The Holidays Can Be Hazardous to Your Back

The holiday season can be hazardous to your health – and we’re not just talking about the thousands of extra calories typically consumed at family dinners, work parties and cocktail hours. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 250 injuries are reported daily during the holiday season (November and December). Falls (34%) and back strains (10%) are among the most frequently reported holiday decoration incidents seen in emergency departments. But back injuries also can be caused by carrying heavy purchases, lugging around suitcases, even horsing around with your children. And, holiday stress can aggravate existing back pain issues.

Developing and implementing good safety measures during the holiday season can ensure that you start the new year pain-free, and with a solid foundation to build upon in the future.

Learn to lift
Any type of undue movement that puts excessive stress on your back can strain muscles or damage the intervertebral discs of the spine, which can lead to pressure on the nerves and back pain. Remember to keep your back straight or in a natural curve, bend your knees, old objects close to your body and avoid twisting. Here are standard lifting methods to review:

  • Straight-leg lift. Only use this lift when absolutely necessary, such as removing packages or luggage from a car trunk. Lifts over obstacles prevent you from bending your knees, and puts you at increased risk for muscle strain. Stand as close to the object as possible with knees slightly bend. Do not bend at your waist. Instead, push your buttocks out. If the obstacle preventing you from bending your knees is stable, lean your legs against it for support. Use your legs and hips to lower yourself down to the object and grasp it firmly. Looking forward, lift upwards by extending your legs with your back straight, while keeping your rear out. Breathe out as you lift.
  • Knee lift. When lifting an object from the floor, stand as close to it as possible. Then kneel, resting one knee on the floor. Tighten your core  (the muscles in your abdomen, back and pelvis) and lift the object between your legs. Maintain the natural curve in your lower back, and don’t hold your breath. Rest the object on your knee as you prepare to stand. As you stand, maintain the natural curve in your lower back and keep your core tight. Then, use your leg muscles – not your back – to lift the object.
  • Squat lift. Stand as close to the object as possible, with your feet parallel to one or with one slightly in front of the other. Squat over the object so that it is between your knees. As you stand, be careful to hold the object close to your body. Maintain the natural curve in your lower back, and keep your core muscles tight. Then use your leg muscles to lift the object.
  • Overhead lift. Overhead lifts, such as storing the artificial Christmas tree in an attic, puts you at increased risk of muscle strain, and it’s important to maintain balance while doing this. Start with the object close to your body. Keep your feet shoulder width apart, one foot slightly ahead of the other. Look forward, and raise the object to shelf height using your arm and shoulder muscles. As you reach the shelf, slowly shift your weight from your back foot to your forward foot, while keeping your back straight. When the load reaches the edge of the shelf, push it on to the shelf.

Strengthen your core
No more crunches.  Your abdominals are part of core muscles that are meant to stabilize your body and keep your spine straight.  Crunches involve the exact opposite movement, whereby your flex your spine and “crunch” at your back’s weakest point.  This puts more strain on your lower back and your posture suffers.  Instead, scientists now believe that we should be doing plank type movements to strengthen the core.  To do a plank, go into a push-up position resting on your forearms.  Squeeze glutes.  Tighten core and hold, working up to 60 seconds. Repeat the plank exercise 3-5 times.

Practice Safe Packing
When shopping, don’t load everything up in one bag and lug it around. You want to distribute the weight on your body. Put heavier items on the bottom and lighter items on top. If you can, make frequent trips to the car to drop off purchases. When traveling, don’t pack everything in one bag, even if doing so saves you money. Choose a light-weight bag, so that the only weight you’re carrying is the contents inside the suitcase.

Use Ladders Correctly
Though we may be inclined to stand on whatever gets the job done, doing so won’t be worth it if you wind up in pain.

  • Take the extra time to select the correct ladder for the job. That’s one that extends at least three feet over the roofline or working surface.
  • Always place your ladder on level and firm ground, and use leg levelers (available at home improvement stores) on uneven or soft ground.
  • Make sure the ladder can support both your weight and the load you are putting on it by checking the ladder’s maximum load rating.
  • Set up straight, single or extension ladders at about a 75–degree angle. To test if you have the correct angle, stand up straight with your toes touching the feet of the ladder as it leans away from you. Extend your arms in front of you. Your palms should touch the top of the rung that’s at shoulder level.
  • Center your body between the rails of the ladder at all times. If you were to have a belt on, the buckle should never be outside of the right or left rail of the ladder.
  • Do not stand on the top three rungs of a straight, single or extension ladder. Stay off of the top step and bucket shelf.

Prolonged standing – especially while carrying heavy items – can put great stress upon your back. Try to sit down and relax for a few minutes at every chance you have. If possible, try to take a shopping buddy along and share the load of your shopping bounty.

If you’re spending a lot of time at a computer over the holidays – or any time, really – remember to maintain good posture, with your neck and spine aligned, ears in line with the tops of shoulders, and shoulders in line with hips. Sitting with legs crossed puts extra pressure on your back. When using a laptop, raise the screen to eye level if possible. Take breaks every 30 minutes to stretch, roll your neck, take a walk or drink some water.

Don’t Ignore Pain
If you do experience back pain or signs of back strain, don’t wait until after the holidays to see your doctor. Medical studies have shown that one year after experiencing a new episode of back pain, 75% of people had ongoing pain and disability a year later. If not properly diagnosed and treated, back pain has an 80% chance of recurrence.


Dr. Alfred O. Bonati

View posts by Dr. Alfred O. Bonati
Dr. Alfred O. Bonati revolutionized the field of spine surgery. He developed a new set of treatments based on his work with lasers, e.g., Holmium YAG, and received FDA approval for the use of that laser for the first time on the human spine as part of his patented procedures. The Bonati Spine Procedures are highly successful and reflect over 94% patient satisfaction. More than 45,000 successful procedures have been performed at The Bonati Spine Institute since 1981. Dr. Bonati continues to lead the way in the study of laser technologies to treat cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine problems. Outside of his professional duty to look after the well-being of his patients, Dr. Bonati seeks to better the lives of the members of his community through his commitment to charitable service.
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