Back pain? It could be a symptom of spinal damage | Sunday Observer
Work-related injuries are the commonest occupational hazards globally and in Sri Lanka

Back pain? It could be a symptom of spinal damage

15 May, 2022

As the world as a whole moves forward into a hi tech world the invasion of computer technology, email and the internet has brought with it both positive and negative results, both globally and in Sri Lanka.

While the positive results have already reaped a fruitful harvest - proved by the booming economy in many countries, the negative results unfortunately have had a significant and negative impact on our health and well being. Lower back pain is one of them.

Cited as one of the commonest work-related injuries , back injury specialists believe that the root of the pain is often caused by ordinary work activities such as, sitting in an office chair or heavy lifting, affecting those in sedentary jobs as much as those in heavy physical occupations, with over 80 percent of adults likely to suffer back pain at some point in their lives – the majority citing their work as being a major cause.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Head of Rehabilitation Services, MJF Charitable Foundation, Dr. Gopi Kitnasamy, who has long specialised in this much sidelined health issue, for more insights into this troubling subject which has raised increasing concern among physiotherapists due to the rising number of patients now being treated for back pain.


Q. What are occupational musculoskeletal disorders and how does it happen?

A. Occupational or work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are commonly referred to the wear and tear of musculoskeletal structures resulted from repetitive movement, forceful exertion on body parts and improper postures adopted at work. A single shot of impact may lead to tissue sprain or further develop local inflammation. Nevertheless, occupational musculoskeletal disorders are solely due to the cumulative effect, but not a single event of tissue injuries, induced from the physical work requirement itself. The influence of suffering musculoskeletal disorders not only affects individual’s work ability, but the subsided tissue pain also hinders the flexibility of body movement and directly lowers the overall work productivity.

Q. What are the common conditions?

A. The common WMSDs are sprain and strains of the upper and lower back, shoulders, and knees and CTDs (Cumulative trauma disorders) such as, rotator cuff and/ or biceps tendonitis, tennis elbow, dequervain’s tenosynovitis, wrist tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome injuries.

Q. What are the contributing factors?

A. Highly repetitive work with fast, forceful movements for long periods of time is stressful to our musculoskeletal system. Overusing this delicate system without giving it a chance to rest increases the odds of developing musculoskeletal disorders. The contributing factors of developing musculoskeletal disorders are Prolonged and sustained working position, fast and repetitive movement, forceful exertion, working in extreme temperature, continuous use of vibrating tools and long hours of driving.

Q. What are the common symptoms?

A. The symptoms are pain, tingling or burning sensations, swelling on the injured body parts, tenderness, muscle weakness and numbness.

Q. Back pain is increasingly common at the workplace, what is the reason for it?

A. Back pain is one of the commonest work-related injuries and is often caused by ordinary work activities such as, sitting in an office chair or heavy lifting. Back pain can affect those in sedentary jobs as much as, those in heavy physical occupations. Over 80 percent of adults will suffer back pain at some point in their lives, and many will cite their work as being a major cause.

Q. What strategies do you use to raise awareness on this subject to the target groups i.e. the employees and their employers. ?

A. Education and prevention strategies are key. We want to stop back pain at work before it starts. World Occupational Safety Health Day aims to reach employers as well as employees. After all, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. Our focus as I mentioned earlier was on one of the biggest causes of back pain –i.e. the activities we perform at work.

Q. Why is physical activity important at work place?

A. A workplace that supports physical activity provides and enhances quality of life for employees, both inside and outside of the workplace. When employees are encouraged to be active, there can be benefits for both the employee and the company, such as:

  • Gains in productivity
  • Decreases in absenteeism and turnover
  • More positive and happier employees and workplace culture
  • Lower medical costs and fewer injuries
  • Enhanced corporate image
  • Reduction in stress and increase in relaxation
  • Improved employee health / wellness

It is important for organisations not only to analyse the cost of running a physical activity program in the short term, but also to see how it will benefit the organization in the long run. The benefits both to workers and to employers of a fit and healthy workforce are multiple: less absenteeism, more productivity and higher staff morale.

Q. Give us examples of how to take care of our spines /backs while at work, especially, if we are doing sedentary jobs.

A. l Sitting for extended periods of time can stress your spine, including your back and neck. So changing positions every 30-60 minutes can be helpful. Try taking a short walk around the office, coupled with a good stretch!

  • Make sure you position yourself comfortably with respect to your desk, keyboard, mouse and monitor.
  • Use a supportive chair that you can adjust to suit your spine. A small cushion or rolled up towel in the hollow of your lower back can be supportive. If you cannot place your feet flat, use a footrest or even a small box.
  • Avoid twisting your back or neck by placing papers and files as close to your monitor as possible. Document holders positioned next to your monitor can be helpful.
  • Avoid holding telephones between your ear and shoulder. Instead, consider using an earpiece, headset or hands-free option.
  • Try doing some stretching at your workplace to help combat poor posture and give your spine a break. If you can, change your position at least once every hour!
  • Straighten Up and Move- become more aware of your posture, take regular breaks to change positions and try the stretching exercises to reduce strain on your spine. Try these stretching exercises at your desk or anywhere else, to ease back pain and boost energy. You may feel awkward doing stretching exercises at your desk. But right now, as you sit there at your computer, you are doing one of the worst things you can do to your body, you’re sitting still. And not only that, but the way you sit and type, and hold the phone may be wreaking havoc on your bones, joints, and muscles.

Q. Why is stretching important, especially, for computer operators?

A. No matter how well a workstation is designed, working at a computer often involves very few changes in body position. This lack of movement can lead to muscle pain and strain. Hence, it is recommended that a person working on a computer takes a break for 5-10 minutes for every hour spent at a workstation. If possible, stand up and walk, or even stand and change your position. Better still, stretch, but don’t overdo the stretching. Do not bounce, pull/push excessively, or lock your joints. You should feel a stretch, but not pain. If you feel pain or severe discomfort, stop stretching and ask your doctor/physiotherapist for advice.

Q. Can sedentary jobs weaken the bones?

A. Yes, bones should be used regularly or they will deteriorate, just as muscles do if they are not used. Bones need a variety of brief, frequent loads every day e.g., normal daily activities like walking and climbing stairs to maintain their strength, and bones need to be loaded a bit more than usual (exercise) to improve their strength.

Q. Any other ways of minimising risks of back pain at work?

A. Vary the work tasks. Break up keyboarding tasks work by doing other job duties or tasks that involve moving around or changing body position. Try to stand up and move around.

Q. Can the way we sleep cause back and spine aches?

A. Sleeping on your back or stomach can put additional strain on your back and neck. So when sleeping on your back place a pillow under your knees and when on your side place a pillow between your knees

Q. Being over weight? Is it a problem?

A. Extra body weight can cause additional strain on your spine. Try to stay within 5-7kgs of your ideal weight by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and exercising regularly.

Q. What about eye strain when using computers for a long time?

A. Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Basically, every 20 minutes spent using a screen; you should try to look away at something that is 20 feet away from you for a total of 20 seconds. This should reduce eye strain caused by looking at digital screens for too long.

Q. How can we prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders?

A. Prevention of work-related musculoskeletal disorders can be achieved by making effort in improving the workplace design and organisation of work tasks. Modification of workplace/workstation design can help prevent working in awkward postures, using appropriate tools, organizing rotation or mixture of job tasks to increase job variety can minimizes chance of trapping into sustained posture or repetitive movement in one single task, avoid lifting heavy objects manually and use mechanical tools to lift or assist lifting, following good postures and best manual handling techniques.

Q. How can the stretching exercises help?

A. To perform stretching exercise before and during working hours allow our bodies to have more exercises and relieve stress.

It is important for all employees, especially for those always need to use a same posture in their operations. In case they did not have regular rest periods and perform the stretching exercise, they may encounter musculoskeletal problems. Employers should promote stretching exercise in their workplaces, and employees should perform regularly in order to create a healthy working style.

The stretching exercises can reduce workplace stress, increasing your energy level, and improving worker productivity. One of the best benefits of performing stretching at your workplace is that you stimulate the formation of joint synovial fluid in your joints. This acts to make your joints easier to move, thereby reducing any stiffness or pain that you may have in your joints. Over time this habit of performing stretching daily will significantly reduce your risks of developing osteoarthritis (stiffness and pain in your joints) as you age.

Q.. Your advice to those who are in sedentary jobs

A. Active living is very important, and it is that which is valuable and and, it includes physical activity in everyday living. It means making physical activity part of everyday life whether you are taking the stairs instead of the elevator, participating in a standing or walking meeting, biking to work, doing Yoga, gardening, taking the kids or dog to the park, walking to the other building at your facility, engaging in some sports activity or swimming laps in the pool.