Back problems: Proper lifting

Introduction

No one is immune to back injury. Whether you have a strong back or have hurt your back before, it is well worth it to:

  • Stop yourself before casually picking up a light or heavy load.
  • Plan in your mind for the best way to lift what's in front of you. This could include enlisting help from one or more people.
  • Lift and move slowly and carefully.

The time you take to use the right lifting mechanics is far less than the days, weeks, or months it can take to heal from a back injury.

 

Before focusing on the right way to lift, review the following common lifting mistakes that easily lead to a back injury:

  • Allowing the back to curve forward while you grasp an object, then lifting by straightening the back
  • Bending at the hips but keeping the legs straight while grasping and lifting
  • Twisting the back while lifting or holding, usually by turning the shoulders, but not the hips
  • Holding an object away from the body
  • Lifting a heavy object (or child) above shoulder level
  • Attempting to lift an object that's too heavy or awkward for one person to safely lift
  • Underestimating the need to be careful when lifting a light object

Test Your Knowledge

I only need to be careful about body mechanics when I'm lifting something that's heavy or awkward.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Regardless of the weight of an object, careful lifting is important. You can injure your back simply by turning the wrong way while lifting a light object.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Regardless of the weight of an object, careful lifting is important. You can injure your back simply by turning the wrong way while lifting a light object.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Back injury is best avoided at all costs. After the first time you have injured your back, it becomes more vulnerable to future injury. A back injury can alter your entire quality of life and possibly your livelihood, especially if it returns or becomes chronic.

Poor lifting technique can injure your back in various ways:

  • Muscle or ligament strain—or tiny tears in the muscle or ligament—commonly results from a combination of poor body mechanics and too much of a burden on your back muscles.
  • Spinal disc injury is often caused by forward bending of the spine and poor lifting technique. A spinal disc that is squeezed by the vertebrae above and below it can bulge or break open (herniated disc), causing back and leg pain and numbness (sciatica) and occasionally bowel and bladder problems.
  • Vertebrae can become damaged during awkward lifting.

Test Your Knowledge

Poor lifting technique can cause an injury to the muscle, spinal discs, or bone.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    The back is a complex system of bone and connective tissue, any or all of which can be injured by poor lifting practices.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    The back is a complex system of bone and connective tissue, any or all of which can be injured by poor lifting practices.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Follow these basic rules to protect your back while lifting:

  • Keep a wide base of support. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, with one foot slightly ahead of the other (karate stance).
  • Squat down, bending at the hips and knees only. If necessary, put one knee to the floor and your other knee in front of you, bent at a right angle (half kneeling).
  • Maintain good posture. Look straight ahead, and keep your back straight, your chest out, and your shoulders back. This helps keep your upper back straight while maintaining a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Slowly lift by straightening your hips and knees (not your back). Keep your back straight, and don't twist as you lift.
  • Hold the load as close to your body as possible, at the level of your belly button.
  • Use your feet to change direction, taking small steps.
  • Lead with your hips as you change direction. Keep your shoulders in line with your hips as you move.
  • Set down your load carefully, squatting with the knees and hips only.

See a picture of proper lifting technique.

Test Your Knowledge

Safe lifting is intuitive—we do it without thinking about it.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    People tend to lean over and lift with their backs. However easy it may be to do, this can lead to injury. Take time for conscious thought to stop, plan, and lift safely.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    People tend to lean over and lift with their backs. However easy it may be to do, this can lead to injury. Take time for conscious thought to stop, plan, and lift safely.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

If you need information specific to your daily activities, you can consult with:

You can find more information in the following topics:

Low Back Pain
Herniated Disc
Office Ergonomics

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Last Updated: February 3, 2010

Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH

Medical Review: William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine & Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics

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