Before any commercial airplane takes off, the chief flight attendant makes the same, FAA-mandated announcement about passenger safety techniques that are to be followed during the flight. One of those involves the deployment of the oxygen masks. Thousands of times each day, passengers are reminded to “place the oxygen mask on your face BEFORE helping others.”

The reason for this is simple. The only way children or others who need assistance can be helped in an emergency is when the caregiver who is in charge of them is safe. There is a valuable lesson here for the caregivers of older family members and loved ones:

Taking care of oneself is critical to assisting those who are unable to take care of themselves.

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance in San Francisco, “more caregivers are hospitalized due to burnout and stress-related illness than due to worsening medical conditions. The reason is clear: Caregivers tend to put themselves last.

“Despite its many rewards, including sharing love and developing inner strengths, caregiving can be overwhelming. Especially when caregivers are expected to do this work for the short term and find themselves in for the long haul, self-care is often left out of the equation.”

This “caregiver overload” can result in emotional duress, such as feelings of stress, isolation, guilt, depression, helplessness, anger and resentment. Dealing with these emotional conditions often requires the assistance of a professional counselor or, at the very least, a support group.

In addition to the mental stress, physical pain and injury often occur to the caregiver.

A well-respected website for aging care notes that “one of the most common injuries suffered by caregivers in a home setting is back injuries. Other dangers include exposure to needle sticks when caring for someone with diabetes or someone who needs supervised injections, as well as blood-borne pathogens that may be contained in saliva, urine, and blood. In addition, exposure to contagious illnesses or diseases may also occur. Still, by far, the most prevalent injuries among caregivers are those that involve the back, neck and shoulder joints.”

How to Keep Your Neck and Back Healthy While Taking Care of Loved Ones

It has been noted that many caregivers (most of whom are 40 – 50 years old themselves) are simply not suited for such physical stress. “With the physical demands of physically lifting, turning and transferring loved ones, an injury is common. In fact, it is estimated that musculoskeletal injuries that occur as a result of lifting or moving patients affects nearly 52 percent of caregivers.”

Dr. Jessica Shellock a spine surgeon in the North Texas area and a member of the referral line of Texas Health Spine & Orthopedic Center has seen how injuries can occur when caregivers use incorrect techniques for lifting.

“In many cases, the caregiver is already exhausted when they get up in the morning,” she said. “This mental and muscle fatigue makes them even more vulnerable to injuries from lifting their loved ones.

“The spine supports the human body and it is constantly used, especially for lifting heavy objects. This process is made even more problematic for caregivers because they must handle awkward situations in a home environment, including patients who are uncooperative, overweight, fearful and even wet; all of which increase the risk of injury.

“Physical therapy literature notes that the most important aspect of preventing shoulder, neck and back injuries is proper lifting technique. Here are six ways to reduce chances of injury when transferring patients. Caregivers should always:

  • Make sure that their feet are stable and as close as possible to the person being lifted.
  • Face the person to be lifted, slightly bend the knees and squat in preparation to lift. Hold in the abdominals and keep the back straight. This will add lifting strength and encourage additional power from legs and arms.
  • Maintain a position near the loved one so that excess strain is not placed on the back by leaning over.
  • When turning a loved one from back to side, distribute weight equally between their feet and try to avoid extended-forward bending movements as much as possible.
  • Point feet toward the person being lifted. If possible, place one foot in between the person’s feet and one foot to the outside for optimal stability.
  • Attempt to lift using a smooth, flowing motion, pushing upward with leg muscles.

When possible, the caregiver should attempt to alleviate awkward body positions while bathing, dressing and lifting a loved one. Avoiding twisting, bending and stooping positions will help to prevent strain not only on the spine but also on muscles and joints.”

Understanding Home Ergonomics Can Help Prevent Injuries to all Parties

While it is impossible to completely “injury-proof” a home, ergonomic considerations can help prevent some accidents. According to Aging.com, “Ergonomics is a relatively new term that helps to prevent injuries by identifying and alleviating risk factors that put strain on the body in a wide variety of occupations. Ergonomics is practiced not only in lifting but in all aspects of home health care, including performing ordinary household tasks like laundry and cleaning, to helping a loved one bathe or dress.

“Injuries can be alleviated by the use of:

  • Grab bars and toilet seat risers in the bathroom
  • Adjustable shower benches or chairs designed for bathtub use
  • Adequate activity planning to reduce the number of transfers needed
  • Proper training in positioning and ergonomic lifting procedures

“Identifying risk factors for injury include:

  • The effort that is required to move a person
  • The posture of the person performing the task
  • The position of the person’s center of gravity in relation to the person transferring or lifting them
  • The number of times a person must be moved, turned or lifted on a daily basis
  • The ability of the person to help with transfers
  • The physical ability of the caregiver to facilitate such transfers

“Safe lifting techniques should be learned in order to maintain the safety not only of the individual, but the caregiver. A caregiver who finds that the physical strain of providing care becomes too difficult may endanger safety for their loved one. Knowing when to ask for help and not being hesitant to doing so may prevent unfortunate accidents and injuries.”

Take Care

Caregiving can be the most rewarding task anyone can ever accomplish. However, it can also cause emotional and physical pain for the caregiver and result in injuries that take them away from loved ones at a time when they are most needed.

Practice preventive caregiving for the sake of yourself and your loved one.

Have you experienced an injury from caregiving? If your back or neck pain has persisted for more than two weeks, contact us.

Physicians who are members of the referral program practice independently and are not employees or agents of Texas Health Spine & Orthopedic Center.