View Full Version : Down in the back - any suggestions on ergonomics

02-02-2012, 06:42 AM
As they say in these parts, I am currently "down in the back", suffering from low back pain which started Monday. The doctor does not believe that it involves a disc herniation, just muscles. I am on steroids and muscle relaxers if needed. It has been somewhat debilitating. Terrifyingly so at the age of 47.

This occurred after a weekend of working outside, in colder weather, running lumber through a thickness planer and a table saw. It kicked in on Monday morning while I was fitting together some parts on a gate I am building. All of this involved me bending over slightly while I worked, and that is currently the most painful position - bending slightly forward.

This has been a wake-up call, because it is preventing me from doing activities that I enjoy doing. Once this resolves, I am off to physical therapy to get help with my posture and core strength so that I can prevent this in the future.

However, I have noted that much of the work on wood in general is done at hip height, whether it is on the table saw, planer, saw horse, or my Rockwell jaw horse, and I am slightly bent over. This probably needs to change, too. Any suggestions on the best ergonomic practices for this type of work?

02-02-2012, 07:16 AM
I have been blessed with a cast-iron back so I have no personal experience to guide me but it seems one of those wide lifting belts worn as tightly as comfort allows might be a start.

You don't say what sort of doctor you saw but this sort of thing is best handled by a specialist, like an osteopath. I'm not a fan of chiropractic but this sort of thing is certainly within their realm of expertise as well.

02-02-2012, 07:16 AM
Been there, got the Tee-shirt, and wore it out. But I have been lucky the last few years. My worst back trouble ended when I sold my last outboard boat. Seriously.
I always try to stretch a little, make sure my clothes aren't binding, etc. And I will try to spread my legs a little to get myself lower to the ground when I have to work on something that is too low, rather than bending over.
Man, My back has been so out of whack that I couldn't even stand up to pee. Going to the bathroom or brushing my teeth was a tortuous experience. It is scary. Healing is slow, but it will get better if you're carefull.
Good luck.

02-02-2012, 07:48 AM
You don't say what sort of doctor you saw but this sort of thing is best handled by a specialist, like an osteopath. I'm not a fan of chiropractic but this sort of thing is certainly within their realm of expertise as well.

I went to the Doc-in-the-Box - an urgent care center close to my house. I know the physician's group that staffs it and was comfortable with them as a starting point.

He ran me through some fairly standard tests to determine nerve involvement (I am pretty familiar with this from defending lawsuits all these years - disputing claims of people who claimed low back pain and said they couldn't work. Karma is a bitch. Needless to say, I am developing a different perspective). Anyway, I do not have any pain following the nerves, no numbness or tingling in the toes, so I think he has diagnosed it right. I am also appreciative that he didn't send me off for an MRI right off the bat. So many doctors pull that trigger pretty quickly.

Anyway, one of the benefits of life in a small city is that it is a small community. My firm represents the neurosurgeons' group so I can get in there somewhat quickly if I have to go that route.

I have a back belt; perhaps its time to dust it off and start wearing it again.

02-02-2012, 08:08 AM
When I had my first back trouble it was from trying to straiten up from bent at the waist, without bending my knees. I went to the doctor who gave me pain and muscle relaxing pills and said!! BACK PROBLEMS ARE THE RESULT OF WEAK STOMACH MUSCLES. He gave me a series of exercises saying to do them when I could and keep doing them. They were mild sorts of exercises aimed at strengthening stomach muscles. I never took the pills. When I have had twinges of back pain since I go back to those exercises. Meanwhile I make sure to bend my knees when lifting or bending. Also for the last ten years I have started the day with a little series of stretching and bending exercises to get all my joints moving and aligned.

02-02-2012, 08:17 AM
I am 59 (oh crap!) and used to have pretty much constant back pain a little, a lot, etc. but almost always something. 2 1/2 years ago I had an accident and suffered a compression fracture at L2. After it healed enough I went to the physical therapist to help with re-hab. After 6-8 visits I was ready to begin a regular workout regimine.
After working out 3 times a week for a few weeks I noticed that my back was starting to feel pretty good. I decided to make working out a part of my lifes schedule. I have lived for the past 2+ years with absolutely NO back pain. I work out for 1 hour a day 3 days a week. I do about 30 minutes of aerobic type work (rowing machine, elliptical, fast treadmill etc) and the balance of time I spend doing 2 sets of 75 sit-up, forward and backward aextensions, leg lifts, side bends, etc.
Strengthening the core muscles has been for me a great thing. Get your P.T. to get you on a regular workout schedule and you may find it is a positive life change

good luck

02-02-2012, 08:28 AM
Suffering from the same issue right now myself. Slowly getting better. For several days getting out of bed was tough. Happens to me periodically when I overdo.

I think Richbeck has it. I intend to get back to the gym. When I was exercising regularly, I didn't have this problem. As he says, sit-ups, lunges, side bends, reverse sit ups

Todd D
02-02-2012, 09:02 AM
Well you could just take a handfull of ibuprofen and get back to work. You will either be OK or end up a paraplegic :D

My lower back gets sore sometimes from stoop labor, but I just work through it. After a few days of that sort of work things are OK. Hell, it is just pain :)

02-02-2012, 09:38 AM
I had back problems for many years, ironically starting with moving a mold for a 20' catboat. Same diagnosis every flare up, same mucsle relaxers/pain meds. Worthless! I went to an acupuncturist that was also an MD. That put an end to my problems over twenty years ago. I went three times a week for two months and since he was also an MD, my insurance covered the visits. Not every session helped, but with most I was pain free until the next session, until one day he said I didn't need him any more. I did find prior to going to him that just resting my back was the worst thing I could do. Even during flare ups, I needed to keep moving and exercising my back.

02-02-2012, 09:53 AM
As soon as the pain starts, go sit in a HARD chair for a few minutes. Always use cruise control in the car whenever possible. Use a tall stool instead of slightly bending to use those tools that are a little short. Carry boards from the middle, grabbing one end like when positioning them on a tablesaw or planer aggrevates the problem.

Thats what helps me a lot.

Hunky Dory
02-02-2012, 10:27 AM
I pull on a set of oars for an hour and a half 2 or 3 times a week, I havn't had any back problems since. Now the knees are a different story, after rowing it takes a minute or so to get them moving.

Gib Etheridge
02-02-2012, 01:16 PM
At various times in my life I have gotten into a routine of doing yoga for 1/2 hour before breakfast and it has ALWAYS helped a LOT. When my back "goes out" I have to creep to the bathroom and can barely stand to breathe it hurts so bad.

02-02-2012, 01:47 PM
A couple of years ago I had the same problem, lower back pain that just wouldn't ease after a few days of doing some landscaping carpentry at less than ideal working positions. I went straight to the physiotherapist and after 6 sessions of massage and exercises (which I repeated daily at home) I was better than I'd been for years. I was 40 at the time and wasn't prepared to accept that this would be the way of things - any physical work followed by days of pain and immobility - but since seeing the physio I've hardly suffered since.

I was a little sore earlier in the week after spending a couple of evening stood astride a kayak while bending down to place a few hundred staples to keep the skin in place. Then I had to thickness some timber for the rubbing strips using a hand plane in a folding workbench. The work height meant I was stooped the whole time and I was left with a reminder that I need to keep up with those exercises. When I rebuild the garage workbench and lay things out how I really want them, I think I'll go up a couple of inches for the bench height. I'll also try to remember what the physio said. It's not always possible to avoid awkward working positions, so take regular breaks and stretch out to relieve any building tension in the muscles.

Wooden Boat Fittings
02-02-2012, 05:17 PM
I have a permanent L2 problem resulting from a lifting injury about 1980, that I just live with. Most of the time it's okay unless I stay in one position for too long -- particularly, but not confined to, the slight-bend-forward that you get from working at a bench, but also from just standing upright in the one spot for too long. I think the gym regime mentioned above is definitely the right long-term answer (unless you want a bone graft, as was recommended to me at the time....)

But for me a good means of short-term relief is to lie on my back on the floor for half an hour, knees drawn up and propped together. (You need enough friction under your feet that your legs stay in this position by themselves -- otherwise use a wall to keep your feet in place.) I put a small cushion under my head for comfort, and the edge of a second one under the edge of my bum, to tip my pelvis back. (A carpeted floor is fine, but lying on a bed doesn't work.) Doing this for two or three consecutive days helps a great deal. It may work for you too.


Jamie Orr
02-02-2012, 06:16 PM
My father-in-law had back problems, but found that regular workouts on a rowing machine kept him fit. Good excuse to go rowing often!


02-02-2012, 07:02 PM
I fractured L1 a few years back and don't like bending over for long.

When building small boats, I move the setup (strongback, molds and the boat) around so it's at an easily accessible position. Sometimes I tilt it.

I've been thinking of getting a motorcycle lift to make this easier.

Also, I find that swimming 3-4x/week helps.

02-02-2012, 07:26 PM
I'll agree with everyone else who says that keeping the muscles well toned stops this sort of problem in the first place. Once the pain is gone, it's time to start the exercise regimen.

02-02-2012, 07:37 PM
But for me a good means of short-term relief is to lie on my back on the floor for half an hour, knees drawn up and propped together. (You need enough friction under your feet that your legs stay in this position by themselves -- otherwise use a wall to keep your feet in place.) I put a small cushion under my head for comfort, and the edge of a second one under the edge of my bum, to tip my pelvis back. (A carpeted floor is fine, but lying on a bed doesn't work.) Doing this for two or three consecutive days helps a great deal. It may work for you too.


Something similar has worked for me only I lie on my back and pull my knees slowly to my chest. I allow my feet to leave the floor so I can pull my knees almost all the way to my chest. Whatever you do, do it slowly. Lie on a thick carpeted floor or an exercise mat to do the exercise. I only hold the knees to the chest for thirty seconds or so at a time. When my back goes out it takes me three to four weeks to recover enough to do my regular exercise of bicycling around St. Augustine. I usually do about eighteen miles or so on my one-speed with medium tires and a super expensive split leather Brook's saddle (and it's worth every penny of the $130 I paid for it).

I've also got some relief with some of those stick on chemically heating pads. The ones designed to stick directly to the skin work best for me because they stay in position better than the ones designed to stick on the outside of a T-shirt. Good luck. I feel your pain brother.

02-02-2012, 08:08 PM
I've had a couple of bouts. Proper exercise, proper sitting, lots of walking, have straightened it out. You may want to raise your workbench and stationary power tools so you don't bend to use them. Get an exercise ball and sit on it instead of a chair. Good luck.

02-02-2012, 08:13 PM
+1 to the notion of regular strenghening exercises (once you have recovered sufficiently). I periodically neglect them and get in trouble again. Also, +1 to rowing. The best shape my back has been in the last 10 years was at the end of the 2009 Shipyard Raid

02-02-2012, 09:36 PM
I experienced disk trauma to my L4L5 region in 1998 following an injury in a storm off Japan. MRI was done in Tokyo and I ended up being sent back to FT Lauderdale for further evaluation and treatment and eventual surgery. I got two opinions and took the second opinion -- both neurosurgeons recommended surgery. I spent a day and a half in the hospital and was doing physical rehab a week later -- was back out to sea in four months -- my neurosurgeon, a Cuban immigrant, told me to stay physically active and I gave him a cheery aye-aye and 13 years later I am doing fine. Every now and then I will tweak it but usually gets back to normal in a day or two. When I do stiffen up, going up and down stairs or a stairmaster seems to loosen me up pretty good. I also workout a minimum of 4 days a week for at least an hour -- weights and cardio. In my opinion, and as it has been stated a number of times in previous posts, regular exercise is key.

I agree with you that many doc's can and do order up unnecessary tests, but in dealing with the back, I think the MRI may have been a good idea -- the MRI is very definitive in ruling in or out the type of back/spinal injury IMHO.

So far my surgery has worked out for me -- on the other hand you also hear stories where it didn't. I am a huge believer in the staying active lifestyle. I try to stay aware of my situation and take precautions - lifting, sleeping positions, flexing my legs while brushing my teeth to name a few. I remember a few years ago when Sammy Sosa threw out his back and at an interview he said it happened when he sneezed -- the reporters kind of laughed at him but as Bill Clinton said, "I feel your pain."....I can definitely relate to a sneeze putting you out of action with regard to your back.

Best of luck with your situation. Gene

02-02-2012, 10:16 PM
Your table saw is probably to low. Using any piece of equipment at an akward angle for an extended period of time will tire some of your muscles more than others, leading to damage. The first sign of impending harm is fatigue. Try adjusting the height of your equipment, up or down, until it feels right. Too high is just as bad as too low.

02-03-2012, 01:38 AM
What with horse-wrecks, ice-climbing, and lots of stoop labour, I had intermittent, acutely painful back trouble for years. I still have slight numbness in my left foot owing to nerve damage, but no longer have immobilising pain or soreness.

Most of the credit owes to exercise, a combination of muscle conditioning and stretching (especially twists). I also use some sort of back roll when I sit in a conventional chair or while driving. For sit-down work I use one of those ergonomic kneeling chairs and have for over twenty years. Sitting in a regular chair is brutal. But I do log fencing, gardening, boatbuilding, greenhouse building, and similar bendover work on a regular basis.

When my back does feel crook, I lie face down for a bit, then prop my upper body on my elbows or a wedge cushion— slowly— to reset the proper curve in my lower back. If there are clunks, that's a good sign. I stay there for at least ten minutes or as long as a half-hour if I think it might be bad. Then I roll over and do some gentle stretches and twists. The twists will often cause more clunks and pops— the more the better in my experience. You need to get your lower back in the right sort of alignment and restore mobility.

If you're so sore and stiff that this self-therapy is excruciating, you need to see a physiotherapist. The physios in NZ did me more good than the doctors in the US, with epidurals and recommendations for surgery (which I didn't accept). Some friends have had good luck with surgery and others have had repeated surgery with chronic pain and crippling.

I've been lucky, but it has taken a sustained effort.

Cecil Borel
02-03-2012, 04:21 AM
I have severely degenerated discs and suffered a "free fragment" herniation requiring surgery 12 years ago. I am a practicing anesthesiologist and boat builder. My neurosurgeon told me "just stop exercising when you want to have another operation", meaning the recurrence rate for disc herniation is very high given my underlying weakness and back compromising activities. I have been virtually pain-free since starting a "core strengthening" program 11 years ago. I agree with the other posts that you should perform these exercises daily, even when you have pain and stiffness. A program similar to the one I use is here http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/core-strength/SM00047

Best wishes for a quick and long lasting recovery

02-03-2012, 07:15 AM
One tool I try to avoid using is a rake. Raking leaves is too much for my back to handle.

02-03-2012, 01:26 PM
Thanks for all the great advice. I am slowly getting better and am trying to be patient with it.

02-03-2012, 01:52 PM
One tool I try to avoid using is a rake. Raking leaves is too much for my back to handle.

Raking bothers me, too. But when I have to do such tasks, I limit the time—literally set a timer— or the amount of work I do at one go. With 200+ feet of open trench to backfill by hand, with a shovel and a rake, I'd mark out each day's length (about 15 feet) with a rock and resist going farther, even if my back felt fine. Sometimes you don't feel the pain until the next morning.

Just shovelled snow this morning, with one of those bent-handle shovels so I don't have to bend my back so much.

Hope you feel better soon.

Pete E
02-04-2012, 08:02 PM
Lots of good advice above. The one thing that was missed is this. Before you get out of bed in the morning you wake up your back muscles. This will prevent most back problems from occurring. (not all) Get one of the exercise sheets for backs and use them.

All my work tables and saws are at a hight that while standing my thumbs fit on the table. Very little bending to do most work.

I have been through the whole back thing.....Surgery, five months of Physical therapy and work therapy.

One thing that no one wants to hear or believe is this. Once you hurt your back it is permanent!!!!!!!! Yes you will feel better but the injury doesn't go away..... So try to prevent more injury. Exercise and the right moves.

(disclaimer Not a medical person even though I picked their minds and those of physical therapist) I am not in a wheel chair because of a very skilled neurosurgeon.

Wayne Jeffers
02-04-2012, 08:33 PM
Since you said it was not a disk problem, only muscular . . .

I struggled with the same problem off and on for 7 or 8 years. I seem to have finally gotten a handle on it in the last year. My suggestions:
1) A good massage therapist. It can be hard to find a good one, but it's worth the search. Ask around.
2) A good chiropractor. Again, ask around. Much of my problem involved an SI-joint that wanted to pop out of place, aggravating the muscles in my low back. I also have a couple of ribs in my upper back that pop out occasionally if I lift something too heavy. A chiropractor can re-align stuff when needed.
3) Forget physical therapy. Start going to yoga classes regularly. IMO much better for strengthening low back, and probably costs less than your insurance copay for PT. If you have the good fortune to live in a college town, there are also scenic benefits to yoga classes. ;)
4) Sitting on an Exercise ball is also good for strengthening core muscles. There are also specific exercises using the ball which are helpful.
5) Walking (and climbing stairs.)


02-04-2012, 08:53 PM
I have my back screw up since a few years and I am just 31... Damage it badly when lifting a anchor, and needed to do major work again 2 days later when a storm hit the anchorage.

Took me about 2 years before I can take less pain killer then every day. The only way I can make my life less miserable now is stretching my back every morning, since then I am pretty much normal but if I miss 1 day I feel it quite well and pain get back. Stretching and hot water to relax the muscle is what work for me...

Oh and can't sleep on the belly, it's the worst position for the back...

George Ray
02-05-2012, 12:17 AM
I have some back issues that have prompted me to try and take some responsibility for my back health, among other healths.

I aspire to gain a bit of flexibility and strength in the spine.
(a) Flexibility so that the body can position things/vertebra where it needs them rather than having bones held askew by tight spasming muscles and possibly inappropriate connective tissue from habitually bad posture. Rigid and misaligned skeletal structure and muscles do not allow proper movement that in turn inhibit flow of fluids that are the bodies transportation system for life sustaining stuff.
(b) Strength so the body can maintain proper alignment of things while moving as needed and performing the work we call on it to do. The proper movement that goes along with a naturally flexible and aligned body is in turn helping pump the bodies fluids and moving the bodies 'food/drink/medicine'.

I exercise to the cadence of my cheap timex watch's two minute repeating alarm. No one has time to exercise but everyone has two minutes to spare. All my stretch and strengthen moves are two minutes at a time and repeated when the spirit moves me but at least two minutes.
Back flexibility: I lay down face up on a firm mat and aspire to feel my back press into the mat one vertebra at a time walking the pressure up and down the spine from hips toward neck and back. Breaking loose the stiff/stuck vertebra is a remarkably wonderful feeling and seems bound to minimize muscular stiffness/stress related nerve impingement.
Spinal/Core Strength: I roll on an exercise ball face up for a two minute cycle and then face down for a two minute cycle. During face up I mostly arch backwards for flexibility and during face down I arch up and often balance on my belly holding head and feet up against gravity and counteract the 'old age forward slump chest caving in thing'.

It's a piece of what I do nearly every week day with some weekends off and it has helped a lot.

02-06-2012, 12:48 AM
I've heard good things about this book, by among others an indirect recommendation from an orthopedic surgeon (through my other half who works as an operating theatre technician) - Treat Your Own Back (http://www.amazon.com/Treat-Your-Back-Robin-McKenzie/dp/0959774661).