Are you looking after your body?
The physical demands of caring can put you at higher risk of injuring your back and other parts of your body.
Lifting someone regularly and helping them dress or move around can cause a lot of physical strain. However, knowing how to protect yourself can help you maintain good physical health both now and over the long term. We suggest some tips to help you protect yourself.
Looking after your back is especially important when you have many physical demands placed on you with caring. See our dedicated information page 'Protecting your back' for guidance and tips.
How regular lifting can cause issues
Lifting others regularly can be dangerous if you are unsupported over time.
In particular, if you are looking after a child or partner, it can ben tempting to lift them for much longer than is safe to do, especially out of feelings of love and loyalty.
However, over time, you could be doing long-term damage to your own health.
An example is causing damage to the pelvic floor by lifting, which can lead to other complications such as a prolapsed bowel. You may not be aware of these problems developing so it's important to prevent these issues as soon as possible. There are solutions to consider such as using a hoist, getting care workers on board to help (by arranging an assessment) and as a minimum, doing pelvic floor exercises to help compensate.
It is advisable to arrange an assessment with an Occupational Therapist through your local council or Trust in Northern Ireland to see what home adaptations might be needed. You may also be able to benefit from a Disabled Facilities Grant if the person you care for is eligible. See 'Where can I get guidance on lifting someone safely?' for more options.
If you are concerned as you need to lift someone on a regular basis, speak to your doctor. You can also find useful tips and information here on the Pelvic Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy website and on the NHS website.
If you are regularly having to lift the person(s) you care for, or help them in and out of bed, you may find that this can put extra strain on your back and other parts of your body. It is important to seek professional guidance on how to reduce the impact of the strain you could be placing on your own body.
Your local council, trust (in Northern Ireland) or local carers' organisation, should be able to tell you about training opportunities on how to lift and move more safely to reduce the risk of harming your back if you have to. Use our local directory to find your nearest carer centre, council or trust.
You may be able to get more direct, practical help. If you have not had one, ask your local council or trust for a carer’s assessment or carer support plan. This will look at your needs as a carer, and is a chance for you to talk about the kind of help you need. This could include helping the person you care for to have a bath, get up in the morning or go to bed.
You could also explore having your home, or the home of the person you care for, adapted, or find equipment that will help you and them such as a hoist. You could look at Carers UK Ask Sara as a starting point and ask your GP to refer you for an occupational therapy assessment. Occupational therapists can provide advice and guidance about making possible alterations to your home, or the home of the person you care for, and can recommend suitable equipment to help. Getting a Disabled Facilities Grant may be worth looking into for additional financial support – find out more on our grants page or see the Gov.uk website for more information.
Alternatively, if you are not able to use equipment like a hoist, your district nurse may be able to show you ways to lift and move more safely. Ask your GP or practice manager for more information.
Improve your posture
Poor posture can put you at increased risk of back problems by putting extra strain on your back. This can affect your muscles, ligaments, tendons and vertebrae, and in the long term, can cause painful problems such as muscle, joint and disc damage, and constricted vessels and nerves.
Just being aware of how you are sitting and standing can greatly improve your posture. You should stand upright with your head facing forward and your back straight. And when sitting, make sure you are upright, with your knees and hips level and your feet flat on the floor or on a footstool. Don't hunch your shoulders or slump in your chair. It’s important to move around regularly and avoid sitting down for long periods of time. Be sure to keep your back well supported using the back of your chair. Yoga is also a helpful form of exercise to provide better posture.
Swimming, yoga, Pilates, walking, running and cycling can all help to strengthen your back. If you don't have time to do a regular sport, simple changes to your daily activities can really make a difference.
Try walking instead of using the car for short journeys, cycling to the shops, taking the stairs instead of the lift or getting off the bus a stop earlier than you usually do. There are also lots of seated exercises you could do, as suggested on the NHS website. Here is a link to one of our Share and Learn videos, which you may also find of interest, on seated martial arts.
If it's been a long time since you've exercised, or if you're thinking about increasing the amount of exercise you do, discuss it with your GP first, especially if you have any health conditions or problems.
If you already have back problems, there may be exercises you can do that focus on flexibility, such as yoga or tai-chi – but check with your GP first. These tips may also help reduce your discomfort:
- Do not force any moves – if anything feels uncomfortable, listen to your body and ease off.
- Try not to make sudden movements.
- Wear flat shoes, with cushioned soles, as this can reduce the stress on your back.
- Incorporate gentle stretches into your daily routine. Some good ideas are available on the NHS website.
There are two main types of back pain: acute back pain, which comes on suddenly and usually lasts for less than three months; and chronic back pain, which develops slowly, lasts more than 12 weeks, and causes long-term problems.
Acute back pain can often be treated with over-the-counter medication such as paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, but some people mustn't take these if they are taking other types of medication or have particular health conditions, so if in doubt, please consult your GP.
If these do not help with the discomfort, your GP might prescribe a stronger painkiller to take alongside them or a muscle relaxant.
In some cases, a compression pack may help. Some people find it helps to alternate between hot and cold. You can buy these or, as a homemade alternative, use a hot water bottle or a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a towel. Hold the compression pack against the painful part of your back.
Chronic back pain is often treated initially with painkillers and exercise, but you should speak to your GP for guidance on what is suitable for you. Your GP may also refer you to a physiotherapist, or in certain cases, for surgery. Other options for treatment include complementary therapies, such as osteopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic. Your can search for and read more about these treatments on the NHS website.
Many women find they struggle with the menopause at a time when they feel they are most needed in a caring capacity, which is very tough to deal with.
As you approach mid-life in particular, it’s important to develop good habits to protect your bladder and bowel health. The POGP website has some helpful tips and guidance. Do not delay seeking appropriate medical help if you sense that there might be any underlying issues. It’s important not to dismiss them, hoping they will go away. It’s always worth noting any abnormalities you spot and referencing them perhaps even diarising them to relay to your GP.
Also see our section on menopause under Dealing with stress and depression for more information and sources of support.
Pelvic floor training – get in the habit
Getting to grips with good pelvic floor training habits is one way for women to look after their health, especially during the child-bearing years. This can help from managing pregnancies to alleviating common bladder issues connected with pregnancy.
Speak to your doctor or find out more about what pelvic floor exercises are and how they could help you and you can also find out more here on the NHS website.
If you have had to have surgery to manage a prolapse or other condition such as hysterectomy, it is vital to follow the guidance to help you care for yourself and recover.
See POGP and seek further support and guidance from trusted healthcare professionals.