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Be mindful of how you work this spring, to avoid lower-back pain

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Back pain is common among farmers, so The Ohio State University extension published an AgrAbility Fact Sheet online about farming and back pain.

“Farmers are required to do heavy lifting and a tremendous amount of walking, and utilize pushing/pulling to complete tasks,” it explains. “Back injuries can be chronic or short-term. Once a back injury has occurred, special consideration needs to be given to the spine, muscles and tendons to prevent a reoccurring injury."

OSU breaks down back injuries into muscle, tendon and spinal. To avoid these, experts offer a few tips:

•Avoid working in awkward positions or standing for long periods of time

•When changing directions, turn with the feet, not at the waist, to avoid a twisting motion

Wear boots with high-quality insoles to support the ankles and reduce back pain

•Use correct lifting posture every time – use your legs to lift, instead of your back

More instructions include carrying smaller loads and making more trips; limiting repetitive tasks; using long-handle tools to reduce need to bend and reach; and replacing older equipment seat cushions with new ones that have adjustable lumbar support, arm rests and adjustable thigh support.

Other advice is just plain good housekeeping – keep things picked up to decrease the chance of falling over them.

No matter how careful a farmer may be, he or she is likely to injure their lower back at some point. Dr. Lou Graham, a doctor at Southern Illinois University Medical School, said back pain is a common ailment. He is a physiatrist, which he described as “a mix between orthopedics and neurology, with a rehab focus.”

The first question with back pain is, what to do? Graham said one of the first things is to decide if the pain requires a visit to the emergency room. “Are you becoming progressively weaker or paralyzed by this pain? Do you have new bowel or bladder changes associated with the back pain? Do you have lack of sensation when going to the bathroom?” he said.

“If experiencing any of the items listed above, you need go to the emergency room or be seen right away to resolve what is causing the issue, before progressing with any type of treatment.”

Once a farmer has ruled out the acute onset of any permanent neurological damage that will have a long-term effect, Graham recommends a visit with their family doctor.

“Most primary care physicians are skilled in evaluating low-back pain and will refer you to a specialist when appropriate. If you are not established with a back specialist, I recommend contacting your primary care doctor if your problem is not an emergency,” he said.

Once an injury is deemed not an emergency, to keep moving is key: “Bed rest is a thing of the past; work through the symptoms.”

For older adults, especially, he said, “After 24 hours’ rest, get up and move, or you risk losing function. The worst thing is to lie in bed for two to three days. You lose muscle mass every day you lie in bed.”

Once an injury has occurred, Graham said to ice the area for the first few days, then alternate ice and heat after that. “Anti-inflammatory medications and Tylenol can help, if not medically contraindicated. Stay active to maintain a range of motion in your back.”

He said in these injuries there is no room for painkillers like opioids, and that those low-risk anti-inflammatory drugs will work fine.

“You are going to hurt after straining your back; the goal is to manage your pain, not necessarily kill the pain. Fifty percent of the people with back strain will be better in one to two weeks, and 90 percent, within six to 12 weeks,” he explained.

To help prevent a back injury from reoccurring, Graham recommends maintaining a range of motion and core strengthening. “The core abdominal muscles help unload pressure from the spine. This can be learned in physical therapy. Good core strength can decrease pain in arthritic joints.

“I also like yoga. It is awesome for both physical and mental health. Look for activities you enjoy to find a way to move that works for you.”

If exercise and therapy and injections have all been done, then surgery may be the next step, but Graham warns this is not always a permanent fix. “Surgery cannot guarantee you will be pain-free for life, it just treats the one specific issue, and the spine is very complex.”

He also said, “People underestimate how bad tobacco is for you. Nicotine is terrible for you. Stop smoking. You need to know that it contributes to your cardiovascular fitness and worsens back pain.”

Spring planting is here, and long days will be spent in a tractor seat. A little precaution can go a long way in making it a safer season.