Back pain is very common – a survey published in 2000 showed that almost half the adult population suffered from low back pain lasting more that 24 hours at sometime during the year

Increasingly common, back pain is thought to be largely due to our more sedentary lifestyles. Teaching, however, is a profession where you are active and on your feet all day, so what are the risks in the classroom?

What Causes Back Pain?

Your spine consists of 33 vertebrae, with shock absorbing discs in-between the 24 independent upper vertebrae, and all supported by a complex arrangement of ligaments and muscles that run along the length of the spine. The discs contain soft jelly centre (nucleus) and outer fibrous ring (annulus). A healthy spine has a gentle S shape with hollow (concave) curves in the neck and lower back. These curves need to be there to help with overall shock absorption, but do not need to become exaggerated. The lower or lumbar back is most vulnerable, since it not only supports all the upper body weight, but is also an area involved in much bending and twisting.

Two very common causes of back pain are poor posture and poor lifting / carrying technique. Habitual poor posture strains the supporting ligaments and muscles, over exaggerates the spinal curves, and the muscles may go into spasm, all of which can cause pain. Poor posture, along with poor lifting, also stresses the discs between the vertebrae, and can result in the soft jelly of the nucleus protruding through a tear in the outer fibrous ring and this causes pain (often referred as a ‘slipped disc’). There are also other (less common) diseases of the spine, and increasingly psychosocial issues have been found to impact on back pain, especially chronic back pain.

Teachers and Back Pain

Increased risk factors for teachers include:

1. Lifting heavy loads e.g. books, OHPs and other equipment and small children. You can minimise the risk of lifting by using the correct technique: straddle yourself over the load you intend to lift, feet wide apart, tuck your pelvis under, bend the knees and hips to lower

2. Bending or stooping over children at their tables/desks Preferably, learn to squat or kneel down beside a table/child – this may needs exercises to stretch and strengthen relevant leg muscles so that you can do this comfortably. If this is not possible, when you lean forward support your body weight by placing one hand (preferably both) on your thighs, or on the desk/table. This avoids suspending all your upper body weight on spinal ligaments, which will become sprained.

Poor posture, either seated or standing is a major risk factor. This includes twisting e.g. as you turn from the board to the class and back again.

Think posture – at all times!

If standing, your knees should be slightly soft, your pelvis aligned centrally, your spine lengthened, your shoulders back and relaxed, your chest and head lifted.Too many people stand with their knees forced back, which tilts the pelvis and exaggerates the hollow in the lower back, and pain results. This is more common in those who wear high heels, so consider your footwear. Standing with one foot slightly raised on a platform a few inches high can really help prevent the exaggerated pelvic tilt (but remember to swap legs frequently!). This adaptation is useful for standing chores at home too.

If seated, the same principles apply, except that feet should be placed hip distance apart and under the knees, with feet flat on the floor. If your feet don’t reach the floor, that raised platform could be just what you need again, or a foot bar attached to the desk. Keep your body close to the desk. Ensure you sit square on, and that your seat height means that your forearms (placed on the desk) are horizontal, and your knees slightly above your hips. You may also find that a lumbar support cushion (or rolled towel) helps.

3. Prolonged sitting when e.g. marking, preparing work on a computer.

Apart from ensuring good seated posture, you need to MOVE – frequently! Best of all, get up and walk around briefly every 20 minutes or so. Arrange items on your desk to avoid excessive reaching and twisting.

Action for Back Pain (1,2)

Contact your GP immediately if your back pain:

  • happens immediately after impact injury or a fall;
  • happens immediately after lifting an object;
  • is accompanied by unusual symptoms such as numbness, pins and needles, or pain down the legs;
  • is associated with the onset of a fever or chills;
  • is getting worse;
  • lasts more than 48 hours.Otherwise, the best thing is to move gently e.g.walk, carefully go about your everyday activities,and avoid bed rest unless the pain is unbearable.

Help yourself at home

  • Think about how you sit at home (especially watching TV). Get up and move around (try NOT using the remote control!).
  • Bend your knees not your back when vacuuming or making beds.
  • Raise your work height to prevent stooping in the kitchen e.g. using a thick wooden chopping board if necessary.
  • Take regular exercise, strengthen your abdominal muscles (the lower back’s natural corset of support).
  • Quit smoking (smoking reduces blood supply and therefore nutrients to the back and its supporting structures).

All these tips for looking after your back will help prevent you from developing back pain, or to manage it more effectively if you already suffer from back pain.

Finally, if your back problem is a chronic one, you may be able to get special equipment to help at work – your local Disability Employment Adviser is the person to contact – find via Employment Service in the telephone directory. (1) TEX


  1., the website of the National Back Pain Association
  2. YMCA Healthy Back Book published by Human Kinetics

Resources and Further Reading

  • Back Care at the National Back Care Association – useful series of leaflets about back care, Vertebral Reality book and teacher’s pack. Tel: 020 8977 5474 Fax: 020 8943 5318
  • Body Action Campaign – visits schools, running workshops for children of all ages to help them look after their backs Tel: 020 8682 2154
  • RSI Association – For information, support and advice Tel: 0800 018 5012
  • Back Stability – Christopher Norris, published by Human Kinetics ISBN: 0 7360 0081 X

Tessa has a background in medical sciences and veterinary medicine, but since 1993 has been a self-employed fitness instructor and tutor. She is a qualified educator (PGCE) and delivers training in GP Referral to health professionals. She also has experience in designing and delivering customised training to the fitness and health sectors.