Most health specialists in town deal with over 50 fresh stiff neck, squeezed spine and frozen shoulder cases a day. That’s an alarming number to grimace at. Alvin Thomas listens to people talk about workplace pains.
When 23-year-old Benjamin George signed a work contract with a telecommunication company in Oman as the support engineer of a project, he was over the moon. The young, fresh engineer had just arrived from India after his graduation to join the team.
It had been his lifelong dream to settle down outside of his hometown in India, and he was ecstatic to be a part of the company.
His first few weeks of work – as he points out – comprised scouting round the locations he would be working in. This meant he was travelling from city to city by car.
It was all “fun and games” for the adventurist… at first.
But, as luck had it, Benjamin was assigned the position of a junior supervisor – meaning he had to travel hundreds of kilometres every day to inspect worksites.
“Work was a challenge but a good one. Not everyone gets to drive from Muscat to Kalba, Ibri or Suhar, daily,” he says.
A few weeks into his job, however, Benjamin began to feel the stresses of driving his sedan all over the country. It all started with a stiff neck and a slight spasm on his lower back.
“It wasn’t something I took heed of,” he says, adding that he continued working normally, due to his strict schedules.
Things took a turn for the worse one evening when he was driving from his company’s site in Kalba (near the Oman-UAE border) back to his home in Wadi Al Kabir – which is a 330km long journey.
“The stiffness of my neck had spread and my head started aching very badly. Soon, I found it very hard to concentrate on the road. I had my thumb and my index finger pressed hard on my temples to keep the pain at bay.
“Soon, I could take it no more and stopped the car at a petrol station and purchased some Panadol (paracetamol) to ease the pain. It worked in a few minutes but I felt that my neck was very stiff. So, I began cracking it by turning it left and right briskly.”
Benjamin ignored the calls of his body and carried on. He also refused to go to an orthopedic doctor owing to his busy work schedules.
He continued his practice of popping pain-killers for the next eight months but, after that, he could take no more.
“My body stopped responding to the paracetamol efficiently. I was taking three pills (more than 1.5g of paracetamol) at a time and I feared that I would overdose,” he reveals.
An incurable disorder?
He then consulted a doctor at one of the country’s leading hospitals. And there, his worst fears came true: he was diagnosed with spondylosis – an incurable disorder that affects the patient’s spinal joints.
This devastated him and he had to take a break for rehabilitation.
Fast forward to today and Benjamin is unsure of whether he will be able to completely recover from his injury and carry on his work.
“It’s the biggest mistake I have ever made. All I had to do was go to the doctor and get myself checked. And now, I cannot conduct tasks like a normal person of my age would,” he tells us in a broken tone.
Benjamin is just one among a “sea of people who are pushing their bodies to the limit of breaking” due to long hours and the pressures of work.
It is not just people travelling for long hours in cars that are under threat; those sitting in offices without breaks or spending long hours in erroneous postures are also prone to being affected by such injuries.
How do you know if you are at risk?
Simple. Ask yourself these questions: After a day at work, do you usually have terrible neck and shoulder pains? Do eyes turn red or hurt? Do you have frequent headaches?
If you answered with a “yes” to the above questions, then it is time you headed to an orthopedic surgeon.
Prevention is definitely better than cure
Neck pains usually arise from muscles, tendons and ligaments – commonly referred to as the soft tissues in our bodies – that are in and around the cervical spine (the neck).
As per Medical News Today, pain in the lower back can be linked to the bony lumbar spine, discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, lower back muscles, abdomen and pelvic internal organs, and the skin around the lumbar area. Pain in the upper back may be due to disorders of the aorta, tumours in the chest and spine inflammation – and are much more serious.
“Prevention is definitely better than cure,” says Dr Rajagopal T. Naganathan, orthopedic surgeon at the NMC Specialty Hospital, in Ruwi; a new multi-specialty hospital offering affordable world-class healthcare to the residents of Oman.
The doctor says the issues of workplace-related incidents are on the rise and that the numbers are staggering. He deals with more than 30 patients who come with neck and back pains, daily.
The number is higher with renowned physiotherapist Suneel George who practises in a reputed hospital in the country. Suneel receives more than 50 patients every day.
“Most of these incidents are caused by the lack of workplace ergonomics. People who tend to spend a lot of time on the computer, sit for too long in one position, or travel long distances in their cars can face such neck and back pains,” says
Spending seven to eight hours seated in front of a computer every day, looking at the monitor with a slouch, sitting in a chair that is not designed to the shape of your body, or not correctly resting your hands on the desk while typing or working are some of the main reasons that office-goers develop neck and back pain.
Excessive use of smartphones
While age is a contributing factor to such injuries, the doctor says nowadays youngsters in the age bracket of 20 (and above) are also prone to neck and back pains. He puts it down to the excessive use of smartphones.
“Smartphones have also contributed to this problem: people spend a lot of time looking at their phones texting, playing games and what not. This means their head is fixed in one position for a long time and this can result in creating pains.
“The term used to describe the neck pain and damage sustained from looking down at your cell phone, tablet, or other wireless devices too frequently and for too long is Text Neck.”
Sedentary routines and the constant need to look at your smartphone (or other devices) have led to a huge rise in the number of young people who are experiencing back and neck pain. While statistics aren’t readily available in the Sultanate, 45 per cent of the 16- to 24-year-olds surveyed by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) said they were living with neck or back pain, compared with 28 per cent of the 18-to 24-year-olds, in 2014 alone. Experts believe that the figures have since risen.
The question, however, is this: when do you know that you are in trouble?
The answer is simple, says Dr Rajagopal. “The symptoms for this sort of injury can be numbness and pain in the neck and back. While it could be only an isolated case of spasm at first, you must heed it if you feel the pain radiating to other parts of your body, such as your hands.
“This means the nerves in that part of your body are affected and being irritated. A remedy has to be found out. Else, the whole situation could get out of hand.”
Labourers, contractors, engineers and anyone working outside are prone to injuries, too. But such cases are put down to trauma caused by accidents.
Suneel says most labourers working outside visit him for cut-related injuries.
“This is the third highest case of occupation-related injuries,” Suneel points out.
“Such incidents can result in the hand being completely numb post-trauma. So, careful rehabilitation must be provided in such cases.
“The best way to protect yourself is by wearing thick gloves, boots and hard hats. There is only so much we can do to protect ourselves when exposed to the elements,” he adds.
Incidents pertaining to patients whose problems stem from work can be classified as ‘non-trauma’ cases.
Although, these are more prevalent today and must be taken seriously.
How can you avoid such injuries?
“The best way to avoid this would be to move around – stand up from your chair and walk every 15 or 20 minutes. This will aid in the blood circulation around your body. Use as many movements as possible during this break,” the doctor says.
Jeremy, a 42-year-old British expat working in the petroleum industry, says he keeps in mind such rules when spending time in office.
“People like us – employees of a company – are more prone to such discomforts as we tend to sit down a lot and work. While you and I may feel fit, we must realise that there are ways to tone down the stresses on our body.
“I usually walk around every 30 minutes and have friendly conversations with my colleague. It works for me as it not only allows my body to relax but also improves my relationship with my mates.
“Try it out.”
This method of moving around in between work is also recommended by Suneel.
“It is important to take a break. But you can also do some light exercises to help your blood circulation. This will help your muscles stretch and subsequently relax, too,” he tells.
“Back pain and cervical spondylosis (neck arthritis) are caused due to the way we maintain our postures: for example, those working with computers must sit right in front of the screen.
“Care must also be taken to not have the air conditioner blow straight at your neck. This could stiffen the muscles there, causing massive discomfort. So, rehabilitation starts from within your office.”
Prior to starting any treatment, however, it is always advisable to first see a specialist.
Suneel also recommends hitting the gym, especially for those with beginning stages of neck and back pains.
“The gym is a perfect place to get your back and neck muscles strengthened. This can also help you reduce your body weight and bring your body’s rhythm back on track. But you should note that if you are having chronic pain, you must visit an orthopedic doctor, first.”