Should you wear an orthopedic brace to prevent injuries at work? Both office and field workers look to braces to help with common ailments such as lower back and wrist pain. In this 3-part series, our injury prevention specialists at MoveSafe discuss the different types of braces available, their purpose and how they should be used.
Lower Back Support Belts
These braces are corset-like and usually have rigid plastic inserts on the back and elastic straps that attach with Velcro at the front. Lower back support belts are designed to reduce range of motion in the lumbar section of your spine and increase the internal pressure of the abdomen when performing activities such as heavy lifting. You often see these braces on weight-lifters at the gym or on warehouse pickers who manually lift heavy items during their shift. These belts are designed to be tightened only during a heavy lift, then loosened for light and moderate activities.
Warehouse pickers often encounter problems with lower back support belts because they’re lifting heavy objects all day, and thus they feel the need to stay tightened for their entire shift. Wearing this brace cinched all day can lead to decreased strength in the postural muscles of the lower back because they are no longer being loaded. Then at the end of the day when you take the brace off, your back is weaker and you are at a higher risk of back injury outside of work. The increase in abdominal pressure can also have significant negative effects on your body as it reduces blood flow to your internal organs and lower body. If you choose to wear lower back support belts it is paramount that you use it only when lifting heavy objects, then loosen it immediately after.
One of the most important things you can do to protect your back from the effects of repetitive heavy lifting, whether you wear a brace or not, is to make sure you properly prepare your body and lift with good technique:
The Core Push-Pull exercise activates the deep core muscles that provide support for the lower back. Warming up with this exercise is important because these muscles often need to be ‘woken up’ and reminded that they have a job to do.
The Hip Hinge exercise is aimed at setting muscle memory to ensure your glutes and hamstrings are used to perform a lift instead of the small muscles in the lower back. Lifting any object, including things that are perceived to be light, should always be done with proper hip hinge technique because every time you bend you have to lift the Hidden Load.
Upper Back Postural Straps
These upper back posture straps are worn over the shoulders like a backpack with straps made out of a rigid material. These straps are designed to prevent the user from slipping into a hunched posture as the rigid material keeps the user in a more upright position. Just like with the lower back support belts, if these straps are worn for prolonged periods, they actually make you weaker. Your body starts to rely on the external support and once the strap is taken off the postural muscles in between the shoulder blades will fatigue quickly and you will slip into hunched postures even quicker than before you started wearing the posture straps.
A potential alternative is wearing a posture correction device. This is a small gadget worn between the shoulder blades and detects the angle of bend in the upper back and vibrates to let you know when you hunch. You then correct your own posture by sitting up straight again. This lets you strengthen and train the muscles in between your shoulders.
Another alternative is to use K-tape as a posture correction tool. You apply the tape in a large X pattern across your upper back with minimal tension, when you are sitting with your best posture. Watch this video explaining the correct way to apply this tape technique. With K-tape, you start to slouch, you will feel the tape on your back start to tug which acts as a reminder, similar to the vibration on the posture correction device.
Having a physical reminder to correct your posture is great but regular strengthening and activation of the postural muscles in your upper back can help you maintain good posture for longer periods of time. The Shoulder Hinge exercise is fantastic because it helps stretch out tight pectoral muscles that pull you into a slouched position while also working to activate the muscles in between the shoulder blades that hold the shoulders anchored position.