There’s the common cold, and then there’s lower back pain. The two ailments top the list, in that order, of the most common reasons people seek medical attention, said Wayne MacMasters, president of Tidewater Physical Therapy.
Lower back pain will afflict an estimated 80 percent of adults at some point in their lives, with many adults suffering from chronic back pain, according to Tidewater Physical Therapy.
The good news is that cures to lower back pain can be in reach for a large segment of the population. MacMasters said weight loss or management, regular exercise, smoking cessation, strengthening the core of the body and trauma prevention are all steps to reducing and even halting back pain.
Other tools are consulting with experts to make work stations and businesses kinder and gentler on backs. MacMasters launched Tidewater Physical Therapy in 1986 and has shepherded the business through the opening of 31 clinics.
“It’s bigger than I thought it would be,” MacMasters said.
To help businesses create healthy work environments, Tidewater Physical Therapy employs industry experts in ergonomics in the work place – essentially the science of optimizing the interactions between the person, the job and the environment. Not only does it help employees stay on the job, but it also helps businesses lower health care costs.
For every dollar spent by a business in wellness promotion and injury prevention, $3 to $5 is returned on that investment in the form of lower insurance premiums and claims, reduced worker’s compensation costs and increased productivity, MacMasters said.
Whether it’s talking to a Rotary Club or meeting on site with employees, Tidewater Physical Therapy is trying to teach the principles of healthier lifestyles, even in office settings where workers are hunched over computers all day.
Donna Abbott, a clinical director and ergonomics expert at Tidewater Physical Therapy, recently spent an hour with Jennifer Daknis and Ashley Gorse at Sigmon Daknis in Newport News. Daknis, a partner in the firm, and Gorse, client relationship manager at Sigmon Daknis, are at their desks all day.
It wasn’t long before Abbott was diagnosing problems at their desks that could lead to strains and pain in their necks, backs and elsewhere. Before observing and analyzing their office spaces, Abbott walked the two women through an introduction of personal ergonomics.
It doesn’t work to just to fix the work station because it’s a work in progress, Abbott said.
“Ultimately, it’s how you fit the environment,” Abbott said. “If it doesn’t fit you, it’s not the right size.”
It’s not just in the office that the principles of ergonomics are beneficial, Abbott said. They cross over into home offices, kitchens, in the yard and elsewhere in life, she said.
Ergonomics boils down to position, position, position, Abbott said. Blood flow is vital because blood carries the nutrients and oxygen around in the body.
Some easy steps to protecting yourself at work or home include keeping wrists straight when working at a keyboard, using your whole hand to grab objects, minimizing repetitive activites and giving your hands frequent rests to recover from repetitive exertions.
Taking time for brief stretches is vital to improving blood flow and giving the body breaks.
These stretches can be as simple as wrist extensions and flexions. This is where the wrist is held at shoulder level and using the other hand the wrist is first gently held up for a few seconds for five times and then held down for a few seconds, again for five times.
Shoulder shrugs, in which the shoulders are gently shrugged upward, are also important, as well as shoulder rolls.
Another stretch is the trunk extension in which you place the hands on the small of your back and slowly bend backwards, holding for three seconds before relaxing. This stretch can be repeated. Other stretches highlighted by Abbott included stretching your arms over your head and looking right and then left.
Daknis asked Abbott how often stretching breaks should occur.
“Frequently,” Abbott said. “Anything you can do on the hour is going to benefit you.”
Abbott also reviewed the workspaces for Daknis and Gorse. Pencils, the phone and other things frequently used should be in easy reach, Abbott said. Having the phone a long reach away is problematic.
Simulating the strain of a long reach, Abbott pointed out that “every time you reach for the phone, that’s what you’re doing.”
Even the use of a mouse was subject to Abbott’s scrutiny.
“You don’t have to sit there and hold onto it,” Abbott said. “Even though we call it a mouse, it’s dead.”
Daknis’ desk is set up so that she’s looking to her right to see her computer monitor.
Abbott didn’t like that. It’s easier on the body for the computer screen to be in front of you at eye level.
“What we’ve really got to eliminate is your neck rotation,” Abbott said.
The office chair is another potential strain on the body. The chair used by Daknis has long arms and doesn’t allow her to scoot close to her desk.
“You have to have one where your back is supported,” Abbott said. “You let the chair work for you.”
Something to remember for chairs is the simpler is better, she said. It doesn’t need to have a lot of gadgets to it.
“The biggest thing is size to you and size to space,” Abbott said.
For workers engaged in physical activities, proper lifting techniques that simulate Olympic weightlifters who use their legs and keep their trunks in neutral positions are a key to healthy backs, MacMasters said. And know your limits of weight you can lift, whether at work or home.
“There’s a lot of people who can’t pick up an 80-lb. bag of sand,” MacMasters said. “They shouldn’t be doing it.”
For MacMasters, there’s one important ingredient in healthy backs.
“If you do have a back issue,” he said, “exercise is the key.”