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Ouch My Aching Back

....will be the complaint of most people at least once in their lifetime. Low back pain is the most common of the work related muscular skeletal disorders, and in terms of low productivity and time lost from work, the most expensive. Back pain may be sharp or dull, diffuse or localized. Muscle spasms and limitation of movement are common too.

Fortunately, most episodes of low back pain do not last very long. Usually, the symptoms will diminish within a few weeks; however, the recurrence rate is high. There are two main patterns injury recurrence. Some people have a persistent dull ache which is made worse by certain activities. Others have regular attacks which are separated by symptom-free periods when they can perform demanding physical activity.

There are two different groups of workers who are at risk for back pain. The first group is comprised of workers whose jobs involve considerable lifting, handling, bending, twisting and forceful exertion or prolonged sedentary work. The second group consists of workers who are more likely to report psychological stress and a lower level of job satisfaction.

Some individuals may be more at risk than others regardless of the type of work performed. Significant personal risk factors include motherhood, smoking, inferior endurance of back muscles, inadequate lifting strength, poor fitness, and previous history of back problems. However, habitual patterns of working are more significant determinants of a worker's chances of having back pain than personal characteristics.

Employers should become aware of work-related risk factors and develop strategies to reduce the incidence of injury. Providing employees with information and training on proper lifting techniques is one way to prevent the occurrence of back injury at work. Some guidelines for safe lifting follow.

  1. REMEMBER ALWAYS LIFT TWICE! Think about how you are going to lift an object before you begin.
  2. Ask yourself, "Can I do it SAFELY?" If in doubt, ask for assistance.
  3. Always use safe lifting techniques.

Considerations for Safe Lifting:

  • Assess the weight of the object to be lifted. > Seek assistance if the object weighs more than 1/3 or 1/2 of your body weight.
  • Examine the shape and size of the object. > Bulky objects which aren't heavy can still be a problem. Ask for help if lifting will place your body in an awkward position.
  • Determine how far you must carry the object. > Can you slide it instead (NOT pull it)? Or, use a hand truck or cart.
  • Evaluate how high the object is to be lifted. > Never attempt to lift heavy objects over your head. You should be able to safely lift objects to shoulder level.
  • Consider the type of shoes you are wearing. > Do not lift heavy objects if you are wearing open toed, sling-back, or high heeled shoes!
  • Think about your overall fitness. > Ask for help if you have a history of back pain or previous injury.


  • Make sure the walking surface is dry.
  • Clear the path of obstacles where you need to go.
  • Place one foot along the side of the object to be lifted and the other behind the object for balance.
  • Keep your back straight.
  • Bend your knees and lift with your legs. Never lift with your back.
  • Grip the object with both hands.
  • Pull the object close to your body.
  • Tuck in arms and elbows to your sides.


  • When turning with an object take short steps while moving the body as a unit. Do not twist or rotate at your waist.
  • Swing wide at door corners and walk on the correct side of the passage.
  • Set let the object down slowly while bending your knees.

For additional information contact...

Karen Allen, Senior Physical Therapist
Environmental Health & Safety - University of Virginia
Phone: (804) 982-4913
Visit the UVA Ergonomics Task Force Website: Back Injury Prevention -- How to avoid a painful back!