Most employees would rather pour lemon juice on their paper cuts than attend another occupational health and safety briefing. They complain that manual handling workshops are obvious and boring. People also seem to think a serious lifting injury won’t happen to them, despite the home providing just as many threats as the workplace. The stories in my own thriving practice are a sad testament to the fact that most people couldn’t be more wrong.
Certainly, those individuals who lift heavy weights on a regular basis are at risk of injuries, but I’ve also learned that the complacency of everyone else is what causes the greater incidence of similar problems.
Our practice is filled with mums, executives, school teachers, dog washers, children and secretaries who all thought they were somehow exempt from having to learn safe lifting techniques. None of them thought manual labour was a big part of their daily routine and, as a result, they have suffered injuries and setbacks that could have easily been avoided.
To journey through life with optimal health, you need to recognise the myriad of lifting risks in the rhythm of your day and commit to some sensible strategies that will ultimately keep you safe. I don’t want to tell you not to lift as that would be impractical. I’d rather teach you how to do it well.
Whilst you might not be able to avoid lifting in every circumstance, you can follow some basic guidelines for doing it safely. I know you’ve probably heard it all before, but I am convinced not enough people practise what they know. New research that discourages the traditional “straight back/bent knee” lifting technique also needs to be highlighted. Whilst I promise to be brief, please pay special attention to the following essential components of safe lifting.
Keep your feet approximately shoulder distance apart. You’ll have better balance if you extend one foot slightly in front of the other and point your feet in the direction you are moving.
Use your stronger, anti-gravity muscles (mostly buttocks, thighs and calves), not your weaker back muscles, to bear most of the load.
Having a good hold on your load reduces the chance that you will have to juggle, shift, or catch a slipping weight. Holding wriggling children or agitated pets can be particularly difficult and increases the risk of injury.
Just like a seesaw, the load is magnified as it gets farther away from your centre of gravity. The leverage required to maintain the lift, when the load is at a distance, creates an exponential strain on your back muscles.
The awkward ‘corkscrew’ motion of twisting your body, shoulders, arms, knees, or ankles — combined with the weight of the load — is a known combination of movement that typically creates torsional tears in your musculoskeletal tissues (especially lumbar discs).
Aligning your posture and spinal position before you lift is excellent preparation for a safe maneuver. It also helps prime the proprioceptive and neuromuscular systems to be on high alert to maintain control of the neutral position as much as possible. Avoid extreme forward flexion at the start of the lift, and allow for a moderate range of motion through the spine, hip and knees throughout the movement. A semi-squat position may well be a more comfortable and effective position to lift through, rather than the traditional ‘straight back’ so many have previously been taught, as it lessens the load through the knees and ankles, and allows greater force to be produced through the hamstrings. It also helps you to keep your feet flat on the ground throughout the lift for more stability.
Just prior to, and throughout, the lift concentrate on activating the core stabilising muscles in the lower back, abdomen, pelvic floor, inner knee and neck/shoulder regions.
The risk with this article is that I repeat worn-out truths you have heard before, and so fail to gain your attention. For this reason, I’ve been brief. However, sometimes familiarity with information can belie its relevance and importance. I need these simple strategies to penetrate past your superficial acknowledgement – and confront you to literally move differently. As much as I love to meet my readers, I’d rather it not be because you have ignored the basic lifestyle principles of safe manual handling. The temptation to hurry, lift and hope you ‘get away with it’ is a daily threat. Slow down just a little. Think of the consequences before you act. And lift safely.
Jason T Smith is an award-winning physiotherapist who founded the Back In Motion Health Group – Australia and New Zealand’s largest allied health network. He is the author of international bestseller Get Yourself Back In Motion – a physiotherapists secrets to pain relief and optimal health. He is also the Chair of the SOS Health Foundation, improving the health of disadvantaged indigenous communities around Australia.