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Ergonomics and a Healthy Spine: At Work

Many injuries and strains to the spine take place on the job. With some ergonomic smarts you can avoid spine injury, mitigate degeneration, and achieve the pain-free life you deserve.

At Back Clinics of Canada we see many patients with severe back pain who cannot recall a specific instance or injury that led them to come to us. In many cases, the pain they suffer with today actually developed over time. Quite often the original cause of the back pain developed from a repetitive strain or improper lifting/movement of heavy objects – consistent with workplace activity or even routine household chores and activities.

Ergonomics helps us to understand how we move, how we interact with our workspace and environments, and how we can function most efficiently with the least strain to our bodies. The application of ergonomic principals is useful in every aspect of our lives—at home, work and play. More specifically when we understand how some of our routine activities may be straining or harmful, and we learn how to modify or correct our actions and movements, we can effectively reduce strain and injury. In this article, we will specifically address the workplace. This is an environment that must be designed properly to allow for a safe, productive and stress-free activities.

How a person interacts with equipment and their workplace has a direct affect on health and productivity, especially with repetitive tasks or a very physical job. If the fit of the person to the workplace is not right for the individual, repetitive strain injuries can arise that in time may develop into serious long-term disability.

Ergonomics is concerned with this relationship. It takes account of the user’s capabilities and limitations. Best workspace design ensures that tasks, equipment, information and the environment are suitable for each individual.

To assess the fit between a person and his/her workplace, ergonomists (those who have expertise in assessment and application of ergonomic principals) study the activity performed by the worker; the equipment used (its size, shape, and how appropriate it is for the task), and the information used (how it is presented, accessed, and changed). The ergonomist can then suggest how one may set up their workspace and perform their tasks/systems flow to enable best posture and correct movement.

Invest in a Great Chair
Your chair is most directly relevant to back health. While the best way to reduce pressure in the back is to be in a standing position, there are times when you need to sit. Good seat design is important. Your body needs to be supported appropriately. If it isn’t, then sitting for a long time can put unwanted pressure on your back, causing pain. The lumbar spine (bottom five vertebrae in the spine) especially needs to be supported to decrease disc pressure. A seat back that inclines backwards and has a lumbar support is critical to prevent excessive pressure on your lower back. Studies have pointed to an ideal backrest inclination of 120 degrees and a lumbar support of 5 cm. (The 120 degrees inclination means the angle between the seat and the backrest should be 120 degrees. The lumbar support of 5 cm means the chair backrest supports the lumbar by sticking out 5 cm in the lower back area.)

Now, this may sound like we should all be working at our desks somewhat reclined. That’s a challenge. Visit and click on ergonomics to learn about thoughtfully designed chairs. As an alternative to the conventional chair, many desk warriors are fans of the kneeling chair, developed in the 1970s. It’s popular among architects, designers and artists. There are many designs available, but they are all similar in principal. The spine is supported at appropriate, non-stress angles, and your body weight is gently transferred to your bottom. The kneepads offer support only.

Armrests also play a role in reducing lumbar disc pressure. When adjusted properly, they help to transfer pressure of your body on the seat and backrest to the arms. Armrests must be adjustable in height to assure your shoulders are not overstressed.

Of the patients who come to our Toronto back clinic, the greater percentage of them have lumbar problems. These problems are typically diagnosed as bulging discs, herniated discs, sciatica, spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease, sciatica, stenosis and facet syndrome. While not all lumbar spine problems are a direct result of poor chair alignment and support, fact that many of us spend much of our days sitting means we owe it to ourselves to sit in the smartest chair available.

The office furniture industry has many well-designed and adjustable workspace pieces that can be put together for the ideal individualized workspace. It’s a worthwhile investment.

Moving Right
Many people have very physical jobs. They may work in factories, make deliveries or specialize in heavy commercial or residential moves. They may even be professional athletes. Every sector can be assessed for ergonomics of movement. There is a science behind ideal lifting, turning, carrying, and other activity associate with such a job.

Think of a UPS driver who makes multiple stops on his route. He has a high risk of strain and injury. He repeatedly climbs in and out of his truck, lifts and carries heavy packages, and does so with efficiency and fluidity regardless of weather and other conditions. The UPS corporation hired ergonomists to study precise work flow and physical requirements of the drivers. After analysis, recommendations were made to maximize efficiencies and mitigate strain/injury. The result of proper ergonomics is happy healthy drivers who have been behind the wheel for years.

Note: When lifting anything with weight, the basic principals of correct lifting apply: always bend at the knees, not at the waist, and lift your object up smoothly, close to your body. When standing with your object pivot your body on one foot rather than twisting your spine in order to move it to the side. Always have someone help you move heavy objects in order to reduce back strain. These simple ideas can go a long way in reducing spinal pressure in both the workplace and home.

Many companies whose employees work in physical jobs bring an ergonomics specialist on board to assess workflow, tasks and activities and make appropriate recommendations for workplace safety and efficiency. If you have a very physical job and are concerned with possible strain or injury to your spine, ask your employer to help you develop best practices.

Help Your Spine
Even small workplace adjustments can make a significant positive difference for your spine. Ask Dr. Nusbaum about ergonomics and how you can improve your daily tasks and processes. You’ll ease pressure on your back, correct imbalances, reduce unnecessary strain, and find your energy and productivity get a boost.

If you have been suffering with back pain or neck pain, schedule your free consultation at Back Clinics of Canada. You may be a candidate for non-surgical Spinal Decompression. This is a non-invasive, non-surgical, drug-free treatment that is providing relief to thousands of back pain sufferers.

You deserve a pain-free life!

Dr. Ron Nusbaum
Director, Back Clinics of Canada


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