One of the most common reasons for staff to visit their medic for advice is lower back pain.
Usually – and fortunately – lower back pain doesn’t mean that the sufferer has a serious condition and it sorts itself out within a short period of time.
It is thought that four out of every five adults will have an episode of back pain at some time in their life and, although it doesn’t last for long, the sheer number of incidents each year creates problems for individuals and society as a whole.
Lower back pain is a leading cause of missed days at work and every year costs industries millions.
It can be very painful when the patient is bending or sitting upright. Those who have experienced lower back pain will know that it can be torture to turn over in their bed or bunk offshore and try to sit up.
An unexpected sneeze or cough can cause agony and trigger the muscles of the back to go into spasm.
If you are experiencing lower back pain while working offshore, consult your medic. He/she will firstly check for various warning signs which could indicate that there is something more serious than a simple episode of lower back pain.
If severe back pain continues or an indicator of something more serious is flagged up, your medic will contact the topside doctor for advice.
Sciatica is caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve and can result in pain travelling down the legs.
It’s not always easy to identify what has caused lower back pain and, in many instances, the cause is never fully explained.
Being unfit and overweight can lead to lower back pain as can poor posture, especially when lifting heavy objects. If your work is heavy and physical, involves constant bending or twisting, or is repetitive, then being aware of your posture and physical fitness is extremely important. Performing heavy physical tasks while overtired can also be a risk factor.
Sometimes stress can be a contributory factor as well as anxiety or depression. If your mind is elsewhere or you feel as if you don’t care what happens to you, then you are more likely to hurt your back while carrying out heavy physical work.
Stress and tension leads to muscle tension throughout the body which could result in a muscle spasm. However, as we all know, lower back pain can be the result of the most mundane actions, such as bending down to pick up a sock or from a sudden sneeze.
In the past, patients with lower back pain were advised to take to their bed and rest, but it’s now known that this is not a good treatment.
Patients are now advised to stay as active as possible and wait out the conclusion of the painful episode which may get better in a couple of days. Over the counter pain killers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can help.
Of course, it is not a good idea to try any heavy lifting or put unnecessary strain on an already painful back. You should, instead, gradually increase your activity as you start to feel better and avoid staying in one position for too long.
What can we do to try and avoid lower back pain? If you take regular exercise and keep generally fit then you are less likely to experience an episode of lower back pain.
Try to make sure that you sleep on a medium-firm rather than very firm mattress, and have a go at sleeping on your side with your legs bent at the knees.
If you are overweight then think seriously about adjusting your diet so that you relieve the strain on your back muscles caused by carrying around excess weight.
Take full advantage of any manual handling training you have received and think before you lift.
Pause to remember the lifting techniques you have been taught and put them into practice.
If you’re unsure whether you can manage to lift a load as it looks as if it will be beyond your physical strength – get help. Be aware of your personal physical abilities and limits and don’t try to overstretch them.
Experiencing lower back pain can be a miserable experience, but it doesn’t usually last long and by making a few lifestyle changes such as looking after your diet, your physical condition and learning to relax, you may well avoid being another back pain statistic.
Dr Louise Smith is a medical officer at occupational health specialist Abermed