How to prevent back injuries
by Alyssa A. Lappen
Forbes | Feb. 24, 1986
Vol. 137, No. 4, pp. 102-103
In 1981 Roger Daneault, a 32-year-old Mississippi electrician, bent over to pick up a 50-pound motor on an offshore drilling rig. His life has not been the same since.
Four years and at least $90,000 later, Daneault it still paying the price of backache caused by improper lifting–in his case, a ruptured spinal disk that eventually required corrective surgery and months of therapy before he was able to return to work.
Backache, one of the least understood of physical afflictions, is business’ silent crippler, costing an estimated $56 billion annually in insurance, treatment, lost production and employee retraining. Until now, nostrums have included everything from pain pills, bed rest and surgery to chiropractic spinal adjustment, acupuncture and even psychotherapy. Yet a growing number of physical therapists nationwide are at last beginning to attack the problem from the prevention angle, beforehand, with the so-called extension technique.
Says David Apts, who cofounded the American Back School in Ashland, Ky. in 1981 and is a proselytizer of extension techniques: “The feeling in the medical community is that you can only treat backs when you have someone in acute pain. But I got sick of seeing all these people maimed with back pain. Why couldn’t we take an industry with serious back problems and prevent them?”
The approach is catching on. Safety directors at a lengthy list of companies, including IBM, Owens-Corning, Westmoreland Coal, CSX, Dow Chemical, Schlumberger, United Parcel Service, Data General, Lockheed and Coors, are now providing extension-technique training to employees to prevent backache.
What is extension technique? In contrast to conventional treatments such as “flexion” exercises, which emphasize a combination of pelvic tilts and knee-to-chest routines to flatten and strengthen the back, extension technique involves a method of sitting, standing and lifting that capitalizes on the spine’s three natural curves. This lets the back extension muscles, in concert with the backbone, bear the stress of weight loads, which can exceed 1,000 pounds per square inch of disk when a person lifts even 70 pounds.
Known also as the McKenzie technique, for Robin McKenzie, the New Zealander who introduced it to the U.S. in the mid-1970s, extension technique is designed to preserve normal lordosis, and inward curve in the low back. “Most people have lost the curve through faulty sitting, watching TV five hours at a stretch, and driving,” says therapist Peter Mayock, who instructs workers on the technique at Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Merrimack, N.H.
One useful technique recommended by Mayock: When sitting, place a rolled towel behind you to support the natural curve at the base of the spine. To stretch the abdominal muscles and the spine’s long front ligament, necessary for normal lordosis, Mayock also recommends a kind of semi-push-up that bows the low back in. For lifting, Mayock prefers the style that lets an Olympic weight lifter heave 300 pounds and lift it over the head by, in essense, locking the back into its naturally curved position instead of squat-lifting with a flat back and the legs bearing the load.
Extension technique is already showing real success in reducing injury on the job. After 350 “high-risk” workers at Public Service of New Hampshire completed Mayock’s two-hour course in late 1983, the number of back injuries dropped 60%.
Texas Instruments’ data systems group in Austin cut the number of back injuries there by 60% after 2,000 employees took Gilbert Gimbel’s Las Cruces, N.M.-based Save-A-Back extension back care course. After 183 workers at Austin Power & Light took Gimbel’s class, the number of lost-time back injuries fell by two-thirds. Inco’s Huntington Alloys in Huntington, W.Va. cut compensation costs 21% after Apts trained nearly 1,600 of its workers.
Treating backache is, of course, complex, and extension technique, although used for treatment, is by itself hardly a cure-all once a person does damage to his spine. But as a way to prevent damage from occurring in the first place, the technique has much to commend it. Compared with the cost of injuries, the $10 to $30 per head that therapist-instructors charge for prevention is small. Mississippi Power safety director Mikel Gusa says back injuries fell from 12 a year to zero after 1,200 employees took a back class there.
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