“Lift with your legs, not with your back” is a saying that we have all heard before but don’t often put into practice. The reason we overlook this saying is because more times than not, we lift or bend improperly with no immediate adverse effects. Although we lift improperly and may not feel pain right away, lifting with our back puts an excess and unnecessary strain on the muscles, ligaments and vertebral discs. At The Spine and Health Center of Montvale, I see patients on a daily basis that have either strained muscles, caused a bulging disc, or even worse a herniated disc, due to improper lifting technique. In most cases, patients come in and say something along the lines of “I was not even lifting anything heavy, I bent over to help my son or daughter or I was just moving some light boxes around the garage, how could I possibly be in this type of pain?” The answer is simple. Years of improper technique while bending over and picking objects up has compromised the low back.
What is a Herniated Disc?
To understand how to prevent an injury while lifting objects we must first understand the biomechanics during a lift. When we lift improperly we are using only back muscles and do not activate the leg muscles for assistance. This means we are putting the lumbar spine (the low back) into full forward flexion. This position causes the vertebrae in the lumbar spine to come closer together in the front and further away from each other in the back.
The vertebral disc, which is located between the vertebral bodies, acts as a spacer and shock absorber for the spine. It is designed to handle the movements our bodies go through but when weight is added, like when lifting an object, excess strain is put on this disc and the surrounding musculature. Over a time period of years and years this excess strain can cause the disc to fail leaving us with a bulging or herniated disc. A common way to describe a disc herniation is to compare the disc to a jelly doughnut. When the tough outer ring of the disc fails due to an increase in pressure, the jelly-like substance in the middle protrudes out the back of the disc. This can cause an extreme pain that is more commonly referred to as “throwing your back out.”
The Proper Technique
So what is the proper technique to prevent this type of injury to the low back? We cannot use the low back to lift objects, we must use our legs. This means we must approach the object we are lifting straight on so we are not lifting and rotating at the same time. Next, bend at the knees. Do not bend at the hips but lift with a squat-like motion. Last, while keeping the low back straight at upright contract the leg muscles to preform the lift. This simple technique can save the low back excess strain and long term injury.