Lifting doesn't have to be a dangerous proposition, even when it's done regularly at work or at home. As long as you know the facts about correct lifting and bending techniques, you can protect your back from unnecessary added stress and possible injury.
Everyone puts a lot of stress on their backs every day from the process of bending and lifting, even those people who don't have a job that requires frequent heavy lifting. Think of how many times a day you bend down to pick something up: laundry, your pet, a piece of paper, etc. Continued bad form when lifting, even something small, can cause unneeded stress on your back and make it more prone to injury.
There are two common mistakes made in lifting. The first is using the wrong muscles, the back muscles, instead of the leg and buttock muscles. You should always bend your knees when lifting heavy objects so you have a solid foundation for your spine. You should keep your trunk vertical when bending down and lifting something. A horizontal trunk can put pressure on the lower back amounting to hundreds of extra pounds. This pressure can eventually compromise a disc or sprain or strain a back muscle.
The second common error is lifting an object too far from the body. Get close to what you are lifting. It decreases the pressure on your spine. Try to start with the center of the weight no more than 8 inches from your body, then lift the object with a straight back using your leg and buttock muscles. These are simple principles that will help you minimize injury to your back when lifting.
Just to illustrate, if you lift a 10-pound weight at arms length, it will put 150 pounds of pressure on your back. Lifting an object that weighs 86 pounds puts over 700 pounds of force on the discs in the lower back. An object that weighs over 86 pounds should not be lifted more than a distance of 12 to 13 inches and should not be lifted more than once every five minutes if possible. The heavier the object, the shorter distance it should be lifted. If the object must be lifted higher, assistance or a machine should be utilized. In the case of mandatory occupational lifting, positions or loading platforms should be adjustable to the height of different people. Try not to reach when lifting items higher than chest level. Lifting objects higher than chest level puts considerably more stress on your lower back. When lifting items above your head, make sure to use a stool or a ladder.
Another important guideline to follow is to limit twisting when lifting. This adds more force to your back. If you must turn when lifting, pivot your feet instead of twisting your back. In addition, always be sure of your footing. A sudden change in footing or a trip can cause enormous amounts of added stress on the back.
Another problem with lifting is fatigue. The more you bend and lift, the more fatigued your muscles become. When muscles are fatigued they are more prone to injury. Frequent breaks when lifting are preferable to help rejuvenate strength.
Always use both hands when lifting and lift slowly and deliberately. The ideal situation is to have someone or something to help you when lifting, but if that's not possible, follow all the above listed guidelines to minimize your risk of injury.
Following is a review list of dos and don'ts when bending and lifting:
- Don't lift things when your feet are too close together. If your feet are closer than shoulder width you'll have poor leverage, you'll be unstable, and you'll have a tendency to round your back.
- Don't lift with your knees and hips straight and your lower back rounded. This is the most common and stressful bad lifting move. Twisting the trunk during this bad move compounds the problem.
- Don't tense and arch the neck when lifting. This crams your neck joints together and causes pain especially if maintained for a long period of time.
- Don't lift and/or carry an unbalanced load.
- Don't lift and bend too much in a short period of time.
- Don't lift objects that are too heavy for you.
- Don't lift heavy objects directly following a sustained period of sitting, especially if you have been slouching.
- Don't lift things overhead with your neck and back arched, if possible.
- Do place your feet and knees at least shoulder width apart or front to back in a wide-step position. This will help you bend at the hips, keeping your back relatively straight and stress free.
- Do lean over or squat with the chest and buttocks sticking out. If you do this correctly, your back will be flat and your neck will balance in a relaxed neutral position.
- Do take weight off one or both arms if possible. When you squat down or push back up, use your hand or elbow as support on your thigh or any available structure. This takes some of the compression and strain off of the lower back.
- Do balance your load on either side if possible, or switch sides so that both sides are equally stressed.
- Do level the pelvis or tuck in your buttocks and suck in your abdomen, when reaching or lifting overhead. Keep your chest up and use a step stool to keep the low back and neck in neutral alignment.
- Do walk around and use backward-bending and/or stomach-lying positions before or after bending or heavy lifting, especially if you've been sitting for a while.
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