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How Caregivers Can Prevent Back Pain

By Katherine O'BrienOctober 9, 2018
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If you’ve ever transferred a parent from a bed to a chair, you probably won’t be surprised to know that family caregiving can put you at risk for musculoskeletal pain. The good news is that a wearable device is being developed to help prevent back strain in caregivers.

Learn more about this device and how caregivers can prevent back pain while caring for senior loved ones.

How PostureCoach Prevents Back Pain

Back injuries in family caregivers and healthcare workers are “a surprisingly big problem that’s only going to get worse,” says Dr. Tilak Dutta, a Toronto scientist whose Ph.D. focused on preventing back injury in caregivers.

The physical challenges of handling or lifting another person “is really beyond the physical capacity of what we should consider reasonable,” he says.

Dutta not only knows about the problem of back injuries in caregivers, but he’s also working on a solution. He’s the head of a Toronto Rehab team that created PostureCoach, a wearable device that provides an instant audio alert or signals a vibration when caregivers are in a posture that puts them at high risk for back injury.

“It’s very difficult for most people when they’re actually in the midst of doing one of these care tasks to think actively about how they’re moving,” he says. “We don’t do that very well naturally.”

A pilot study showed that new health professionals and people with no caregiving experience or training “pretty dramatically” decreased the amount of time spent in high-risk positions when using PostureCoach, says Dutta.

The device measures the angle between two sensors – one positioned for the upper back and the other for the lower back. It encourages wearers to bend from the hips instead of flexing their spine, which puts less strain on their back.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to bend [but], there’s really not that much out there that can tease apart that difference,” says Dutta. Most other posture devices are designed with office workers in mind and “don’t seem to work at all” for people whose tasks include a lot of bending, he adds.

Other Ways That Caregivers Can Prevent Back Pain

To get a better understanding of how back injuries happen and how they can be prevented, check out this video created by Dutta.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website also provides some good guidelines to follow when lifting or moving someone, including:

  • Keeping the person you are moving closer to your body
  • Keeping your head and neck in proper alignment with your spine
  • Placing your feet shoulder-width apart to maintain balance
  • Using the muscles in your legs to lift and/or pull

This article from The Times-Tribune also points out that adopting a fitness routine that includes core stabilization exercises can also help prevent back pain.

These exercises strengthen the deep internal muscles in your abdomen, hips, lower back and pelvis and train them to activate when you move your body.

The Exorbitant Injury Rate in Caregivers and Healthcare Workers

Although “we don’t have good numbers on the injury rate of family caregivers,” Dutta points out that personal support workers (PSWs), who often perform tasks like bathing or toileting patients, have a sky-high injury rate.

“It’s a sad irony when you have a healthcare worker caring for someone and hurting their own health in the process… It’s like a double negative hit to the health care system because you not only take out a caregiver but you create a new patient for this system that’s already being stretched in various ways.”

In British Columbia, the injury rate of long-term care workers health was found to be four times higher than the provincial average injury rate — at 9.3 per 100 workers — with most related to over-exertion from patient handling, according to WorkSafeBC statistics, as reported in the Vancouver Sun.

Dutta speculates that family caregivers may be at even higher risk of injury since they often lack training in how to safely perform tasks.

Dutta says the next step is to test PostureCoach in “the real world” with family caregivers, nurses and PSWs. If you would like to be part of the evaluating and testing process, email Dutta: Tilak.Dutta@uhn.ca and he will send you a device you can use in your home or that of your parent or senior loved one.

“The lab testing that we’ve done so far makes us believe that we’re almost there, but we really do need to test the system with real end users [like] family caregivers and get their feedback,” says Dutta. “I would say we’re maybe a year away from trying to get a product on the market.”

Are you a family caregiver? In what other ways do you prevent back pain while caregiving? We’d like to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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Katherine O'Brien