Proper Mechanics to Avoid Back Pain

By Barb Frye
[Body Awareness]

When it comes to achieving pain-free body mechanics, we need to be aware of how we bend, since many of us spend a great deal of time working from a standing position. Bending the wrong way can potentially cause back pain or exacerbate a chronic back problem, so it’s smart to have alternative approaches in mind.
Here are a few options for troubleshooting back pain when bending.
If you already have back problems, working at a low table and applying deep pressure is not wise. Instead, work with a higher table and offer only modalities that use a light touch. Once your back feels stronger, you can try returning to a lower table and deeper pressure, but first practice with a colleague to make sure your back is up for the task.
Standing with one foot on a step or a block can help relieve back pain while bending. Experiment with different step heights, and with the step under your left or right foot, to find the best combination for you. It is usually the case that one position will help relieve tension where another position does not.
Bending from the hips, knees, and ankles while keeping your back in a neutral position is a healthy strategy. If you are having a difficult time keeping your low back in a neutral position, try placing a piece of masking tape on your skin, down your lumbar spine, while standing upright. When you start to bend from your low back, the tape will pull and give tension, giving you tactile feedback. When you feel the tape begin to pull, simply stop and bring yourself back to a neutral standing position. Then, begin again with the intention of bending from your hip joints, knees, and ankles. With this kind of feedback, you will quickly learn how to feel the difference between bending from your low back versus your lower joints.

Seated Bending Exercises
Many therapists feel they must stand during their treatments. Remember, your comfort is the first priority. Sitting to work is always a good alternative when a standing position is simply too uncomfortable. The following exercises will help you find a comfortable and effective way to bend while sitting.
Set your table low enough that you would be able to work on a client comfortably while sitting. Sit on your chair, vertically aligned, using your pelvis, thighs, and feet for support. Make sure your legs are wide enough apart so you can bend freely from your hip joints.

Bend from the Hips. Begin to bend forward from your hip joints, keeping your spine in a neutral position. Bend just a little bit forward and then come back to a vertical position.
Do this several times until you can easily bend forward with your upper body from your hip joints. If you feel yourself start to bend from somewhere in your back, stop and rest for a moment. Then, try again to bend from your hip joints. Take your time until this feels comfortable for you.
Bend with arms reaching. Sit as before, and begin to bend while reaching your hands out on your table, as if working with a client. Again, be sure to start bending from your hip joints; keep your back in a neutral position. Make slow and small movements, and make sure you are truly bending from your hip joints and not your back.

Feel lower body support. Sit as before, bending and reaching forward from your hip joints. Bring your awareness to your legs and feet. Do you sense the weight increasing in your feet as you bend forward? Continue to bend from your hip joints, feeling how your legs and feet can help support your weight and your forward movement.
Now, just for comparison, bend and reach forward, but this time bend from your back. Notice how your body responds to this kind of bending. Do you feel more effort in your back? In your neck and shoulders? Do you feel a restriction of movement in your arms? How does bending from your back influence your breathing?
Now, return to bending and reaching forward from your hip joints. Do you sense less effort in your back? In your neck and shoulders? Do you feel more freedom of movement in your arms? How does bending from your hip joints influence your breathing?

Bend while turning. Bend again from your hip joints and begin to reach your hands toward the right side of your table. As you bend to the right, your left foot can help assist the movement by pressing into the floor, directing your movement to the right. Do you feel your weight shift a bit to your right side?
Now, reach toward the left side of your table, bending from your hip joints. As you bend to the left, your right foot can help assist the movement by pressing into the floor, directing your movement to the left. Do you feel your weight shift to your left side?
Begin to alternate, reaching toward one side of your table and then toward the other side. Continue to make these movements until they feel comfortable to you.
Practicing these simple but effective movement lessons will not only help in situations where you need relief from standing, but will also increase your overall bending awareness when working and in everyday life.

Barb Frye has been a massage educator and therapist since 1990. She coordinated IBM’s body mechanics program and authored Body Mechanics for Manual Therapists: A Functional Approach to Self-Care (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010), now in its third edition. She has a massage and Feldenkrais practice at the Pluspunkt Center for Therapy and Advanced Studies near Zurich, Switzerland. Contact her at

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