VIDEO: Sitting your way toward a bad back

Long hours spent in farm equipment, interspersed with 
shorter bouts of heavy labour, can be a recipe for disaster

Farmers can be extreme examples of weekend warriors, those folks with relatively sedentary jobs who then undertake extreme sports and activities on weekends.

For farmers, long hours spent in tractors and other farm equipment, interspersed with shorter bouts of heavy labour, can wreak havoc with health.

Scott Lawrence, a Lethbridge-based osteopath, frequently treats people who have back pain, and farmers are among his clients.

“One person that comes to mind in particular, I was treating them for certain issues throughout the year and then when it came to harvest time, their body changed completely because they were spending hours and hours on end, I don’t even like to think how many hours, in the tractor and obviously in a position with the hip flexors being completely tight,” said Lawrence.

“Then that lengthening in the lower back led to its own kind of individual issues from there but different to what was experienced before.”

Farmers as a group experience a higher incidence of back pain than the general population, according to Canadian studies.

Dr. Catherine Trask, Canada research chair in ergonomics and musculoskeletal health, based at the University of Saskatchewan, said her research indicates 50 to 60 percent of farmers in that province experience back pain.

In many cases, it’s a result of sitting long hours in machinery for many consecutive days.

“We know that when people are seated there’s a lot more compression in the discs, especially in the lower spine. And being stationary seated for a long time means that there’s not a lot of opportunity to decompress and to get up and move around,” said Trask.

Lawrence addressed “the perils of sitting” at a recent University of Lethbridge talk, and offered some simple exercises and techniques to counteract those perils. Extended periods of sitting can shorten calf muscles and lengthen back muscles, while also affecting efficient operation of internal organs, he said.

In an office situation, he recommends a 20:8:2 ratio: 20 minutes of sitting, eight minutes of standing and two minutes of standing while doing gentle stretches and exercises. He recognizes that isn’t possible in all workplaces.

Lawrence also recommends taking the wheels off office chairs to promote more standing and walking, resting alternate legs on a footstool beneath the desk and using a gel cushion on the chair that requires sitters to make minute spinal adjustments to keep level while getting muscles moving.

Those suggestions can be helpful for farmers doing extensive office work but the equipment scenario is another wrinkle.

“The farmers have all the risks that the desk workers do, plus this added dimension of the vibrating machinery,” said Trask.

“For farmers it’s a little bit different than it is for desk workers because your desk is usually pretty quiet and not subject to big vibration but in farm machinery … this is a very high vibration environment, and vibration on its own is also a risk factor for back pain.”

She recommends that farmers take more frequent breaks when operating equipment — even a brief walk around the machinery can help decompress the spine and get the joint fluids moving.

“The tricky thing is that if you have a 14-hour day on a combine and then every hour you’re taking five minutes to walk, you have just added a little bit onto your work day. And if we’re talking about several days in a row that are very long work days, we are bumping up against another kind of issue.”

That other issue is fatigue, which creates higher risk of dangerous incidents.

General fitness can reduce the likelihood of back problems, and walking is one of the best ways to keep things in tune.

“Unfortunately there’s no way that I know of that can prepare your body or kind of lay armour on your body in preparation for 14 hours on a combine,” said Trask.

Ideally, there would be opportunity to switch jobs with others to avoid prolonged sitting, but farming doesn’t lend itself to that either.

“This becomes tougher when everyone is operating machinery and the skills to operate specific machinery are often concentrated in a few individuals.”

Equipment manufacturers have been paying more attention in recent years to operator comfort. Cameras and computer monitors have also reduced the need to continually twist to view equipment being pulled.

However, “there’s lots of machinery out there still in operation that requires folks to have their head on a swivel,” said Trask. As well, back pain being experienced by a farmer today may be cumulative from years of work rather than a product of one season, even if new equipment has better ergonomics.

Lawrence said doing simple exercises while in the cab, which might be easier with the common use of autosteer, can still make some difference to back comfort.

“It’s little things that make the big difference on a day-to-day basis,” he said. Getting out and stretching is best, “but if you’re able to do some things whilst in the tractor, for example, that’s going to be a lot better.”

An hour a day of exercise doesn’t counteract a day of sitting, he added.

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