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Housework and Back Pain

Q: When my low back goes out, I have trouble doing chores. Should I rest? Will doing housework make it worse?


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A: Nearly all of us experience low back pain at some point in our lives. Back spasm, tension and strain can make even routine cleaning unbearable. Here are a few ways to make chores more comfortable while you are waiting for your back to heal, and tips to help prevent future flare-ups.
Back Pain
Back pain is often caused by twisting, straining, overwork or minor injury, even if you do not remember doing it. As the body tries to repair itself, spasm, muscle tension and inflammation may result. It is crucial to check with your doctor to make sure that your back pain is the ordinary kind that so many of us experience. Signs like numbness, tingling or loss of strength in the legs; weight loss; chills, sweats or fever; loss of bowel or bladder control and other symptoms warrant special attention to look for more serious causes of back pain. Most ordinary or “garden variety” back pain will go away in a week or two as long as you avoid additional injury or strain.
In the past, complete bed rest for three days was recommended; however, this did not prove to be more helpful than engaging in light, gentle activity. For many people this means that a little light housework, done correctly, will not cause a setback to healing. Your own body will teach you which positions and approaches are more comfortable, so listen to your back and stop immediately if you experience more pain or strain. Use common sense and postpone heavy-duty chores until your back has healed.
Proper Bending for Chores
Bending down to pick up clothes, crouching forward to unload the dishwasher or dryer or leaning over to make a bed can be particularly hard on a sore back. Here are a few tips to assure proper lifting:


  • Whether you have back pain or not, lift with your legs. Bend at the knees, not at the waist. Keep your upper body tall and upright, with a natural arch to the lower back. Let your legs gently lower you down. Keep your abdominal muscles tucked in snugly to stabilize your spine.

  • Make full use of your arms. For dusting in low places, tie a barely damp rag around a rod or the end of a broomstick. If you need to get closer to the floor, and squatting is not comfortable, consider kneeling on one or both knees, supported by a cushion.

  • Twisting, especially while lifting, can cause injury, so when turning let your feet make the turn first, so that your whole body pivots. Do not turn just from the waist up. Once you pick up an object, keep it close to your body as you lift.

  • Keep your neck long and tall. When phoning, do not cradle the telephone between the shoulder and ear; this head tilt can put pressure on the upper spine, which may result in strain to the lower back.
Break It Up

Staying in one position for a long time while doing dishes, ironing, preparing food or paying bills can put a strain on the back. Take frequent breaks to change your position, walk around a bit or stretch gently. If possible, move your task to a countertop or table where the height is most comfortable for you — typically around waist level.


Experiment to see whether placing one foot a little higher than the other gives you more comfort. For example, when doing dishes, place one foot on a low footstool or a thick book. Or open a cabinet and place one foot inside on the bottom shelf. Alternate feet.


Break large tasks into smaller ones. For example, move wet laundry one or two pieces at a time into the dryer. Unload the dishwasher a few items at a time. And do not try to lug a huge bag of garbage or a full recycling bin all at once.

Ice and Rest
In addition to rest and a little gentle movement, ice can sometimes soothe a flare-up. Make your own gel pack by mixing one part rubbing alcohol to three parts water in a measuring cup. Pour into a large plastic bag with a strong seal and freeze. The alcohol keeps the water from freezing into an ice block, so you will have a gel-like consistency that molds to your back. Add more water for a firmer freeze, more alcohol for a softer gel.


Be sure to place a cloth or towel between your skin and the pack, to avoid a skin “burn.” You can also use a pack of frozen peas or a therapeutic cold pack. Apply for up to 20 minutes several times a day. When resting, try bending your knees or placing a pillow underneath them to relieve back stress. While ice is better for a new flare-up, some people find gentle heat more soothing if pain persists after a few weeks.

Preventing Back Strain
Once you feel better, there are some things you can do to reduce the chance of flare-ups:


  • Pay attention to your posture while sitting, standing and driving; hunching forward puts stress on back and neck muscles. You also breathe better when your back is upright.

  • Stay flexible with stretches and low-impact exercise like yoga.

  • Watch your lifting. Once again, lift with your legs.

  • Stop smoking. Smoking can slow recovery from many conditions.

  • If applicable, focus on losing weight and strengthening your abdominal muscles. A large belly puts extra stress on your back.
Housework and Back Pain:  Created on October 9th, 2006.  Last Modified on January 21st, 2014


About Anne Meneghetti, M.D.

Anne Meneghetti, M.D.Dr. Anne Meneghetti is a specialist in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and critical care medicine. Her background includes formal training in medical research, medical technology assessment and multiple forms of natural healing. She has won many awards for health policy, promotion of nutritional approaches, and anti-smoking initiatives. Her worldwide travels included volunteering at an orphanage in Calcutta, India, as well as health promotion efforts in Asia. Dr. Meneghetti is a frequent speaker and educator on ways to integrate conventional medicine and natural approaches. Her multi-media experience spans Internet, radio, television and print.