We tend to associate injuries with car accidents and major falls, but the truth is our days are filled with chances to make small mistakes during very common movements that can lead to painful injuries. But with a few strategic changes, you can minimize your risk for injury—and the painful recovery that would accompany it.
Everyday Risky Move #1: Lifting Heavy Objects
Nearly all adults will experience low-back pain at some point in their lifetime. One of the most common causes is lifting a heavy, unstable or unwieldy object. Most people know that they lift the wrong way, but they do it anyway thinking that they’ll be fine.
How it happens: People overestimate how much they can lift or underestimate an object’s weight, so they approach that bag of groceries or moving a box full of books with a false sense of confidence.
Next, they reach for the object by bending over, hinging from the waist, then attempt to lift it by simply straightening back up again. This leaves the lifting to the back muscles, which have evolved to hold the weight of your torso and head up when you are standing erect, not when bent over. Lifting in this position leaves the back vulnerable to injury.
If the object is unevenly weighted (such as a box stacked with books on just one side) or has moving parts (a wriggling child), your back muscles will automatically attempt to compensate for the instability, increasing injury risk.
Besides creating lower-back strain, improper lifting can exacerbate an existing herniated disk (also called a slipped disk) or create a new one.
Note: A strain results when muscles or tendons (the bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones) are overstretched or torn. A sprain occurs when the ligaments (the bands of tissue that connect two bones together in a joint) are torn or overstretched.
Do it safely: Preparation is key. Know the weight and weight distribution of what you’re lifting. With your feet planted shoulder-width apart, squat halfway down until your thighs are approximately parallel with the ground, keeping your torso relatively upright, and then try lifting the object. Don’t position your feet too narrowly, or you could lose your balance and topple over. And don’t bend your knees more than 90 degrees or it will be difficult to stand back up.
Young children seeking to cuddle are a recipe for low-back strain. It may feel difficult to say no when they reach their arms up toward you, but if you’re out of shape or have trouble lifting heavy objects, sit down and have them climb into your lap for that cuddle.
Everyday Risky Move #2: Putting On a Jacket or Shirt
We tend to take an everyday activity such as getting dressed for granted. But the motions required to put on a coat, jacket or a button-front shirt can trigger a rotator cuff injury.
How it happens: The rotator cuff is a collection of tendons and muscles surrounding and protecting each shoulder. It’s what allows you to raise and rotate your arms. Dressing in the above items requires you to hold your arm up and out, often at a somewhat unnatural angle, which can strain a tendon in your rotator cuff. The tendon swells and becomes pinched by the shoulder joint, creating a sudden sharp, almost knifelike pain. Rotator-cuff injuries are more common with age.
Do it safely: Rotator cuff impingement pain intensifies when reaching behind your back or overhead—two positions involved in putting on a coat or a shirt. But there’s no real need to put your arm into those positions. Instead, keep your arm below chest level and push your hand downward into the sleeve, using your other hand to pull the garment up.
Everyday Risky Move #3: Overusing Your Neck
If you have ever woken up with a “crick” or “kink” in your neck—pain accompanied by a limited ability to look from side to side or up and down—you likely attributed it to sleeping in an odd position. But a more likely culprit is neck muscle overuse the prior day.
How it happens: Gardening, housecleaning, too much time on your cell phone and even reading all are common activities that require you to do a lot of looking down, taxing your neck and shoulders. Poor form when working on a computer can cause it, too. Then, when you finally rest, those muscles tighten up, creating a strain.
Do it safely: The neck usually assumes a natural curved position at rest unless strained or overused. Chin tucks are a safe and effective move to strengthen the neck and help prevent strain from overuse. Sit in a comfortable chair looking straight ahead. Move your head backward, tucking your chin in toward your neck in a slow and easy manner. Keep your gaze forward, and do not tilt your head. Hold the tuck for five seconds, then return to the starting (rest) position. Repeat five times twice daily.
Everyday Risky Move #4: Navigating Stairs
More than a million Americans hurt themselves on stairs every year. That’s 3,000 injuries every day according to a study in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Injuries—usually sprains and strains, soft tissue injuries and fractures—typically are worse when descending rather than walking up. A common mistake? Missing the last stair or two.
How it happens: When you trip while climbing up, you may be able to catch yourself with the railing or the stairs in front of you. But should you miss a step or two while walking down, gravity conspires against you and it is difficult to catch yourself.
Do it safely: The advice here will sound obvious, but people still don’t follow it. Paying attention is paramount. Hold the handrail when going up and down. Avoid carrying objects that can obscure your vision, such as laundry baskets or large packages. Enlist aid from others if needed…otherwise proceed with great caution. Wear nonslip shoes, and avoid overly long pants. If you have vision issues, wear appropriate glasses or contact lenses.
As a preventive measure, consider enrolling in a tai chi class. This traditional Chinese practice involves slowly moving your body through a series of poses, benefiting core strength and balance in the process. Tai chi has been shown to help prevent falls in older individuals. And because it cultivates mindfulness, it improves your awareness of your surroundings, which could reduce falls.
Important: Certain medications, such as sedatives, pain medication and antidepressants, can affect balance. Before taking any of these, talk to your doctor to make sure it is safe for you to navigate stairs.