Avoid Back Injury by lifting properly

By Sally Ann Quirke, Chartered Physiotherapist | Filed under: Lifting Technique


Back Pain Lifting technique
Do you think you know how to lift a load safely?

One of the most common causes of back pain that I see in my practice is related to poor lifting techniques, habits and injuries. Commonly my clients say how surprised they are to be in trouble as “I was only lifting for a few minutes” or “it wasn’t that heavy really!

However, my comment is always that: “a lot of back pain injuries associated with lifting are not as a result of one lift alone, but a series of poor lifting habits over months, and sometimes years”, in other words, it is a build up in poor lifting technique that will lead to the eventual breakdown of tissue. and the resulting pain.

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Often, the first time you feel back pain associated with lifting, it will ease after 24 hours. However, the duration and intensity of your lifting-related back pain commonly increases with each episode.

The longer you ignore it, and subsequently ignore the correction of your lifting technique, the worse your back pain will become. This pattern makes resolution more difficult. So please, if you get a niggle from lifting loads - seek early intervention and advice!.

When it comes to back injuries related to lifting, the two most common reasons for back pain associated with lifting are:

  1. Poor lifting techniques
  2. Repetitive lifting with a poor technique

This means that your back pain associated with lifting is either as a result of poor technique and/or overuse, both equally stressful on your back.

Often, a small change in your lifting technique - or doing a few exercises pre and post lifting - can eliminate your back pain. Frequently, my clients say to me “if I had known it would be so easy to resolve I would have come to you much sooner”. So, I have written this article to help with that!

So Read on and get going!!

Lifting and back pain - the symptoms

There are many back pain symptoms associated with lifting, but the most common ones I see are:

  1. Lower back pain.
  2. Pain and difficulty straightening the back into an upright position from a bent over position.
  3. Pain and difficulty standing up after sitting down for any length of time.

The cause of these symptoms is due to the muscular nature of the injury. Most lifting injuries are a result of a strain, or tiredness, placed on the lower back muscles when you are in a bent forward position. In this position - where the knees are straight - excess stretch is placed on the soft tissues of your lower back. They then either tear or become inflamed due to fatigue and overuse.

If you move into the opposite position - in other words straightening up - back pain can result. This pain results as the muscles required to straighten you up are the very ones you have overstretched. To straighten up they need to contract which is difficult for them in their current condition! Try stretching your little finger backwards and holding it on stretch for a few minutes, and then attempt to bend it - it too will be painful!

Other symptoms of back pain associated with lifting are:

  1. Lower right back pain and lower left side back pain.
  2. Middle back pain
  3. Pain along the back of your thighs
  4. Buttock pain

These symptoms are generally a result of lifting injuries where you twist as well as bend your back - for example, lifting a suitcase from a baggage carousel to an airport trolley. Twisting-related back pain injuries tend to be more severe and one sided. They too are very common lifting injuries I see in my clinic.

If your symptoms from your lifting-related back pain do not ease within 24 hours, or if they re-occur more than once, please seek help on improving and understanding your lifting technique.

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Treatment of lifting-related back pain.

“How do I treat my back after injuring it while lifting?”

The treatment you require will depend on the type of injury you have sustained. Lifting-related injuries to the back can affect the joints, discs, muscles, ligaments and nerves. What you have injured will dictate and influence your back pain treatment.

An injured joint will be treated very differently to an injured ligament, so the diagnosis is again very important. A thorough history of how you injured your back while lifting, and a detailed explanation of the exact position and weight you were lifting will be of great help in the effectiveness of your treatment - and ultimately in the duration it will take to resolve things fully.

An effective treatment will:

  1. Identify the cause of the lifting-related back pain.
  2. Identify the structure in your back that is injured
  3. Correction of any alignment problems in your back
  4. Identify the fault in your lifting technique
  5. Educate you on how to lift correctly
  6. Strengthen the muscle in your core associated with lifting

By addressing these factors the chances of re-occurrence are lessened greatly. However, the pain is often gone before the core strength has improved and patients frequently forget to continue their exercises for long enough to ensure that this aspect of rehabilitation is effective.

Follow your rehabilitation through fully to reduce the risks of further episodes of lifting-related back pain! Remember, prevention is better than cure!

Remember when lifting have your feet shoulder distance apart, bend your knees and keep your back as straight as possible. Move your feet rather than twisting your back. Seek help if it is too heavy. As always if in doubt shout!

Exercises to strengthen your back for lifting. In life we have to be able for what we do. If you are a surgeon you have learned and prepared how to operate on a person before you do so. Similarly, if you are lifting you must prepare yourself for the lift. This involves both knowledge of the lifting technique and the physical strength and awareness to perform lifting safely.

Although I cannot guarantee you that this preparation will fully prevent lifting related back pain – it will definitely reduce the risks of injury and provide you with a better base from which to work from.

Exercises for lifting that I use on a daily basis are:

  1. Wall squats - knees and feet hip distance apart and do small squats against the wall.
  2. Core strengthening exercises - Pilates is my preferred approach in most cases (see pilates sample exercises)

Remember, you don’t need to do many exercises to strengthen your lifting technique. However, the success of your programme will depend on the choice of exercises that you are given.

If you lift a lot from low to high the exercises I would give you would be very different from the ones I would use if you lift a lot from a high to low. Different muscles are used for different lifts, thus requiring specific attention. A chartered Physiotherapist is the best trained professional for this advice.

The majority of back-related lifting injuries that I see are in builders, farmers and other tradesmen. If your work involves a lot of bending forwards, which over time will take effect on your back, go swimming regularly, as it is an extension exercise which will help towards counteracting the effects of excess bending in your working day. Keep active.

In summary, small changes in your lifting technique and lifestyle will help reduce your days off work due to back pain, reduce your pain and improve your quality of life!


While the content and materials contained in the articles on this website have been written & researched by Sally Ann Quirke, a professional, practising & fully qualified Chartered Physiotherapist (Physical Therapist) based in Ireland, they are provided for general information and educational purposes only. They do not constitute medical advice on any particular individual situation. Please see your Chartered Physiotherapist or other medical practitioner for full and individual consultation.

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