Stay strong: Engage in a conditioning program that strengthens the spinal column and the supporting muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Make sure your exercises focus not only on the back, but also the abdominal, glutes, and hip muscles. These core muscles provide strong support for the spine, keeping it in alignment and facilitating movements that extend or twist the spine. Strengthening your legs will also make it easier to reduce stress on your back when lifting.
- Stay straight: Maintain proper posture by straightening your back when standing and sitting. Keep your chin and stomach tucked in, knees relaxed, and shoulders down. Avoid hunching and slouching.
- Lift properly: Learn to lift with the muscles of your legs rather than your back. That means bending at the hips and knees rather than at the waist. Keep your feet set apart for support and keep your neck, back, pelvis, and feet aligned when moving or turning, maintaining the natural curve of the spine as much as possible.
- Wear the right shoes: A good pair of comfortable, well-fitting shoes can help improve posture and support your back. Look for closed, low-heeled, non-slip shoes with good arch support and well cushioned soles.
- Sleep well: Sleeping on your side is the best position for your back. Make sure you have a supportive mattress and pillow that keeps your body aligned. And get plenty of rest so your muscles have a chance to relax and recover.
“You can't change the requirements of your profession,” says Dr. Chang. “Every day you will put stress on your back as you lift, push, pull, run, stretch, twist and turn. You can't avoid these motions but you can prevent many back injuries by keeping your back strong and your whole body healthy.”