Medication and therapy will not permanently solve your back and neck pain if you continue to expose your body to the factors that led to the problem in the first place. Using the body mechanic techniques described here is the best way to reduce the harmful shear, torsion, and asymmetrical loading strains that break down tissue and lead to pain.
The three primary concepts are the following:
- Use whole-body movements that incorporate weight shifts.
- Use the larger muscles and joints of the hips and shoulders rather than the smaller muscles and joints of the back and neck.
- Keep the work or item close to you.
Applying these three concepts is as simple as doing one thing: using a stagger stance.
Technique 1: Stagger Stance
When in a stagger stance (figure 6.5), one foot will be slightly ahead of the other. You may stand with your feet a normal width apart, but you place one foot about one-half of a foot length ahead of the other.
The stagger stance will allow you to shift your weight forward and backward for activities such as vacuuming, sweeping, raking, or reaching overhead to put away dishes, trim tree branches, or paint. Maintaining a slight stagger stance will even make simple activities such as standing in line easier. You will be more comfortable when you wash the dishes, stand to prepare food, lift things from the floor, brush your teeth, shave, or put on makeup.
Using a stagger stance is one of the two primary techniques that we emphasize. The stagger stance takes a considerable amount of strain off the neck and lower lumbar spine by promoting a more neutral (balanced) pelvic girdle position. The larger shoulder and hip muscles support the body, rather than just the smaller muscles and joints of the spine. The stagger stance facilitates shifting your weight so that you can keep items close to you and reduce the load on the spine.
A stagger stance allows you to reach overhead with less shoulder and neck strain. When the feet are side by side, all forward-reaching movements require an equal force generated by the back muscles to maintain a balanced upright position (figure 6.6a). The farther forward that you reach, the greater the demand is on the spine. A weight of 10 pounds (4.5 kg) at your side may require a trunk muscular force of 100 pounds (45 kg) to counteract that weight as you reach forward. The stagger stance (figure 6.6b) allows you to shift your weight forward as you reach forward, effectively keeping the item closer to you and minimizing the counterbalance needed. The neck and shoulder muscles work far easier when the body is in the stagger stance position than when the feet are side by side.
The stagger stance position promotes lifting from the floor with your knees out of the way (figure 6.7a). When you are lifting items from the floor, the stagger stance positions your knees at a diagonal and out of the way, allowing you to keep the item closer to you. Whether the knees are bent or not doesn’t matter; the key is to keep them out of the way so the item is closer to you. When the feet are side by side (figure 6.7b), you have to reach beyond your knees to grasp the item. This stance places the torso in a more horizontal position, which strains the spine. When the feet are staggered, the hands end up well inside the knees and the angle of the torso is more vertical, allowing the head to stay up.
To get an idea of the difference that keeping the item close to you makes, hold a bag of groceries in each hand with your forearms jutting forward and your elbows bent at the side. Now reach forward with both bags with your elbows straight in front of you. Which arm position is better for carrying the groceries? Compare the difference. Intuitively, we know that having the groceries closer to the body is easier, and that’s how we naturally carry things. You don’t walk in the garden with the shovel pointing straight in front of you. Rather, you grasp it in the middle with the shaft at your side. The same concept applies to lifting things from the floor. The more vertical your spine is, the easier it will be.
When you mop, rake, shovel, vacuum, or sweep, the stagger stance allows you to shift your weight from side to side or front to back, keeping the mop, rake, shovel, vacuum, or broom in concert with your front hand. By moving the front foot in the direction that you want to work, you keep the spine generally torsion free while your hips rotate. When the front hand moves beyond the front foot, the strain on the spine increases substantially. Shifting your weight as you work gives you the advantage of using your whole body to apply the sweeping, shoveling, or mopping force.
Visualize a worker shoveling debris. Back bent, feet side by side, he or she bends to scoop up a load of dirt, fully loading the spine. Upon returning to an upright position, again placing full demand on the spine, he or she twists to the side to dump the dirt into a wheelbarrow. This extra torsion force gradually but greatly wears down the discs, eventually causing pain. By using a stagger stance, the worker could shift his or her weight onto the forward foot when scooping up the dirt, shift onto the back foot when returning to upright, and then take a drop step similar to a basketball player’s pivot to move the whole body to the right to deposit the debris. Can you appreciate the difference in shear and torsion forces on the spine in these examples? The same is true for any similar task.
The stagger stance allows you to accomplish all three of our primary concepts whether you are lifting, reaching forward, carrying, sweeping, mopping, or raking.