How staying at home can lead to back pain

Stack of granite blocks

For too long, Jeannie Reed had stared at the stack of granite blocks in the far corner of her backyard, thinking someday, we’ll build a patio. Someday finally arrived a few months ago.

I just got tired of looking at them and decided I’m gonna tackle this myself. I was dealing with 12 by 12 pieces that are about three inches thick and some18 by 12 pieces that are also about three inches thick. The 12 by 12 pieces are probably about 25 pounds and the others are close to 50. I didn’t have access to any machinery to help move these pieces so I was using a dolly to transport them from one side of our yard to the other and then stacking them all. I probably moved, I’m going to guess close to a ton of granite.

Jeannie Reed

And after she had moved all those granite blocks Jeannie had to dig out the area where the patio was going to go. She thought doing it one row at a time was a good approach, only she didn’t realize how physically demanding the job would be.

It was about two and a half weeks of labor that was not what I’m typically doing. I was using muscles that I don’t use to that extent in any way, shape, or form in my regular life. And one day I was in a squatted position and I reached across my body and pulled a 50-pound block. And when I did, I felt my hip and my low back kind of torque and have been in pain for a couple of weeks since.

Jeannie

Jason Adour physical therapist

Fortunately, Jeannie has a trusted resource she could turn to for advice. Her son-in-law is Jason Adour, a physical therapist who owns Maine Strong Balance Center in Scarborough, Maine.

He evaluated her range of motion and how her body responded to a series of movements and gave her some exercises and stretches to do.

Jason says Jeannie’s situation is pretty common but since people have been staying at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been seeing even more patients with back pain, especially in their lower back.

He’s come up with some possible explanations:

  • Less usual activity — the result is less movement throughout the day for some, which can be a set up for injury as our bodies are less ready to move!
  • More novel activity — getting into new projects around the house as an example.
  • Separation from exercise routines: exercise is generally a good defense for injuries. Bodies that are strong, flexible, and balanced are more resilient, and many of us have been less able to participate in our regular routines with limited access to gyms, exercise classes, etc.

He’s got some go-to exercises for people like Jeannie but before we get to them, Jason also has some helpful reminders about how not to hurt your back in the first place.

At the top of the list:

IF IT HURTS, DON’T DO IT!

I put that in all caps because a lot of people (I’ve been guilty myself) will just plow through any pain so they can get whatever the task is done. And then, they’ll suffer the consequences.

Two other bits of advice are:

Be mindful of how you are moving your body

If you’re moving anything heavy, the forces are exponentially higher if you’re carrying it away from your body. For example, in the yard, it’s tempting to hold things away from your body so you don’t get your clothes dirty, but your back is going to be stressed a whole lot more than if the load is right against your body. Remembering to lift with your legs is also important. So if you’re lifting something up off the ground, be mindful about bending your knees. There’s also a muscle that goes around your midsection called the transverse abdominis. It’s almost like a built-in back brace. Suck in your belly button and also bring it up — we call it pelvic tilt — to engage that muscle, then bend your knees. Together, they will help support your back muscles.

Jason Adour, PT, DPT

Avoid repetitive movements

To use building a granite patio as an example, maybe vary the way you carry the stones. The body has a lot of trouble with overuse and repeating the same pattern over and over again. If you can mix that up the body does better with variety. So a smart thing might be if you’re noticing that your back’s feeling tired or sore, take a timeout and think about your mechanics. Then try to switch it — if you’re lifting more with your back, think about bending your legs, for instance.

Jason Adour, PT, DPT

There are a number of things that can cause back pain, but most of the time it’s nothing serious, and extensive treatment isn’t necessary. In those cases, Jason has a couple of favorite exercises that he demonstrates in this video. When you watch, see if you notice anything different about his appearance compared to the picture above.

Jeannie has been following Jason’s advice and doing her exercises. Slowly but surely, she’s feeling better. As for her patio, she managed to get enough built to accommodate two comfortable Adirondack chairs. What more could anyone want?

Granite patio

Will she ever finish her project? Not this summer. Maybe she’ll have someone else tackle it for her next year. Her only goal right now is to do her exercises and give her back some much-needed rest. You paid a price, Jeannie, but you do have a nice little patio. And that view of the water is spectacular.

Jeannie Reed on her patio

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.