7 Steps to Better Back Health for Caregivers

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From the mental fatigue brought on by worrying about an aging loved one to the physical exhaustion that can accompany caring for them, caregivers often carry a lot of extra stress. And while that may lead to headaches or tossing and turning at night, some research indicates that the back is one of the most common areas where caregivers hold stress.

The postural and psychological factors caused by lifting someone in and out of chairs or beds, doing extra chores around the house and even being tensed up due to concern leaves caregivers’ backs in less than optimal health.

Experts caution that chronic, stress-related pain is a very real and common condition. This type of chronic stress can trigger back pain in those who have never experienced back discomfort, or exacerbate pain originally caused by a previous injury.

Find the Connection

Having to face emotions like frustration, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis leads to stress that can heighten your nervous system, keeping it on high alert for signs of danger. This heightened state sends pain signals to your brain faster than normal, says Lisa Alemi, a doctor of physical therapy and a certified athletic trainer. Those amped up signals can amplify low-level pain you might otherwise be able naturally suppress if you weren’t under stress.

Then there’s the physical reaction of your body tensing up, often subconsciously, in stressful situations. This is a popular cause of muscle strain and pain, Alemi adds.

No matter your level of stress, there are a number of ways to spare your back from shouldering a constant burden. These steps will help you quell backaches and pains so you’ll be in a better position to continue caring for your loved one and enjoy your days.

1. Recharge

Caregivers should make sure to take some time for themselves to re-energize and refill their cup, advises Christa Gurka, an orthopedic physical therapist focusing on corrective Pilates-based wellness and owner of Pilates in the Grove near Miami. “This can be in the form of a few minutes of meditation, breathing exercises or scheduling a time to go for a walk outside alone.”

Schedule a few hours every week for someone else to care for your loved one so you can do something special for yourself. “Watch a movie, get a salon service, share in a support group or just be alone,” says Gurka. “Remember you can’t pour from an empty cup, so if caregivers do not find time to refill their own cup, it will be hard to take care of someone else.”

2. Stick to the Basics

Anyone providing care that includes helping someone in and out of bed or a chair should make sure to use good lifting mechanics, says Lisa Alemi, a doctor of physical therapy and certified athletic trainer. The basics of proper lifting technique include lifting with the legs by bending the knees.

“When squatting, bend with your knees and don’t lean over at your waist when you need to pick up something from the floor, Alemi explains. “Also stick your bottom out like you are trying to sit on a chair that is far away to further protect your back.”

“Make sure to have the patient help as much as they can and get the patient as close as possible to you to make lifting easier,” says Gurka. “Use a belt or other device to make the lifting easier or take a class to learn how to properly help lift the patient and help them move and always ask for help if needed and available.”

3. Stand Tall

Audra Vellucci, a physical therapist and regional director at FOX Rehabilitation in Vineland, New Jersey says it often helps to shift your weight back and forth between your feet when standing doing tasks like preparing food, helping someone bathe, etc. “You could also use a small stool and alternate placing one foot up on the stool, then the other.”

She adds that keeping your shoulders back and your chest out is also good for easing back pain. “It helps keep your heart and lungs pumping at their optimum levels, too.”

4. Stretch it Out

Daily stretches help alleviate stress and also prevent or relieve low back pain, says Gurka.

She recommends the following stretches.

  • Shoulder circles. Release stress in your upper back, neck and shoulders by gently rolling both shoulders backward two to 10 times, then forward two to 10 times.
  • Lower back stretch. Stand upright with your feet shoulder distance apart and place your hands on your lower back as if you were putting them in your back pockets. Gently arch your back backward only as far as is comfortable, and stretch for five to 10 seconds. Repeat two to 10 times. If you’re unsteady, you can use one hand to hold a table, chair or the wall.
  • Knee to chest. Lay on your back, facing the ceiling. Pull one knee to your chest while keeping the other leg straight on the ground. Hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat five to 10 times for each leg.

5. Sit Smart

When seated, Vellucci says it’s best to keep both feet flat on the floor at all times and keep your knees and hips at 90 degrees instead of slouching. “Make sure that your shoulders are back and your head is up at a comfortable level,” she explains. “Avoid straining your neck by looking down and be sure to keep your back straight to prevent as much back pain as possible.”

6. Stay Active

Always find a way to keep active, urges Vellucci. “Caregiving can be both mentally and physically exhausting, but taking a walk, practicing yoga or tai chi, or participating in aerobic exercise will increase your personal activity levels and help to fight the effects of fatigue.” Maintaining physical activity may also help combat the onset of various chronic pain conditions, including back pain.

7. Fill Your Toolbox

There are a number of tools and products today that can also help relieve or prevent back discomfort.

The Posture Brace pulls the shoulders back to help you stand tall and not slouch. It’s made of lightweight, breathable material and layers discreetly under clothing.

Cost: $49.99

The Posture Cushion works to improve core strength and seated posture. The pre-inflated disc is designed to improve and strengthen abdominal muscles and support the lower back.

Cost: $49.99

Gina Roberts-Grey

Gina Roberts-Grey is an award-winning writer whose health features have appeared in numerous publications including Glamour, Woman's Day, Family Circle, ESSENCE and websites such as Lifescript, MSN and NextAvenue. See full bio