For many of us, daily chores are literally a pain. That’s because 80 to 90 percent of people in the United States suffer from back pain at some point in their lives.
But the chores themselves aren’t to blame, says occupational therapist Michael Milicia, OT/L, a Cleveland Clinic specialist in industrial rehabilitation. It’s how we do them.
He helps patients with work-related injuries learn to perform activities without doing further damage. But changing the way we do housework can help all of us avoid pain.
“This is good information, whether you have a diagnosis or not,” says Mr. Milicia, who finds that most of his patients had back pain prior to their injury. “It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
1. Vacuuming, mopping, raking, shoveling
The Mistake: Many people experience back pain while vacuuming, mopping, raking up leaves or shoveling snow. “As they’re reaching with their arm, they’re also bending at the waist. They do this over and over again, straining the muscles of the back,” he says. Meanwhile, they turn to the side with their feet planted, rotating the trunk of their body.
The Fix: “The key is to keep your hips and shoulders moving in the direction of the work,” says Mr. Milicia, instead of twisting your back. It’s also important to avoid bending over, so he recommends stepping forward with one foot and bending slightly at the knee, allowing the upper body to stay upright in a partial lunge.
2. Doing the dishes
The Mistake: A deep sink might help you wash more dishes at once, but you can pay for that convenience with back pain. “To reach the bottom, people often stand as close as they can to the sink and sustain that bent posture as they vigorously scrub the dishes,” he says. This aggravates the discs in the spinal column and the soft tissues of the back.
The Fix: Mr. Milicia says that one trick is to open the cabinet doors underneath the sink and place one foot inside. This allows you to squat down and better reach the sink while keeping your back upright. “The bottom line is to bring the work closer to you and minimize that sustained bending of the waist,” says Mr. Milicia.
3. Doing laundry, picking up
The Mistake: When rescuing that lost sock from the bottom of the washer or the bedroom floor, leaning over can be bad news for your back. Similar to washing the dishes and sweeping, bending over again and again will strain your back muscles.
The Fix: “I encourage people to use a strategy called the ‘golfer’s reach,’” he says. When you reach for items with your right hand, balance that action by lifting your left leg up in the air. (Place your left hand on a nearby surface for extra support.) “As you reach deeper, you lift the opposite leg higher,” he adds.
Still feel a twinge?
You may be so busy checking chores off your mental “to do” list that you forget about the right way to move your body. “I would suggest using pain as a reminder to pause and say, ‘Can I reposition myself?’” says Mr. Milicia.
Changing the way you do your chores can help prevent — and also alleviate — acute back pain. But symptoms that drag on for more than a month could be a warning sign that deeper problems exist. If pain worsens or spreads, if you develop a fever or if you can’t sleep at night, call your doctor, he says.