Have you heard about the silver tsunami? This color-coded metaphor is being used to describe the explosive growth in the senior citizen population in the U.S. New Census Bureau projections estimate that there will be more adults over 65 than children in the U.S. by the year 2030. While this trend will have serious consequences on the healthcare industry as a toll, it's the oft-forgotten care providers (like nurses) that are starting to pay the most painful price.
You might find it interesting to learn that of all heavy labor professions, from construction workers to airport baggage handlers to warehouse employees and even truck drivers with notoriously long hours spent sitting, those in the nursing and nursing aid professions have the highest incidence rates of musculoskeletal disorders. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found in 2010 that for every 10,000 workers in the care field (nursing aides, attendants, orderlies), an astounding 249 of them experience some form of musculoskeletal injury. That incidence rate is over seven times higher than any other industry!
What does this mean for nurses and caregivers? As care providers, their roles starkly increase the risk for not only acute injury but chronic pain associated with musculoskeletal disorders like muscle strains, sprains, herniated discs, shoulder, back and neck injuries, and joint inflammation.
How exactly? While much of nursing and caregiving is less physically involved, like patient monitoring, administering medicine, dressing wounds, providing emotional support and so on, a huge part of it is intensely physical. Manual patient handling often includes:
Repositioning patients (in bed or in a chair)
Transferring patients (to the toilet, wheelchair, car, etc)
Lifting patients (during a transfer or often after a fall)
Readjusting, rolling, carrying patients
Risk Factors for Back Pain in Nursing
There are a handful of factors which contribute to the increasing incidence rates of injury and chronic pain among nurses, many of which are often out of their control. These include:
Increasing rates of older adults who require assistance with ADL's (activities of daily living) including getting dressed, toileting, transferring in and out of bed, and exercising.
Rising rates of obesity across the U.S. directly affect a nurses job. Almost 30 percent of senior citizens are obese, increasing the load and stress placed on their nurses and caregivers who help lift and transfer them. For a senior who is over 200 pounds, a nurse may regularly have to lift legs that are upwards of 40 pounds each.
Lack of proper lifting equipment and team lifting protocols, whether it's in a home health setting or even in a healthcare facility like a hospital or nursing home, leaves nurses with little choice as to the support they receive during manual patient handling tasks.
The number of seniors experiencing falls rose over 30 percent in the past ten years. Falls can lead to hospitalization, hip fractures, immobility and more. Climbing rates of seniors experiencing fall-related injuries influence the degree of care and manual assistance they require from care providers.
Preventing Back Pain in Nursing
Acknowledging the risk factors that lead to back pain and related injuries in nursing and taking steps to avoid them is a must for nurses, aids, and caregivers. Nurses can take the following steps to ensure their safety:
Always ask your patients with mobility issues to utilize their mobility aids whether they be canes, rolling walkers, wheelchairs, etc.
Practice good body mechanics and proper lifting techniques. Never lift from a bent over position, engage your leg muscles for momentum, and avoid awkward body positions like twisting or contorting your back to help a patient up.
Advocate for patient transfer and lifting protocols in healthcare institutions like assisted living facilities and hospitals so there is a plan of action (either tools or teams in place) in the event a patient falls or needs help with a transfer.
Make use of lifts and transferring devices for moving patients. These include Hoyer lifts, lift belts, transfer wheelchairs, transfer shower chairs, turner blankets, rolling/sliding transfer boards, and so forth.
Stretch and strengthen key lifting muscles like the hamstrings, quads, core, and back muscles. Body weight exercises (i.e. squats, planks, etc.) and even mindfulness practices like yoga and tai chi are a great place to start.
Not only does the unsafe and injury-prone nature of nursing and caregiving make care providers more susceptible to chronic pain and musculoskeletal disorders, but the financial burden can be quite hefty too. A nurse or nursing aid who is injured on the job maybe have to take time off work and therefore lose wages and rack up medical bills while they wait for benefits to kick in too. If you work in the care sector, be smart about preventing injury!