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Tired and distracted people at greater risk of lower back pain

Published on February 18, 2016

Osteopath Eddie Clark looks at new research which finds people are more likely to strain their backs in the morning, when they’re tired and especially when they’re distracted.

If you have ever had an acute episode of lower back pain then you’ll know exactly just how debilitating it can be. As an Osteopath, I deal with people in the throes of an acute episode nearly every day. I spend my time reassuring them, teaching them a little bit about the condition and creating strategies to help them manage to get through the episode. The condition is alarming for most people the first time they experience it. The pain can be severe. I’ve known plenty of patients who have presented to the emergency ward before they have come to see me. They tend to be very restricted in mobility and are sometimes noticeably listing over to one side. I describe the condition to them as a literal “pain in the ass”. It’s very common, in fact it is the third most common health condition managed by general practitioners.

Each day back pain affects approximately 25% of the world’s population. It is one of the 10 leading causes of disease burden globally.

The unfortunate thing about acute lower back pain is that it tends to be recurrent. The biggest risk factor for having an episode of acute lower back pain is having had a previous episode. With all that in mind, any extra light we can throw on this issue is very important.

Recently, Sydney based researcher Professor Chris Maher of the George Institute published a new study that generated some new awareness about this common condition.

The most interesting findings of the study were that you have a higher chance of injuring your back in the morning- 40% higher. The time frame for this increased risk is between 8am till 11am. This correlates with what I see in my patients also. Early morning activities, particularly if they involve lifting (even when the item is not particularly heavy) are commonly at fault.

The study also found that being fatigued triples the odds of developing immediate back pain. This is a really important point to emphasize for people who have manual jobs, or have had acute back episodes in the past – be more careful when you are tired.

The researchers found people were more likely to injure their backs in the morning.

Most interestingly, the study found that distraction increases the odds by a factor of 25! This is huge. It means that many, many more episodes of lower back pain happened when the person was actively distracted from the task they were doing. Again, I’ve been really pushing this point with anyone who has a history of back pain. Be more carful when you get distracted. Stop the lifting task you might be doing. Don’t pick up the pen from the ground until you are off the phone.

Finally, the study busted two popular myths by finding that alcohol consumption and sexual activity we NOT found to trigger back pain.

Professor Chris Maher had this to say about the findings:

There are really three things people can do to reduce their risk of back pain. Firstly use your back wisely and we have shown here that even brief exposures can be harmful. Secondly adopt a healthy lifestyle: smoking, being overweight, prolonged sitting and/or and being physically inactive are bad for back health. And lastly stress, either at home or work, seems to increase your chances of getting back pain.

The study looked at 999 patients aged 18 years or older in New South Wales, and was published in Arthritis Care & Research.

Visit the George Institute for Global Health for more health news and research.

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