Is Back and Neck Pain a ‘Lottery’?

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Are we able to predict those who are likely to have back and neck pain?

Spinal pain is the second largest cause of absence from work. It is also the largest cause of loss of productivity in the workplace (Borenstein, 2004)

Several risk factors which may predispose an individual to develop neck and back pain have been identified. This suggests that we may be able to predict those who are more at risk of developing them in the future.

Research shows that a proactive approach reduces the development of more serious pain (Laestadius et al, 2009).  It, therefore, makes sense to manage back and neck pain prior to the development of major problems.

What Are The Key Risk Factors?

There are a number of general risk factors that are relevant to most office-based workers:

  •         People aged between 35 and 55
  •         Working in jobs primarily involving sitting
  •         Increased levels of stress (Borenstein, 2004)

Unfortunately, these general factors are often beyond the control of most individuals.

In addition to the above factors, there are also 3 key factors of great importance which we can positively influence.  This will significantly reduce the risk of more serious pain developing in the future.

  • Posture
  • Range of Movement (ROM)
  • Stability

1. Posture

Poor postures cause uneven loading on the joints, muscles and ligaments.  With excessive load, these structures will eventually generate pain.  This process accelerates the ‘wear and tear’ of spinal joints.

  • In the neck, it has been shown that with an increased head forward position there is a greater loss of function (Ho et al, 2008).
  • In the lower back, the loss of the natural curve (lordosis) increases the risk of pain (Adams et al, 1999).

How Can Physiotherapists Help?

Physiotherapists can provide the individual with postural advice and advise on how best to modify the work environment to reduce work-related pain and symptoms.  Below is a real-life example of how sitting ergonomics have been altered.

back and neck pain
Poor Ergonomics
back and neck pain
Better Ergonomics

Even if we correct the work ergonomics, the individual may still not be able to maintain a good sitting position. This is so if they are not flexible or have the correct muscular control to sustain these positions. This is discussed below in greater detail.

2. Range of Movement (ROM)

Loss of ROM may be due to stiffness in the joints or tight muscles, which changes the mechanics at the joints.  If this continues it will reduce the suppleness and function of the back and neck significantly and will eventually produce pain.

  • Reduced side-bending and rotational movements have been found to cause the most significant problems in the neck (Szeto et al, 2005).
  • In the lower back, the loss of the side-bending movement alone led to most problems (Adams et al, 1999).

How Can Physiotherapists Help?

Physiotherapists can carry hands-on assessments to evaluate the joint mobility, range and muscle stiffness.  From these tests, the therapist can promote the full range and reduce stiffness via manual techniques and exercise therapy to restore the joint and muscle function.

3. Stability

Studies have shown that people with neck and back pain have significantly weaker ‘core’ muscles (Rasouli et al, 2011).  The core muscles are responsible for maintaining safe neutral spine positions. If they are weak, or not correctly functioning, spinal stability is reduced. There is also an increase in pressure on the neck and back (Reeve, 2011).

Common signs of reduced stability are muscle spasm, lack of control during movements, and reduced endurance when trying to maintain upright sitting and standing postures.

How Can Physiotherapists Help?

The effectiveness of the patient’s neck and back stability muscles can be established by conducting a number of tests.  The patient will ave to complete certain core stability exercises if a problem is identified. This is usually over a period of 4 to 12 weeks to regain strength and endurance.

In Conclusion

It is important to maintain a healthy back and neck to prevent more serious problems developing in the future. If you also suspect that you have reduced back and neck ROM, poor work ergonomics, or problems with stability, it is important to see a physiotherapist for detailed assessment, advice and treatment as required.

Experiencing back pain or neck pain? Click here to find out more about physiotherapy for back or neck pain relief and how Core Concepts can help