Caregiver’s Corner: Tips to Prevent Back Pain

caregiver back pain

If you are a family caregiver, chances are good that you have to help your loved one move around – perhaps transferring from a chair to a shower bench or from a bed to a wheelchair. If that day hasn’t come, it likely will. The help you provide for your loved one to move around is one of the reasons back and shoulder injuries are so common among caregivers. Sometimes when we take care of others, we put our own health on the back burner, and that can include paying attention what your back is telling you.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Caring Sciences found that among family caregivers of stroke survivors, 82% suffered some sort of musculoskeletal issues. The lower back was the most painful spot for 72% of them, and 40% reported issues with their upper backs as well. However, only 5% of those studied had received any training on safe care methods, and only 21% of those who wound up with musculoskeletal issues received treatment for their pain.

That study suggests that while the majority of family caregivers might suffer from back injuries and other aches and pains, only a fraction of them will seek treatment for it – perhaps hoping that they can “tough it out” – and even fewer of them have the proper training to keep that pain from happening in the first place.

Let’s work on changing that for you, right now. Keep reading to learn about what it means to suffer a back injury, how to prevent one, and what to do if you do wind up in pain after assisting your loved one.

How Back Injuries Happen

One moment, you feel fine. The next moment, there is a sharp pain radiating through your back, and you have that sinking feeling that things are only going to get worse very shortly. But it’s not just a matter of sudden pain that comes from twisting or moving the wrong way when you are lifting or shifting a loved one. Sometimes, the simple stress of caregiving can be enough to boost the pain signals and make an already bad situation feel much worse.

When you are under stress, your body is tense. This is your body’s natural response to the emotional and mental issues you’re dealing with at the time. The muscles most likely to tense up are those in your back, shoulders and neck. You can usually tell you’re dealing with stress-related tension when you notice poor flexibility, tightness, muscle tension, a limited range of motion, and knots in the muscles. These might lead to anything from a sharp pain when you move to a low, dull, constant ache.

And the older you get, the more likely you are to experience problems with your back. That’s because as we age, connective tissue loses flexibility, the discs between the vertebrae lose some of their hydration, and as a result, the vertebrae get closer together. This enhances the risk of injury[1].

And then – you get injured. The muscles and ligaments in your back can be stretched too far, which leads to tiny tears in the tissues. This can lead to instability of the spine, which can lead to back pain. And because there are so many nerves in your back that stretch out to other places in your body, WebMD points out that back pain might actually be felt in other places that you know you didn’t actually injure, such as radiating into your arms and hands.

So how can you keep from getting injured?

Prevention for Back Injuries

There are a few things you can do to help prevent back injuries from occurring as you help you loved one while caregiving. This is not an exhaustive list. Though these are all great things to focus on, there might be other things that work for you. By all means, do whatever it takes to make sure you stay safe, healthy, and pain-free.

·         Stretch well. Before you begin your day with your loved one, take a least a few good minutes to stretch your body. Simple stretching exercises, like these recommended by the Mayo Clinic or Very Well Fit, can help ensure that your body is flexible, limber, and ready to take on whatever it might be asked to do.

·         Get regular exercise. Getting into a solid exercise routine will not only help with flexibility, it will also help with strength, which can then help you avoid injury. Focus on exercises that strengthen your core and back muscles. Exercise also helps to relieve stress, which leads us to the next tip…

·         Reduce stress. As we mentioned earlier, stress can make you tense, and that can make you more prone to injury. Do what you can to reduce stress, including plenty of self-care, exercise, and joining a caregiver support group.

·         Maintain proper posture. When sitting or standing, always pay attention to your posture. Keeping your spine in line and avoiding positions that make you slouch or jut your head forward can help with this. To that end, choose chairs with good back support, shoes with good arch support, and consider wearing a back brace.

·         Eat well. What does nutrition have to do with protecting your back? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Proper nutrition helps keep us strong, including strengthening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the body. If you aren’t eating the best diet, talk to your doctor about supplements that can help. And of course, get plenty of calcium to keep your bones strong.

·         Stay hydrated. Though it might seem like this has nothing to do with keeping your back healthy, it surely does – when you are dehydrated, the discs between your vertebrae shrink and that can pinch the nerves, which can lead to pain or make it easier for you to get hurt[2].

·         Learn how to lift properly. It’s vitally important to learn how to lift properly, as this can mean the difference between a happy loved one and a healthy you versus a lot of angst and pain for both of you. We’ll discuss proper lifting techniques below.

·         Know your limits. Be aware of what your physical limitations are and don’t exceed them. If you know you can’t lift your loved one, don’t try – ask for help from someone else. Tandem lifting is always better than doing it on your own. And if you are already injured, look into bringing someone in to help you while you heal.

·         Get plenty of rest. The more sleep you get, the more refreshed you will feel, and that can help you think through your movements and slow down while helping your loved one move around. That extra rest can also help alleviate some stress.

·         Take a class. Learning what to do can go a long way toward keeping you safe. Call your local health department to ask about classes for caregivers. You can also call local hospitals, which often have training programs for Certified Nursing Assistants. These programs are quite affordable and can provide you with a wealth of information to help your loved one.

·         Invest in assistive devices.  These devices, such as a back brace to help protect you or a device that assists in moving someone out of bed and into a wheelchair or other seat, can save your back and make life much easier for everyone. Make sure your loved one is using their devices properly, such as relying on their walker instead of holding onto you while they walk.

·         Use aging in place home modifications. Certain items in the home can help you ease the burden of lifting and moving. Grab bars in the bathroom, a raised toilet set, transfer seats, padded benches in the shower and bath, and many other changes in the home can make life much easier for everyone.

·         Know when to ask for help. It can be quite easy to overestimate what you can do. Rather than put yourself in a harmful situation, know when it is time to reach out for help. This could mean help only now and then, from a trusted friend or neighbor, or hiring a professional caregiver to assist you.

Peace of mind matters. It can help you feel more confident in your abilities to help your loved one, as well as give you the satisfaction of knowing that if you do suffer pain when lifting or moving them, help can be on the way quickly. Ensure your loved one is wearing a medical alert pendant at all times. It’s a good idea for you to have one too!

Proper Lifting Techniques

When you are ready to lift a loved one, getting your body into the proper position can help alleviate a great deal of potential injury. Before you begin, make sure your loved one is wearing a medical alert watch, pendant, or wristband. Having it nearby where you can both reach it is the best way to know you can get help whenever needed.

Here is the best technique for lifting:

·         Distribute your weight evenly between your two feet. Make sure they are stable and flat on the floor. Also make sure your feet are as close as possible to your loved one.

·         If you can, try to place one of your feet between the feet of the person being lifted (assuming they are sitting on the edge of a bed or chair). The other foot should be on the outside of their feet. This creates the best possible stability.

·         Face your loved one, bend at the knees a little, and squat down a bit. As you do this, hold your abdominal muscles firm and keep your back straight.

·         Be close to your loved one, but not leaning over them.

·         Wrap your arms around them in a comfortable position and begin lifting. Try to do this in a smooth motion without twisting at all. Push upward with your leg muscles. In fact, let your legs do as much of the work as possible.

Try to avoid awkward positions if you can, as this could easily lead to muscle strain. Keep your back in mind at all times.

What Happens If You Get Hurt?

Despite your best efforts, you might get hurt. Though you might immediately realize you’ve done it when a sharp pain travels through your back, sometimes it’s not as dramatic as that. Back injuries can be subtle at first and the pain can sneak up on you. Look out for back stiffness, limited movement, muscle spasms, problems with maintaining good posture, intense and radiating pain from your back, or intense tightening of the muscles.

The most important thing to do after hurting your back is to rest. Limit your daily activities, including the lifting of your loved one. Now is definitely the time to call in a professional caregiver or a trusted family member to help you for a few days. In addition to resting well, try these to find one that works for you:

·         Take an over-the-counter medication like naproxen sodium (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) if your health allows. These medications are anti-inflammatories that also treat pain. An anti-inflammatory medicine is preferred as it will ease the inflammation in your back.

·         Apply ice packs covered in cloth. Use them on the area that hurts for up to 15 minutes at a time. Always cover the ice packs, as direct skin contact with the ice for that period of time can cause even more damage.

·          Use whatever pillow support you need when sitting or lying down. Staying comfortable so you can rest and your body can heal is very important.

·         Sleep on your side with a pillow between your legs, or on your back with a pillow under your knees. Never sleep on your stomach if you are dealing with back pain, as this can make it much worse.

Rest is important, but only for a day or two. After that, you need to get moving. Easy, gentle stretching or walking in 10-minute bursts can help improve blood flow and prevent stiffness. During daily activities, avoid twisting, bending at the waist, or heavy lifting.

If the pain doesn’t go away within a few days or so, it’s time to talk to your doctor about how severe the injury really is.  If the pain is severe from the start and doesn’t let up, you’ll want to go to the doctor immediately. You’ll probably have x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI to determine where the pain is coming from and how serious the situation is. Depending up on how things go, you might wind up with physical therapy, stronger medications for pain and inflammation, or steroid injections to help with recovery.

When do you know it’s a true emergency? Healthline suggests looking out for these issues:

·         Problems with bladder or bowel control

·         Numbness in your legs (or in your arms, though this is rare)

·         Weakness in your legs

·         Spiking a fever of greater than 101.5

If the pain is sudden and severe, don’t hesitate to use the Alert1 emergency response system. This will get one of our trained professionals on the line. They will then help you by sending the assistance you need. That could mean getting a friend or family member from your Circle of Care, or calling an ambulance if you are too injured to move.

This is also a great time to consider medical alert systems with fall detection. If you suffer a severe back injury while lifting a loved one, you could both end up on the floor. That could lead to even further injury for one or both of you. If you need assistance at any time of the day or night, having a panic button alarm will make sure you get help immediately.