Carers and back problems

Most of us are likely to experience lower back pain at some time of our lives. But if you are caring for a family member or friend with a disability or chronic illness, you are more likely to be at risk of injury.

While caring can bring many positive rewards, research has shown that it can also have a negative impact on the carer’s physical health. Back injury is one of the common effects of caring. Caring might include manual handling tasks such as helping the person you care for to get in and out of their bed or onto a wheelchair, helping them to sit on the toilet, with showering and dressing, or with standing and walking. When these tasks require lifting, carrying, lowering, pushing, pulling, twisting, reaching and repetitive movements, it can lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as sprains and strains, spinal disc problems, tendonitis and osteoarthritis. You may not be able to avoid manual handling tasks but there are strategies to help you avoid an injury.

Training 

The best way to learn about the safest way to lift and move someone is to have someone show you how. Talk to your GP about your needs and concerns. You may be able to get a referral for an Occupational Therapist (OT) to visit you at home to show you how to lift and/or use any special equipment. An OT can also advise on special home modifications such as handrails and wheelchair ramps which can make manual handling tasks safer. There are also a number of resources available including: Back to Basics: handy hints for carers to help prevent back injuries. This useful booklet is produced by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and is available for free download from the Department of Veterans' Affairs

Staying fit 

Staying fit and healthy is one of the best ways to prevent back injury. Regular exercise improves resilience, strength and flexibility. It also enhances health and wellbeing by promoting better sleep, reducing stress and increasing your energy and alertness. Walking and swimming are easy and safe exercises, but any activity that gets your heart pumping and your body moving can be beneficial. You may enjoy gardening, bushwalking, tai chi or dancing. Yoga and pilates are excellent exercises for strengthening your back. Try and fit 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week, and make sure you talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.

Quick tips

Here are some tips on better ways to lift to avoid back injury:

• Make use of any equipment that is available (hoists, slide sheets, transfer slings, etc);

• Plan the transfer and make sure there that there is adequate light, there are no obstacles in the way, and floors and pathways are even and dry;

• Tell the person you care for what you plan to do and talk about how they can help;

• Tighten your stomach muscles to provide extra support for your spine;

• Always bend your knees and never bend your back. Use your legs to do the work;

• Lift with the person close to your body;

• Maintain your posture and positioning throughout;

• Don’t rush. Keep movements slow and steady. Keep breathing;

• If it feels uncomfortable, stop.