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Study finds straight back for lifting may be a myth

The belief that lifting with a straight back minimises the risk of injury may be busted with new research out of Curtin University.

The research paper, ‘To flex or not to flex? Is there a relationship between lumbar spine flexion during lifting and low back pain? A systematic review with meta-analysis’, published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, suggests that neither lifting with a straight nor a rounded back results in a higher chance of back pain.

The study reviewed all the available research, which included 12 articles involving 697 participants, to investigate whether lifting with a rounded back was a risk factor for back pain compared to lifting with a straight back.

Professor Peter O’Sullivan, School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science at Curtin University, said lifting remained a significant risk factor for low back pain and there was still a strong belief that lifting with a rounded back could increase this risk.
“Workplace health and safety representatives, healthcare practitioners, as well as gym instructors, advise that lifting with a rounded back should be avoided and instead insist that the safest way to lift is with a straight back,” said Professor O’Sullivan, who co-led the study.

“We reviewed previous studies of participants who had lifted objects, ranging from a pen up to 12 kilograms in weight. We found no evidence to suggest that people who lift with a rounded back were at an increased risk of low back pain. Studies investigating this question, where people lifted heavier weights, simply don’t exist.

“Gradually building tolerance to lifting and being fit for lifting might be important in reducing the risk of lifting-related low back pain. Other factors such as repetitive lifting when fatigued or tired, having poorer mental and physical health, and being overweight might also be more important than the way you lift.”

Lead author Mr Nic Saraceni said advice to keep your back straight when lifting was not justified by current research evidence, adding that further research was needed to understand the risk factors better.

“Modifications made to workplace environments such as removing lifts from the ground and lifting technique suggestions, such as keeping the load close when lifting and reducing lifts in awkward postures, is sensible advice and may reduce load on the back.

“Further research is needed to see how people who have worked in a lifting job for many years without low back pain position their back when they lift. These people may hold the clues to better understanding the risk factors for low back pain in lifting occupations,” said Mr Saraceni.

Physiotherapist Selina Tannenberg said while health professionals and fitness experts have long advocated straight back lifting, it’s an impractical and impossible pursuit because human beings are unique.

“Lift in a position you feel strong in, one that you feel you have a good hold of the load and can handle sudden surprises such as a missed step or a sneeze, and perhaps most importantly, practise smart and honest lifting and only lift a load that you… have the capacity to lift,” said Ms Tannenberg.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.