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Excess Weight May Contribute to Holiday Back Injuries


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 50,000 people each year sustain a winter- or holiday-related back injury. While many of these are related to heavy lifting, shoveling snow or falls during holiday decorating, neurosurgeon and spine specialist William J. Sonstein believes that some holiday back injuries are exacerbated by excess weight.

Excess Abdominal Weight Leads to Low Back Pain and Osteoarthritis

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 80% of the population will develop a back problem at some point in their lives. Factors that increase the risk include getting older, having a job that requires lifting, pushing or pulling, having poor posture, smoking, and being out of shape or overweight.

In particular, obese and overweight patients are more likely to experience low back problems than those at a healthy weight. This is especially true for those with excess weight in the abdomen because it pulls the pelvis forward and strains the lower back. Excess weight not only increases the likelihood of back injury, but can also aggravate an existing injury and make it more difficult to recover.

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The holiday season increases the risk of back pain because of holiday shopping while carrying heavy bags, hanging indoor and outdoor decorations (which sends 5,800 Americans to the emergency room each year), prolonged standing (ie: cooking/baking), and holiday traveling. Excess emotional stress also can contribute to back pain.

In addition, the winter months increase the risk of falls due to ice and bending and twisting while shoveling snow can aggravate the lower back discs leading to painful injury, particularly if the person is not well physically conditioned.

Read: Avoid Injury While Shoveling Snow

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Dr. Sonstein, of Neurological Surgery PC in New York City, the NIH, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offer the following tips to keep your back safe this winter holiday season:

• Use safety when decorating your home by taking your time, minding your posture and watching your step as you bend, stoop and stretch. Do not lift heavy boxes alone and always use a sturdy stool or ladder for reaching high places.

• When shopping, make several trips back to the car with packages to avoid stress and fatigue. Distribute the weight of the shopping bags evenly and it may help to shop during the off-peak hours to avoid standing in long lines.

• Minimize or avoid travel-related pain by not overpacking (take 2 smaller bags instead of one big suitcase, for example), using care when lifting luggage, wearing comfortable shoes when walking long distances, and giving yourself enough time to avoid rushing which can lead to stress and strain on the back.

• At home, if you spend a lot of time with cooking or baking holiday meals and treats, be sure to use a work surface at a high enough level to avoid hunching over. Stand on a cushioned mat or non-slip rug to avoid muscle fatigue and back ache. When removing heavy pans from the oven, lift from the knees, not the waist.

• If you live in an area that receives heavy snowfall, try to prepare yourself for the activity by doing some stretches first. Shovel straight ahead and avoid sudden twisting and turning motions. Bend your knees to lift and let the muscles of your legs and arms do the work instead of your back. Walk the snow to where you want to put it, don’t throw it.

Prevention is also key. Prepare for winter activities ahead of time by maintaining a regular exercise program that includes both cardiovascular activity and flexibility training, and keep your back and core muscles strong. Maintain a healthy weight, or take steps to lose weight if you have excess. And do not forget to eat right, including consuming nutrients that are healthy for your bones, such as calcium and vitamin D.

Should you suffer back pain, if it is acute (which starts quickly and lasts less than 6 weeks), pain relievers or hot or cold packs can help until the area heals. However, if pain lasts longer than 3 months, is severe and doesn’t improve with rest, or is accompanied by numbness, tingling, or difficulty urinating, it is time to see the doctor.