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Almost everyone has felt that twinge of pain at the base of their spine. Eighty percent of Americans have complained of back pain at some point in their lives, and truck drivers are even more prone to ache.
“A survey we did a few years ago showed trucking was one of the top five professions for back pain,” says Jesse Cannone, certified personal trainer and founder of The Healthy Back Institute.
Lower back disorders are associated with heavy lifting and forceful movements, routine duties for many drivers. And back problems can lead to more than just discomfort. Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and founder of Atlas Ergonomics in Grand Haven, Mich., says back injuries cost the transportation industry millions of dollars and can mean lost income for drivers.
Get out and stretch
Studies have shown the constant, whole-body vibrations truckers experience can also contribute to lower back pain. Muscles tightened from sitting need to be stretched before use to lessen the risk of injury. Cannone recommends two minutes of stretching every time drivers get in and out of the truck.
He suggests simple moves like placing one foot on the step of the truck while stretching the back leg in a lunge position. Bend the front knee and push the hip forward, hold for 20 seconds, and repeat with the opposite leg.
Touching your toes or bending backwards with your hands on your hips will also help to stretch tight back muscles. Gently rotating the head from side to side and front to back a few times can relieve tension that builds up in neck muscles.
Long periods of sitting in one position, followed by episodes of heavy lifting, pushing or pulling places drivers at an increased risk for injury. Bossen estimates 99 percent of back injuries occur from bending forward, which causes the disc between spinal joints to bulge out, making it more vulnerable to injury. He says drivers should use a “lock and load” technique. Locking elbows close to the side makes it impossible to lift without using the legs and keeps the spine safe.
Comfort in the cab
Correctly fitting the truck to the driver reduces fatigue and eliminates discomfort. “The envelope of the truck fits someone who is 6 feet tall very well,” says Bossen. Taller or shorter drivers need to make adjustments. Custom features to adapt brake pedals and seats are available but come with a hefty price tag. The next best thing is to adjust standard features properly. Even basic seats are sometimes equipped with air or mechanical lumbar supports. Bossen recommends supports be filled completely and then deflated gradually, until the driver feels comfortable. This reduces slouching, which pushes back discs out of position.
Drivers need to look at their total driving activity and how their body moves as they roll down the road. It takes 60-70 pounds of pressure to operate the clutch in some trucks. Coming off the seat when clutching can put backs at risk, so Bossen advises drivers to move seats forward. But remember, seats move in many directions. Placing the back of the seat at a slight angle relieves pressure on the spine. Also, make adjustments so that the back of the knee clears the edge of the seat. This prevents pressure that can irritate nerves and limit blood flow. The steering column should be aligned to allow legs to move freely without bumping against it, and so the steering wheel is easily held without having to reach for it. Mirrors should be positioned so that drivers have a clear view without leaning or twisting.
Finally, life on the road means drivers often develop poor eating habits and deal with a fair amount of stress. Cannone points out that both factors can lead to back pain. “Poor nutrition affects healing,” he says. “Being overweight can cause added stress on the back.” He suggests snacking on nutritious foods like beef jerky, trail mix and fruit and suggests drivers drink a glass of water for every hour behind the wheel.
Cannone also encourages drivers to focus on maintaining a positive attitude. Good physical and mental habits help prevent life on the road from becoming a pain in the back.