Nearly 65 million Americans report a recent episode of back pain, and some 16 million adults — 8% of all adults — experience persistent or chronic back pain, according to the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute. The American Chiropractic Association puts the number even higher, saying about 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time.
Approximately one out of every five cases of acute lower back pain turns into recurring chronic back pain, which makes this a more serious concern. Chronic back pain can often and quickly diminish a person’s quality of life.
Back pain is prevalent in truck drivers, given their job duties and lifestyle. Numerous studies of truck drivers around the world have found that long hours behind the wheel seem linked to a higher prevalence of back pain than the average population.
For a truck driver, chronic back pain can mean the inability to work and a loss of income. In fact, back pain is one of the leading causes of missed workdays in America. If a fleet has drivers suffering from back pain, it can mean fewer drivers to accommodate customers’ orders, an increased risk for traffic accidents, as well as an increase in sick leave pay and health insurance costs.
While the cause of back pain is not clearly identified in 90% of patients, there are several common factors connected to a large portion of them. Addressing these factors can significantly reduce the risk of, or help with the treatment of, back pain. The most common factors include:
- muscular-skeletal imbalances, which is a combination of tight and weak muscles
- a sedentary lifestyle
- being overweight
- having poor posture
- lack of warm-up of muscles before performing movements with heavy loads, repetitive or jerking movements.
For truck drivers, these factors are all too common. And while they may be challenging to overcome, there are things fleets can do to help their drivers with prevention or treatment of low-back pain:
1. Educate Drivers
First and foremost, education is key. Drivers need to know about common causes of back pain, as well as strategies for prevention and treatment. Whether through videos on a company app or website or through pamphlets at your terminals, there are various ways to educate your drivers.
2. Encourage Exercise
Fleets need to embrace a long-term vision and encourage drivers to do light exercises and stretches each time before they get behind the wheel, which will also increase alertness. Additionally, encourage drivers to take walks and stay active during breaks and after meals. Fleets can also provide exercise equipment such as resistance bands.
3. Support Healthier Diets
Encourage drivers to cook healthy food in their trucks and develop an active lifestyle to help with weight loss. Offer discounted coaching or other options.
4. Invest in Seating
Offer upgrades in driver’s seats, cushions and/or back supports to ensure proper posture, as well as absorption of constant vibrations caused by a truck driving on the road.
Teach drivers to change positions on occasion when driving so muscles do not become too stiff in the same position. And offering discounted upgrades for sleeper mattresses is critical; many of the less-expensive mattresses do not provide proper support.
5. Promote Warm-ups
Develop a culture of drivers who do warm-up exercises to start and end their day. This will significantly reduce the risk of developing an injury from activities such as getting in and out of the truck, dropping a trailer or doing pre-trip inspections.
For truck drivers, long periods in the seated position not only lead to a sedentary lifestyle, but also can cause musculoskeletal imbalances. The most common imbalances that lead to back pain are tightness in the hip flexor muscles, hamstrings (back of thighs), chest and front shoulder muscles, while developing atrophy in the glutes and in the back and neck muscles.
I’ve posted a video to my YouTube channel with exercises you can share with your drivers to help them reduce the risk and or reduce the symptoms from back pain: https://youtu.be/Lb3l-v_th-g
This commentary first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.