Better backs for drivers

If you drive for significant periods whether for leisure or business, the car you drive, the position you adopt and the way you take breaks can cause your back problem or maintain it. This self help advice can help you to minimise the effect.

Research has shown that people who spend more than half their working day driving, or those who drive over 25,000 miles annually, are more likely to suffer lower back problems that cause sickness and absence from work. This certainly does not mean that those driving lesser amounts are not prone to problems and poor postural habits. Over a long period of time, they also, can suffer problems and lose time from work through back pain.
The causes of spinal problems experienced by drivers, tend to arise from fixed postures adopted over long periods. Exposure to vehicle vibration and poor seat design does not help. Space in the driver's compartment is important and the position and effort required to operate the pedals, steering wheel and gearshift can also contribute.
For professional drivers, the law requires employers to assess health and safety risks. It is well recognised that drivers' comfort and aggravation with existing back problems can be caused by driving for long periods. Employees also bear some responsibility for their own self care and risk reduction.

Features of a "Back Friendly" Vehicle

When choosing a vehicle, it is important to consider the requirements for the intended purpose. Features such as storage capacity are important and how children might be lifted in and out for example, but also how the vehicle can be adjusted in terms of seat and steering wheel design as well as leg room and headspace.

  • The seat should provide firm support beneath your bottom and in the small of your back.
  • It is preferable for the lower back support to be adjustable both in size and in height. The in and out adjustment will accommodate the different depths of lumbar curve of individuals and the height will ensure that support is provided at the correct level.
  • To determine whether the seat offers enough lumbar support, test drive the vehicle for at least 1 hour as a minimum.
  • Don't be blinded by the seat's initial comfort feeling.
  • If the amount of seat support and adjustment is not sufficient, there are many seating aids available that can be fitted to a vehicle's seat. Examples would be a "posture curve" and a "back friend".
  • The safety head restraint should not be too large and almust be adjustable. It should fit just a short distance behind the head, high enough to adjust to the top of the head and not allow the neck to hinge over it.
  • Check that the pedals are not noticeably offset from the centreline of the seat.
  • If possible select a vehicle with power assisted steering.
  • Consider an automatic gearbox to reduce back discomfort. The driver is less constrained without the need to depress the clutch.
  • Select a vehicle with a low boot sill for the purposes of lifting objects in and out.

Lifting into and out of your vehicle

If you are likely to lift items such as shopping or more bulky objects into your vehicle, consider:-

  • The choice of vehicle, with a low boot sill and its proximity to the bumper so that items can be lifted in and out easily
  • Organise items in the boot to reduce the amount of handling of more difficult objects.
  • Ensure items are stable and secure, so that items do not slide. If they do it is more difficult to reach them when you come to unload.
  • Consider storing objects on the front or back seats as long as they are adequately restrained and they are easier to lift out later.
  • Always park as close as possible to the drop off point.
  • Remember to park so that the doors can be opened fully and loads can be handled with a good posture.
  • After a prolonged journey, move around slowly before attempting any lifting of heavy or awkward items
  • In very cold conditions, beware of the temptation to rush loading and unloading This can increase the risk of back injury.

Driving breaks

There is a tendency to drive long journeys under pressure of time. It is also tempting not to take breaks. It is helpful to get out and move around whenever possible, in order to negate the effects of long periods of static postures.

  • Never drive for long periods without a break.
  • Allow extra time for short breaks when planning your journey.
  • On long journeys make stops when you begin to become aware of discomfort rather than pushing on just to get there.
  • If stuck in a traffic jam or at traffic lights, use this as an opportunity for an exercise break whilst sitting at the wheel. Pull your stomach muscles in and breathe forcefully out and then relax and repeat. Release muscle tension by raising your shoulders up to your ears, then move them in a circular direction both forwards and backwards.

For lorry drivers

  • Always use the footstep to climb in and out of the cabin and never jump to the ground. The impact loads through the spine and can cause back injuries, particularly after the back has been static for a long while.
  • Beware of opening doors, lifting roller shutters, releasing levers, putting on canvas curtains, etc. especially if these require a lot of effort to move. As well as stiffness, the use of these devices at shoulder level or above may encourage more effort in the spine. This can make you prone to strain.
  • Always use the tail lift and mechanical lifting equipment if available, to move loads on and off the truck.

And finally

Do be aware, that if you have problems with pain through driving, that it may be down to the vehicle that you are using. It is worth considering a trial of a different vehicle, to see whether this makes a difference. If it does you should consider changing it.

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