“I don’t know what I did to cause this injury, Doc. I’ve had lower back pain on and off for the past five years, but it’s never been like this before. All I did was reach under the boom for a roll of cable on the truck when I felt something give in my back and then felt shooting pain down both legs. What the heck happened?”
This is not an unusual story. When I used to practice as a chiropractic orthopedist, I heard similar accounts on a daily basis. Lower back pain affects utility workers in epidemic proportions. In 2004, my company surveyed 224 employees of a public electric utility, and the results revealed that more than one of every five lineworkers reported living with moderate to severe lower back pain on a weekly or daily basis. There are valid reasons why most lineworkers believe that lower back pain is just a consequence of the work they do, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Mechanics of Back Pain
Most lower back pain is mechanical in nature, meaning it does not come from cancers, other diseases or infections. But it doesn’t necessarily come from performing physical work either. All physical work causes some daily microscopic wear and tear of your body, and the more a job requires you to do physically, the more wear and tear will occur. Before you start looking for another job, however, remember that your body is fully capable of repairing the vast majority of the wear and tear that occurs from demanding physical work. The painful conditions that most lineworkers experience in their careers occur because the balance between the amount of damage done each day and the repair that occurs each day gets thrown out of whack. How you position and move your body as you perform work dramatically affects how much wear and tear you sustain each day. Habitually working with stressful techniques can cause more microscopic damage on a daily basis than your body is capable of repairing. If it is not repaired, this microscopic damage accumulates over time and eventually causes painful conditions. “Cumulative trauma” is the name given to this slow accumulation of microscopic damage. As cumulative trauma increases over the years, the end results commonly are painful conditions, serious injuries and degenerative arthritis.