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Back Care Awareness Week 2020: Back Pain in Nurses

Consultant News

This year, Backcare Awareness Week is focusing on back pain in nursing, while also drawing attention to the fact that back pain is one of the most prevalent medical complaints of modern times.

The majority of the general population are likely to experience back pain at some point in their lifetime, but the incidence of back pain among nurses is far higher and more frequent – due to the highly physical nature of their work.

Vagner Miolla is a specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist at St John & St Elizabeth Hospital, and he spoke to us about why back pain can be so debilitating, why nurses are particularly susceptible, and some of the myths about how we should all be looking after our backs.

Back pain is a very common health problem. 

We know that back pain affects between 51% and 90% of people at some point in their lifetime, and it’s one of the most widespread reasons for people seeking medical care – which creates a medical and economic burden on society.

One of the important things to note are the knock-on effects of back pain, which is that it can cause a lot of fear and anxiety as well. Many people with back pain can feel quite scared of moving – especially when the pain is acute – so they become frightened of walking or moving in a normal way, which is not ideal because we know that bad backs improve with movement. So that fear component can have a real impact on the way patients recover.

Nurses are particularly susceptible to back pain. 

In fact, 70% of all nurses will have at least one episode of back pain per year – and if you compare that to the general population having a 51% to 90% chance of one episode in their entire life, you can see that being a nurse is actually a contributing factor to spinal pain.

Once someone has their first episode of back pain, it’s highly likely that they will have problems in the future as well – and that’s true of anyone who starts experiencing back pain.

The work involved in nursing is a factor in causing back pain.

Being a nurse involves both lifting and non-lifting tasks that can take a toll on the back. There is a non-lifting policy here, but there are still unavoidable things the nurses need to do that involve a degree of lifting – for example cleaning and making the beds among many other tasks: it’s a combination of factors.

Being on their feet all day is not necessarily a problem for a person who is quite healthy, but for others it might put a lot of strain in the back if they have a relatively sedentary lifestyle during their downtime and then come into work and have a very active 12-hour shift.

There are all types of jobs that are susceptible to back pain. If you have a job where you’re sitting for a long period of time every day, that can cause back pain as well. One of the myths that I often have to dispel is about posture and that they should always be sitting up straight – there’s no research to support this. The problem arises if you’re sitting for 8 hours a day in front of the computer without moving, without changing your position and without taking breaks regardless of your posture.

Nurses – and anyone with back pain – should seek help when they need it. 

Apart from exercising and staying healthy, one of the best things nurses – or anyone – can do when they have pain is seek the help that they need. For nurses, that might involve going to their line manager and informing them of the issue and what might be causing it. If it’s related to an activity that they perform frequently throughout the day, then it’s worth talking to one of the inpatient physiotherapists here for advice, so they figure out which kinds of equipment they should or shouldn’t be using for the tasks that they carry out.

The nurses at St John & St Elizabeth Hospital always have the option to come straight to us. We are a very big, friendly team with specialists in musculoskeletal-based physiotherapy and lower back pain. We can always provide good advice to our nurses!

One issue that comes up often is what posture to use when lifting.

When it comes to lifting, there is a strong belief that you should bend with a straight back, but there is no research to support this – you can actually move in different ways without hurting your back.

One problem that arises when you have back pain is that some people guard against moving their back and holding the muscles around that area even more tightly. The fact that you are straining so much to hold your back straight and tightening your muscles can actually hinder rather than help, and end up causing even more pain.

There are two treatment pathways for back pain.

People with back pain can come straight to our outpatient physio unit and we have a one hour appointment where we try to address all the factors that might be causing back pain – we would be looking at the way people move, a few things that might be happening in their life at the moment, and trying to make a plan for their treatment.

If they’re going the medical route, obviously there is an established pathway in going to see a doctor, getting a scan and discussing with the doctor if they need medication, injections or another type of treatment.

Are you worried about your back health and looking for a consultation?

To learn more about our Physiotherapy Unit click here or to book an appointment call 020 7806 4010 or email