Jessica from always writes the greatest articles to educate us on how to live healthier lives as nurses. See if there are any other tricks you can share with us to help prevent back injuries!

Tips for Preventing Back Sprain on the Job

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Almost wholly unique to nursing is the mental and physical demands placed on an employee in the field. From managing patient care to providing emotional support to family members to then also being asked to lift and transfer patients by yourself . . . it’s a wonder any nurses last an entire career. 

The physical obligations, however, tend to come to a head the fastest, often leading to painful back, neck, or shoulder injury. Physical duties most frequently come in the form of patient handling. Manual patient handling activities include:

  • Lifting

  • Transferring

  • Repositioning

  • Rolling and adjusting patients

While forceful and exerting lifting movements most often result in acute low back pain, it is the repeated and prolonged performance of those activities over many years in a nursing career which lead to chronic and painful musculoskeletal disorders. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) reports that the incidence rate of musculoskeletal disorders among nurses is 7 times the average for all other industries, including stock handling and construction.

It’s not just nurses in hospitals that bear the brunt of these incidences either. If you think about it, patient handling happens in almost all instances of health care from skilled nursing to outpatient surgery, home health, radiology, physical therapy, you name it. Over 37,000 nursing assistants lost work days in 2015 due to back injury sustained on the job according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

An interesting correlation in the rise in rates of obesity and the field of nursing reveals that nurses are being asked to complete difficult and dangerous handling and lifting tasks for a patient population which has only gotten substantially heavier over the decades. The problem is that if a patient needs to be repositioned or moved, to dress a bedsore for example, a nurse has no other choice but to move them herself to complete their care. In the case of a growing number of obese patients weighing over 250 and 300 pounds, even one of their legs might be 50 or 60 pounds alone.

What exacerbates already tough lifting and moving activities especially is when a patient has fallen to the floor. In these instances, nurses and other members of the care team must work together to assess a patient for injury and then work a plan to safely get them off the floor and back into bed. A revealing 2015 report found that not only are nursing staff injuring themselves at alarming rates, but that their employers, in this case hospitals, were doing little to address and rectify the problem. Since then, new policy and technological development have emerged to address the issue and update workplace standards regarding injury prevention.

If you are a nurse looking to remain in the healthcare industry for decades to come, preventing injury should be high on your to-do list. Don’t miss these helpful tips and best practices:

Use Transfer Devices

Innovations in assistive technology is paving the way for better, safer, and faster transfer devices which help nurses and caregivers move patients without overly exerting themselves. Patient transfer devices include:

  • Hoyer lifts

  • Motorized ceiling lifts

  • Gait and lifting belts

  • Sliding/roll boards

  • Transport wheelchairs

  • Motorized lateral transfer device

Some patient transfer technology involves rolling the patient onto a sling, sheet, or soft board where in a nurse may crank a hydraulic lift, or with the assistance of another person, pull a patient towards them onto another gurney, exam table, etc. Other transfer devices are full motorized and work as hinged arms and levies operating from the ceiling or as their own free-standing devices.

Specialized machinery and lifting apparatuses have been shown in some healthcare settings to help reduce incidence rates of back injury among nurses by up to 80%. Mitigating ergonomic hazards with transfer devices also helps to prevent patient injury and uncomfortability which may come with being manually transferred by other people.

Ask for Help

Assistance from a second person (or even more than one other person) when a transfer device is not accessible is always your best option for safely moving or adjusting a patient. This might mean asking another nurse, aide, or caregiver to assist you, and perhaps even waiting a few minutes for them. While asking for help might seem like a short-term annoyance when you know you can easily move the patient yourself, in the grand scheme of things, it’s your best bet for avoiding long-term damage to your back.

Practice Healthy Body Mechanics

Utilizing proper lifting techniques might mean the difference between a successful patient transfer and one which leaves you clutching your back in pain. Supporting the spine’s natural curvature means maintaining a neutral back position and avoiding bending, stooping, twisting the back, or other awkward body positions. Instead, nurses should always try to lift with their legs, even if it means squatting to align the patient with their waist prior to lifting. 

The truth of the matter is, however, that there are no specific body mechanics that can prevent injury 100% for a nurse who is manually lifting a person. Moving human beings simply isn’t the same as moving a heavy box for example. Not only is weight disbursement subject to the support, mobility, and weight of a patient, but healthcare settings are commonly cluttered with other equipment (like critical care monitors and IV pumps) which limit the range of body positions a nurse can achieve when handling patients. It is up to the employer/healthcare facility to provide intensive training to nurses and aides on the proper form and lifting techniques as well as technology which will help prevent injury.

Exercise Regularly

Staying fit can play an important role in preventing back strain and injury. Regular exercise which helps you both maintain a healthy weight as well as strengthen leg, back and core muscles can enhance your ability to lift and move patients successfully without injuring yourself. Light weight-lifting, yoga practice, swimming, dancing, cycling, Pilates, rowing, even hiking are all effective low-impact activities which can bolster a nurse’s strength and flexibility.

Address Existing Pain

In addition to low back pain, neck and shoulder pain often plague nurses and nursing aids. Addressing existing pain by treating it daily with ice and heat therapy, massage, stretching, and even muscle relief creams can help you keep an eye on it and prevent it from getting worse before you see a doctor for a more comprehensive diagnosis. Using an ice pack for shoulder pain, for example, followed by a heating pad and stretching exercise might help loosen the joint and boost blood circulation to relieve inflammation and swelling.

Wear Proper Footwear

They don’t call them orthopedic shoes for nothing! Because nurses spend much of their day on their feet, either standing or walking, the support they receive from a good pair of shoes is critical. Shoes which don’t properly support your arch and which negatively alter your gait and pronation can place undue stress on the hip and back muscles. Added strain on vulnerable connective tissues in the lumbar spine region (lower back) can lead to inflammation, stiffness, and pain.

Author Biography

Jessica Hegg is the content manager at  Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle. Through her writing she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.

AuthorCourtney Tracy