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Guest Opinions

Back in the Saddle, Back on the Farm

Written by Randy R. Weigel

By Randy Weigel, Wyoming AgrAbility Director

Whether a rancher, farmer, ag worker or gardener, those involved in agriculture are at risk for back problems. Back pain can result from damage to the vertebrae themselves. But most problems involve the intervertebral discs, muscles, nerves, tendons or ligaments. The most common problems affecting agricultural workers are those involving the lower part of the back. It carries a heavier workload than other parts of the spine.

Occupational risk factors

Ranchers and farmers are at a high risk for back problems. 

This is because their work often involves lifting, pushing or pulling heavy loads, such as machine parts, seed and feed containers and bales of hay. Whole body vibration when operating vehicles, particularly during field work can also cause problems. Both regular vibrations and sudden jolts can cause injury to the back.

Awkward working postures like bending, stooping, reaching and twisting in such activities as feeding, laying irrigation pipe, or picking crops can lead to back problems. Slips, trips and falls when working in wet, slippery, uneven or elevated conditions increases the risk of injury.

Repetitive tasks such as milking and handling small hay bales can cause back problems. Direct contact with unpredictable livestock may cause traumatic injuries to the back.

Preventing back problems

Many people do not think about the health of their backs until they experience pain. A few simple strategies can reduce the risk of back pain and injury. 

Advice on back health and safety is also available from health care providers, physical therapists and occupational therapists. If you wait until back pain becomes severe, it may be too late for preventative measures. 

To protect the back from injury, think about balance, posture and body mechanics during everyday activities.

Standing 

Standing for long periods of time, especially on hard floors such as concrete, can aggravate the lower back. If you must stand, adopt a relaxed posture, keeping the head and trunk upright.

Move closer to the work area to reduce the need to lean forward.

Use anti-fatigue insoles or anti-fatigue matting if standing on concrete floors.

Alternately prop one foot then the other on a low bar, bucket or lower shelf of a workbench.

Vary body positions and activities throughout the day to minimize repetitive activities and sustained postures.

Sitting 

A good sitting posture means supporting the natural curvature of the back. The weight of the trunk should rest slightly backward against a suitable backrest. The seat should be deep enough to support most of the buttocks and thighs. 

Use chairs with armrests, if possible, since arm support can significantly reduce spinal joint pressure in the lower back.

Change positions or stand for short periods when possible.

Sleeping 

Different sleeping positions create different levels of stress on the back.

Spinal joint compression is minimized when sleeping on the back with the lumbar and cervical curves of the spine supported. A pillow under the knees can also help. 

When sleeping on your side, keep a pillow between your knees and lower legs to help maintain better spinal alignment.

Sleeping on the stomach puts the greatest level of strain on the back and often involves turning the head to either side. This increases strain on the neck and adjacent muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Treatments for back problems

Most people with lower back pain initially have mild symptoms and improve with minimal treatment in a matter of days. However, about a third of sufferers experience a recurrence of pain within six months of the initial pain. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, if you do not notice some improvement in your conditions within 72 hours of self-care, you should see your health care provider. 

To self-manage pain, ranchers and farmers with back problems may need to make adjustments to their daily routines. Sitting, standing or driving for shorter periods, with more frequent posture changes and movement, may tend to aid recovery. 

Heavy and awkward lifting should be avoiding, especially when recovering from back pain.

In some cases, heat and cold may be helpful in reducing back pain. 

Cold therapy, such as the use of ice packs or frozen peas, is often used to soothe or numb acute injuries, such as sprains and strains. It can also reduce swelling due to inflammation. 

Heat therapy, such as a heating pad, may be used to stimulate blood flow to the injured area and to relax stiff muscles. Heat should not be applied to inflamed areas.

In many cases of back pain, a short period of rest, usually not more than a day, may be helpful. Extended bed rest is not only ineffective, it may significantly increase recovery time. 

The best course of action is to return to normal daily activities as quickly as possible while avoiding tasks with a high risk of re-injury.

Other options

Medications, including muscle relaxants, pain relievers or anti-inflammatory drugs, such as acetaminophen, naproxen and ibuprofen, may be prescribed by a health care provider or purchased over-the-counter. Be sure to follow dosage instructions.

Complimentary treatments are also an option. 

Chiropractic treatment may be helpful for patients with low back problems. Chiropractic adjustments may restore joint function and mobility and relieve irritation. Other treatments such as acupressure, herbal medications and therapeutic massage have also been used to treat low back pain.

Back problems are some of the most common physical impairments in agriculture and can be challenging to manage. So before making changes, seek the advice of appropriate professionals, including a health care provider.

Content for this article came from the booklet, BACK on the farm, BACK in the saddle: A guide to back health in agriculture, from the National AgrAbility Project. For a version of this booklet with more detailed information on managing back pain, visit agrability.org/resources/back.

Randy R. Weigel is a professor, Extension specialist and director of Wyoming AgrAbility in the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 307-766-4186 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..