Whether you are teaching a class, working in the main office, handling custodial duties or preparing food in the school cafeteria, your job performance can be affected by physical problems associated with lower back, neck and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and stress.

An often overlooked behavioral influence affecting the occupational abilities of teachers is the presence of health conditions causing acute and chronic pain. Recent studies have demonstrated a near epidemic of musculoskeletal pain syndromes affecting school employees. Relative to other occupations, there is a higher prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) among school teaching professionals, with prevalence rates between 40 percent and 95 percent.

Most school staff report an MSD affecting their back, neck, and upper limbs (shoulder, elbows, wrists, and hands). MSD cause diminished performance in school teachers in a number of ways:

  • Lost productive time
  • Reduced capacity
  • Absenteeism
  • Prescription drug use.

Teachers and school workers spend countless hours of their days on their feet. This can cause pain-related issues affecting the lower back, neck, shoulders and joints. One way of alleviating these problems is by using proper ergonomics.

What are good ergonomics?

When considering the impact of proper ergonomics on workplace safety, three basic principles are especially important:

  1. When lifting, the largest muscles in the area should perform the task. The larger the muscle or muscle group used for lifting, the lower the stress placed on smaller, more vulnerable muscles. This is essential for cafeteria workers who are constantly moving boxes of food supplies and food trays and/or custodians charged with moving equipment.
  2. During any work activities, you should be able to comfortably assume a number of different postures and not remain in one position for an extended time. Muscles will become fatigued and be more prone to injury when assuming a particular posture, especially a poor one (e.g., partially bent forward at the waist).
  3. When performing tasks, it is important to keep the joints either in their neutral posture or approximately halfway into the range of motion. Working with your joints at the extremes of their ranges of motion for prolonged periods of time places abnormal stresses on them and can cause repetitive stress injuries.

Those needing to lift items from the floor on a regular basis should always keep their backs straight and lift with their legs. Do not bend over at the waist and lift with the muscles of the lower back. Make sure to keep the object being lifted close to your body and your elbows flexed while keeping your head up and neck straight as you lift. 

You should also use proper ergonomics when working at your desk. Some examples are:

  • Choose a desk that is the proper height. All things on your desk should be within easy reach. Your feet should be touching the floor, with the legs and body forming an angle of 90 to 110 degrees.
  • Keep your body straight with the head and neck upright and looking forward, not to the side. Do not hunch over or slouch.
  • Adjust the height of your monitor. Look forward with your head in a neutral position. Your eyes should be at the same height as the top of the monitor. Leaning your head forward can lead to headaches and neck pain.
  • Keep your wrists straight when typing and your shoulders perpendicular to the floor. Your forearms should be parallel to the floor.
  • Stand up and stretch your legs with a short walk about every 20 to 30 minutes. Also take micro-breaks often, stretching your neck, arms and wrists, back, and legs. Simple stretches include neck rotations, fist clenches, arm dangles, and shoulder shrugs.

Preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Another common health problem that affects school employees at every level is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), a condition of the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand. CTS occurs when the median nerve gets compressed in the carpal tunnel—a narrow tunnel at the wrist—made up of bones and soft tissues, such as nerves, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels. The compression may result in pain, weakness, and/or numbness in the hand and wrist, which radiates up into the forearm. The dominant hand is usually affected first, and the pain is typically severe.

Burning, tingling, itching, and/or numbness in the palm of the hand and thumb, index, and middle fingers are the most common symptoms of CTS. As symptoms worsen, they may feel tingling during the day. In addition, weakened grip strength may make it difficult to form a fist or grasp small objects. Some people develop wasting of the muscles at the base of the thumb. Some are unable to distinguish hot from cold by touch.

CTS should be diagnosed and treated early. A standard physical examination of the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck can help determine if your symptoms are related to daily activities or to an underlying disorder. Initial therapy can include:

  • Resting the affected hand and wrist
  • Avoiding activities that may worsen symptoms
  • Immobilizing the wrist in a splint to avoid further damage from twisting or bending
  • Applying cool packs to help reduce swelling from inflammations.

The Association of New Jersey Chiropractors recommends the following tips:

  • Perform on-the-job conditioning, such as stretching and light exercises.
  • Take frequent rest breaks.
  • Use correct posture and wrist position.
  • Use proper ergonomics.

Stress on the job

The daily pressures associated with managing a classroom, working in a lunchroom or handling administrative duties can all lead to stress. This can contribute to the risk of hypertension and heart disease. How one faces these daily problems can affect his or her level of stress.

Living with chronic stress can backfire by causing anxiety, depression, and serious health problems. Before letting the pressures of your job affect your mood or behavior, remember to keep things in their proper perspective. Try to incorporate strategies that can improve your stress tolerance and help lessen the effects of stress on your health.

Think positively. Make sure to get out and take nature breaks to put your body in a relaxed frame of mind. Keep your body in good health. Exercise and stop smoking. Reduce your caffeine intake, substituting green tea for coffee. Make sure you eat a healthy breakfast and take healthy snacks to the workplace. Set realistic goals for what you need to accomplish. Most importantly, seek out help if you are feeling overwhelmed. And, don’t forget to laugh with your class and co-workers.

NJEA members are encouraged to call 866-AID-NJEA if they need help. This free, confidential 24-hour telephone helpline is available for school staff members and their families. The helpline is staffed by active and retired educators and school counselors who are trained to counsel and support their colleagues. The program provides telephone support, information and resources for school employees experiencing some distress in their work or personal lives.

For more information on NJEA’s members helpline, visit AID-NJEA.org.

A healthier you

Adopting these safety and behavioral changes and recognizing work place issues that can lead to health problems will nullify the effects from these health disorders and ensure a healthier workplace environment.

This article was prepared by the Association of New Jersey Chiropractors (ANJC). ANJC is one of the largest associations of chiropractors in the nation, with more than 1,900 members. For more information or to locate an ANJC member doctor by town or zip code, visit www.njchiropractors.com or call 908-722–5678.