Watch your back
“Nutrition and exercise are the core of preventing back pain,” Gill says. She advises drivers in Celadon’s wellness program to develop healthy eating habits and find exercise plans that fit their lifestyles. “For instance, 32 laps walking around the tractor trailer equals approximately one mile,” she says. Cardiovascular exercise such as walking increases circulation and helps strained muscles by delivering nutrients and proteins necessary for healing.
The other key practice is stretching muscles before vigorous activity. “When a truck driver is in a static position for a period of time, certain muscle groups start to tighten up, shorten up and get tension,” says Tom Garger, an exercise therapist and ergonomic consultant with Ergoflex consulting. Woods says stretching is the best way to prepare the muscles of the back, shoulders and legs for loading or unloading a trailer.
Garger says that stretching the hamstrings, hip flexors, neck, chest and shoulders is important to prevent or alleviate back pain. He warns against the common problem of over-stretching.
“Start the stretch easier and hold it longer,” he says. “It should never be painful or uncomfortable.”
When back pain escalates into a chronic condition, it can be treated with medication, physical therapy or, in some cases, surgery.
Most episodes of lower back pain are due to muscular strain and are usually resolved with time and the introduction of on-the-job preventive measures. Celadon drivers who visit the company’s clinic for back pain treatment are sometimes referred to a physical therapist, Gill says. The therapist often prescribes stretching and abdominal strengthening exercises. Anti-inflammatory drugs, both over-the-counter and prescription, are commonly used in treatment.
McElligott says his clinics avoid recommending surgery because it’s costly and has only about a 50 percent success rate. “Surgery can make the problem worse or better,” he says. Also, the recovery period can keep a driver off the road for an extended period.
Instead, McElligott sometimes prescribes transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation. The therapy “makes the muscle contract and relax,” he says. His clinic advises truckers to “use it while they’re driving so that the muscles are constantly stimulated.” A TENS unit is typically battery-operated and uses one to four electrodes.
However, certain symptoms in conjunction with back pain can indicate a more serious problem, such as an infection, a herniated disk or a tumor. These symptoms include bowel or bladder problems, a drag or weakness in a leg, unremitting pain or fever.
Left untreated, certain spinal problems progress to narrow the spinal column, resulting in more pain and less flexibility. Don’t hesitate to get a doctor’s diagnosis if you suspect a serious problem.
Lower back stretches
These and other stretches that focus on the back, legs or neck can be performed in the cab or just outside your truck. Hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, relax and repeat five to 10 times.
While seated, place one ankle on opposite knee. With a straight back, gently pull knee toward chest.
With arm extended and palm forward, grasp truck handle. Gently rotate body away from truck.