OH, MY ACHING BACK! - '3 out of 4 reported pain in their back since they began work'

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By That complaint is increasingly being voiced not by the middle aged but the young, reports Tessy Koshy (ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VARUNA VERMA AND SHUBHOBROTO GHOSH)
  • Published 7.05.06

For several days Girish Mehta ignored the spasms of pain in his lowerback. A project deadline required him to spend close to 14 hours at his workstation. But in a month the pain assumed ugly proportions. The 31-year-old software engineer could no longer sit at the computer for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. He could neither sit nor stand for long. His backaches made it impossible for him to drive. His fatigued back muscles were unable to endure long hours at the computer. An orthopaedic consultant recommended frequent breaks at work and regular exercise.

Time was when such aches and pains were synonymous with old age. However, thanks to a sedentary work culture, incorrect posture and poor knowledge and practice of ergonomics, backaches are haunting people as young as those in their 20s and 30s.

Backache has emerged as the most common work-related injury today ? and doctors estimate that thousands of young professionals are falling prey to various kinds of backaches. Mehta is among the lucky ones to have sought medical help early. There are others across India’s metropolitan cities who’ve had to quit jobs and initiate dramatic changes in lifestyles. And there are some who have fallen into depression.

A large scale ongoing survey ? and anecdotal accounts from doctors ? suggest that slipped discs, cervical spondylitis and tendonitis are among the unwanted ‘perks’ that young professionals toiling away at workstations need to watch out for. The five-city survey covering 13,000 professionals, most of them routine computer users, revealed that three out of four people had reported pain in their back or neck since they began work. The survey by Bangalore-based Recoup Neuro Musculo Skeletal Rehabilitation and Research Centre suggests that anyone who sits at a computer longer than an hour a day is at risk.

Computer users are susceptible to repetitive strain injuries (RSI). “It is a disorder of overuse,” says Deepak Sharan, medical director of the Recoup Centre. Health experts point out that while sitting at a computer, one part of the body is always static, while other parts move incessantly. Over time, both static postures and constant activity damage tissues.

For orthopaedic specialists, what used to be a trickle of youngsters trudging in with back problems has now turned into a flood. “I see at least five young patients suffering from backache every day,” says S.P. Mandal, senior orthopaedic consultant at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi.

And it’s not just users of computers. Musicians, teenagers heading into college, even school children are among the new victims of backache. A study presented earlier this year by paediatricians at Apollo Hospital in New Delhi suggests that heavy school bags might be contributing to low back pain in children below 15.

Apollo paediatrician Shravan Mehra surveyed 1,134 children and found that one out of three children had experienced low back pain. In 40 per cent of those who reported backache, the pain was severe enough to prevent them from going to school or playing. Mehra says the findings are worrying because some studies have shown that children with backache tend to report pain in their adulthood too.

It’s not just the medical community that has noted the trend. Advertisements now portray a young mother or a tired executive with backache rather than a grandparent. Doctors believe such ads are justified for the proportion of patients in their twenties with backaches could be as high as one in three patients. “I think the problem is worsening with the growing number of jobs in the information technology industry,” says Kunal Sengupta, consultant orthopaedic at the Ruby Hospital in Calcutta. “It is important for youngsters to seek help before things get really bad,” says Sengupta.

The spine ? an engineering marvel of nature ? is the most vulnerable zone. It has 33 odd-shaped bones called vertebrae. Between each vertebrae there is a cushion pad called disc. These discs act like shock absorbers and provide flexibility to the spine. The discs can stick out or slip and touch nerves, triggering off intense pain. The muscles attached to the bones are the first line of defence for the spine. And poor posture and lack of exercise can weaken these muscles. “Exercises can be a very efficient method to relieve pain but unfortunately are all too often ignored by the young,” says Sengupta.

Fatigued muscles, stresses Manoj Sharma, chairman of the orthopaedic department at the Jaipur Golden Hospital in New Delhi, can make a person prone to slipped discs that can be caused by an abrupt jerk or movement. The victim experiences stiffness, burning sensation, pins and needles and general weakness. “Sometimes the backache can be frustrating and prolonged and necessitate lifestyle changes,” says Sharma.

The Recoup Centre study of professionals in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune found that at least 40 people between the ages of 18 and 30 had to quit their jobs because of what were presumed to be severe and debilitating computer-related back injuries.

Calcutta-based Priyabrata Dasgupta isn’t among those surveyed, but he had to give up a call centre job in Salt Lake after spasmodic back pains. The pain surfaced about six months after he had taken up the job. In the beginning, it was a low intensity pain, something that he could ignore. But it soon progressed to an unbearable state. His doctor advised him against taking up any kind of work that would involve constant sitting. “I got out of the industry to safeguard my health,” says Dasgupta.

Sometimes, the smallest strain can trigger a backache. For 29-year-old Tina, an office assistant in Delhi, anything ? from sitting on a high chair without proper back support to a party that requires her to stand longer than a few minutes in the kitchen or even lifting her daughter ? can lead to backaches. “We might have to compromise on leisure activities such as sports, sometimes give them up,” says another patient of chronic backaches.

Sengupta stresses that most cases of backaches in the young occur in the computer sector. Continuous and uninterrupted staring at a computer screen for hours leads not only to backache but also causes neck and hip pain.

But some doctors warn that the perils of backache can also affect the mind. “If you do not address backaches, a muscular problem can one day become a psychological crisis,” warns Harsh Bhargava, a senior orthopaedic surgeon at Apollo Hospital, Delhi.

Bhargava recalls the horrifying tale of a 24-year-old girl, an employee of a leading software company, who had consulted him for severe low back pain. She was advised to take a break from her gruelling work schedule. But for someone climbing the corporate ladder, a break meant career harakiri. Her pain worsened and began to affect performance at work. She was unable to deal with her colleagues. This realisation slowly bogged her down and she eventually slipped into a depression that demanded medical intervention. Ultimately, she had to quit her job and is today working in a less paying but less stressful job.

How to keep your spine in good shape
• Regular stretching exercises strengthen weak muscles, improve posture and accelerate the flow of blood to the muscles. Whenever your back feels stiff, stand up and stretch your body slowly. Gradually increase the extent of the stretch to the level you can tolerate. This relieves tension.

• Lift your hips a bit when lying down, tighten your buttocks. Repeat this exercise at least 10 times.

• For that stiff lower back, stand up with your feet apart and place your palms on your lower back. Gently bend backwards, letting your back arch, stay in this position for two to three seconds and repeat it two to three times.

• Don’t forget to do shoulder rolls, neck rotation and chin tucks in between those long hours on the computer.

• Bhujangasana and Salabhasana are two yoga asanas known to strengthen back muscles.

• Many alternative techniques also relieve back pain. Well-known among them are ayurvedic massages, reflexology, acupressure, acupuncture, Sujok and pranic healing.

• Long-term care involves using a chair with a back rest, sitting with feet resting flat on the floor, sleeping on a firm mattress, lifting and carrying only manageable weights and keeping the back straight.

• If you have severe pain, consult a specialist before doing any form of exercise.

But the flood of youngsters with backaches and the recognition of the problem have also triggered corrective steps. Recoup Centre is working with several IT firms in Bangalore ? including Oracle, Texas Instruments and Hewlett Packard ? where they have started in-house ergonomic programmes for healthier workstations, making adjustments according to individual demands. “Some companies even have in-house medical clinics where employees are treated for back problems,” says Sharan.

Experts believe that one of the reasons backaches are on the rise is the lack of awareness of how even a simple adjustment on a chair or a table can prevent a crisis. “The biggest problem is that we have no ergonomic law,” says Recoup Centre’s Sharan. In western countries, it is mandatory for companies to comply with standards for lighting, chair and table height and air quality.

In India, however, in most offices, tables are fixed at heights irrespective of the body dimensions of users. Women particularly experience greater discomfort. In the case of computer users, besides fixed-height chairs, higher tabletops mean that the user is forced to type by hunching the shoulders and has to prop arms and wrists on the edge of the table to use the keyboard ? which can lead to serious health problems.

Some companies have started looking at user-friendly furniture. Infoscribe India, a medical transcription company in Calcutta, provides its employees with special chairs and leg rests. “It goes without saying that constant desk work can cause a multitude of fitness problems, including back pain. We always advise our employees to do stretching exercises and offer short breaks every 45 minutes,” says Atulit Bhalotia, director of Infoscribe. Back pain was a major cause of worry in his company six months ago, but it consulted doctors and installed special straight-back chairs that lessen the stress on the spine.

Doctors say there are techniques to avoid RSI or computer-related injuries through a process called dynamic sitting that prevents a person from being seated in a static position for extended periods. Health experts suggest that people change postures as often as possible and recommend simple stretching exercises, even at the workplace, to prevent backaches.

While conventional treatment for backache includes painkillers and physiotherapy, some youngsters are looking at alternative healing techniques. When 20-year-old Delhi-based drummer Tarun Balani had severe tendonitis and back pain after a three-month rigorous drumming stint at a New York music school, he resorted to Sujok ? an alternative healing therapy ? for a cure. After taking a 14-session treatment that combines acupressure, acupuncture, herb therapy, colour therapy and seed therapy, Tarun claims he was cured of the debilitating pain.

But doctors warn that conservative treatment ? whether conventional or alternative ? will work only if the pains are tackled in the initial stages. In advanced stages, surgery might be required. If you’re among the lucky few who have managed to stay out of the epidemic, make sure to incorporate ergonomic and lifestyle changes. Or else, the job you love so much will one day become a pain in the neck. Go take a break.