For some people, daily chores are a pain — literally. Up to 90 percent of people in the United States suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, and routine activities such as chores often cause flare-ups.
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But the chores themselves aren’t to blame, says occupational therapist Michael Milicia, OT/L. It’s how you do them. Below, he offers tips to help you do your household scrubbing and yard work without triggering pain.
1. Using a vacuum, mop, rake or shovel
The mistake: Many people experience back pain while using a vacuum, mopping, raking leaves or shoveling snow. Reaching with your arms while also bending at the waist over and over again can strain the muscles of the back. So can turning to the side with your feet planted and rotating the trunk of your body as you work.
The fix: “The key is to keep your hips and shoulders moving toward the work,” says Mr. Milicia, instead of twisting your back. It’s also important to avoid bending at the waist while doing these activities. Instead, step forward with one foot and bend slightly at the knee, allowing your upper body to stay upright in a partial lunge. Doing so will reduce strain.
Don’t let yourself get so busy checking chores off your to-do list that you forget the proper way to move your body.
2. Doing the dishes
The mistake: Having 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 too often stand as close as they can to the sink and sustain a bent posture while vigorously scrubbing the dishes. This aggravates the discs in the spinal column and the soft tissues of the back.
The fix: Mr. Milicia offers a trick most people would not think about: 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,” he says.
3. Doing laundry and picking up items
The mistake: When rescuing that lost sock from the bottom of the washer or the bedroom floor, leaning over can trigger back pain. Similar to washing the dishes and sweeping, bending at the waist repeatedly will strain your back muscles.
The fix: Mr. Milicia recommends using a strategy known as the “golfer’s reach,” called so because it is similar to how golfers pick up a ball. When you reach for items with your right hand, balance yourself by lifting your left leg up in the air. If you need extra support, place your left hand on a nearby surface. If you’re reaching with your left hand, reverse the directions. The deeper you reach with your arm, the higher the opposite leg should go so that you keep your balance while simultaneously reducing the amount of strain on your back muscles.
Don’t let yourself get so busy checking chores off your to-do list that you forget the proper way to move your body. “I would suggest using pain as a reminder to pause and say, ‘Can I reposition myself?’” says Mr. Milicia. And if symptoms drag on for more than a month or get worse, seek medical help. They could be warning signs of deeper problems.