Farming is a physical job. This is extremely positive, as there are multiple health benefits associated with regular physical activity.
However, all physical jobs involve injury risk. Research by the Health and Safety Authority has found that over 50% of Irish farmers have experienced a workplace injury. The back was the most common site of injury.
Injury can have serious consequences for a farmer, reducing their ability to engage in farm work or requiring them to rest completely. Here are some ways to help you prevent and manage your back pain.
1 Rethink lifting excessively heavy objects. Lifting heavy loads could result in injury. When a task presents increased risk, it is important to consider alternative ways of doing it. Lifting and handling large 50kg fertiliser bags alone or carrying heavy buckets of water present serious risk. Breaking up the load, doing multiple trips with smaller loads or using a tractor/transporter box should be considered to reduce the risk of injuring your back.
2 Work preparation is key. Farm housekeeping can play a vital role in managing the need for repeated lifting, working in awkward positions or the risk of trips and falls. Examining how you store machinery, feed, equipment etc can help you avoid the need to work and lift in awkward postures. Take some time to consider where and how you will perform a job, even if it may delay you. Extra time planning could avoid extra time off work.
3 Watch out for fatigue. Fatigue has been shown to play a part in farm-related accidents. Long working hours, disturbed sleep and changing seasonal schedules can result in fatigue. Fatigue can be both psychological (low mood, tiredness, distraction) or physical (muscle pain, tiredness). It impacts human error during hazardous activities and increases the risk of injury. Make sure you are well rested, take breaks and plan your working week to help avoid fatigue.
4 Heat can help. Heat is a great natural painkiller. It can relax your back muscles, particularly if they are in spasm. Heat opens blood vessels, bringing rich blood to the painful area to help with healing. A hot water bottle wrapped in a towel (avoid direct skin contact), placed against the painful site for 10 to 15 minutes can help your pain.
5 It is safe to bend your back. People who have back pain often avoid movements like bending. They change the way they move to try and reduce their pain. They adopt poor and stiff movement patterns, which can actually increase pain. Our backs are designed to move, bend, twist and lift and are much stronger than you think. Don’t overthink lifting light loads. Find opportunities to move throughout your day with freedom and confidence.
6 Mind your mind. Stress plays a big part in pain. When to sell livestock, crop prices, machinery breakdown, weather changes can all cause stress. Fear of “damaging” your back, feeling down or stressed feeds our pain pathways, increasing pain levels. There are lots of free online resources to help reduce stress and anxiety. Yoga, meditation and talking to someone can help. Exercise is also a great way to manage stress and mood.
7 Exercise. Exercise is a well-researched treatment for back pain. Low impact exercise, like cycling, swimming and walking, can help reduce low back pain. You should aim to exercise up to 30 minutes at a moderate intensity five days per week or more. No single type of exercise is more effective, so pick one you enjoy, can afford to maintain and that fits with your lifestyle. Walking is free and low risk. Strength exercise is also very important, particularly for your bone health, and a chartered physiotherapist can help advise the best programme to suit you.
8 Sleep health. Sleep is vital for managing pain. It is our body’s opportunity to recharge, recover and prepare for tomorrow. Sleep also helps to reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue. A regular sleep schedule of eight hours per night is advised. Consistency is key. Disturbed sleep is common in those with pain. Medication, heat, and gentle movement exercises before bed can help with pain and improve sleep.