Standing on your feet all day can lead to a range of nasty health complaints, but there is a lot you can do to ease the load. Angela Tufvesson reports
How much time do you spend standing at work? If you’re anything like most veterinary professionals, chances are you spend a considerable period on your feet treating patients, talking to clients and in the operating room.
Much is known about the long-term health risks of sedentary behaviour, especially for desk-bound office workers, but it turns out that spending too much time standing at work in the name of animal welfare can also lead to serious health problems such as joint troubles, back pain and aching feet.
On your feet
Standing is part of the job for everyone from retail salespeople to security guards, waiters and healthcare workers, and the effects are similar across all industries. Prolonged standing is linked to a range of health conditions, including lower back pain, neck and shoulder stiffness, muscle soreness and fatigue, varicose veins and knee problems.
Keeping the body in an upright position requires considerable muscular effort, and after long periods of time, the muscles tire, fatigue sets in and the joints can become temporarily immobilised. When this happens regularly, tendons and ligaments can be damaged, which causes soft tissue injuries. Research shows that people whose jobs require standing for more than half an hour in every hour will develop lower back pain.
Standing still reduces the blood supply to the muscles, which accelerates the onset of fatigue and causes pain in the leg, back and neck muscles. According to Dr Ronald McCoy, a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the effects are much worse when you’re motionless. “When people are standing in the same position for a long period of time, that’s where you get problems,” he says.
“Circulatory and musculoskeletal problems are the main issues, including muscle aches and pains, and wear and tear on the joints. In the long term, people can get foot problems relating to things like tendinitis, and something that has been identified as an occupational hazard is an increased risk of varicose veins.”
Manipulative physiotherapist Dr Jennifer Pynt, a researcher at the Education for Practice Institute at Charles Sturt University, agrees. “Standing stationary for prolonged periods has been demonstrated to create pain in the soles of the feet, greater fatigue in the calf muscles and greater discomfort in the lower limbs than occurs in those with the freedom to move.”
In the surgery
On top of this, vets are faced with additional industry-specific challenges that increase the likelihood of standing-induced pain. In a recent study investigating vets in New Zealand published in Applied Ergonomics, 73 per cent of respondents complained of lower back pain and a whopping 96 per cent complained of a musculoskeletal problem somewhere in the body. Another study published in the Australian Veterinary Journal revealed 52 per cent of veterinary nurses suffer from chronic back or neck pain.
Maintaining awkward standing postures and carrying out repetitive or forceful tasks while in these postures is believed to have a significant effect on the health of Australian veterinary professionals. “Sustaining an awkward posture in standing compounds the ill-effects on the musculoskeletal system,” says Dr Pynt.
“Plan your work day so you’re alternating between sitting and standing tasks.” Marcus Dripps, national president of the Australian Physiotherapy Association
Lifting an animal while standing in an awkward posture is especially risky. “Lifting in an awkward posture also invites injury, particularly in the low back,” she says. “If you’re in a position of sustained forward bending for five minutes and have a previous history of low back pain, when you straighten the back it’s unable to reposition itself to neutral, rendering it vulnerable to injury.”
Reduce the risks
So, what can you do to ease the effects of too much standing? Unsurprisingly, the experts recommend sitting down to rest whenever you can—when you’re chatting to a client at the end of a consultation, during staff meetings and when you’re updating electronic records. “Freedom to sit changes posture, reduces weight bearing and, providing the sitting posture is one that supports the lumbar spine, may reduce low back pain,” says Dr Pynt.
Marcus Dripps, national president of the Australian Physiotherapy Association, says it’s worthwhile sacrificing a little productivity to give your body a rest.
“Plan your work day so you’re alternating between sitting and standing tasks,” he says. “Even if it might affect your productivity slightly, it’s a very effective way to change the pressure on your body throughout the course of the day.”
When you can’t sit, keep your body moving. “Avoid standing still for prolonged periods but if you have to do so, try static muscle exercises such as clenching and releasing the buttocks, and tightening and relaxing the quadriceps,” says Dr Pynt. “Other exercises include rising on the toes, rocking back onto the heels, and forward and backward tilting of the pelvis.”
Adjusting the height of your work bench—electronically or with the help of a foot stool—will help avoid those awkward postures. “If you’re doing heavy work, it’s better if it’s a bit below elbow level,” says Dr McCoy. “If it’s fine work, you want it to be a few centimetres above your elbow height so you don’t have to bend down too much. And make sure you’re in a position where you have the maximum mechanical advantage for the work that you’re doing. It’s really important that when you’re standing, you don’t bend too far or stretch or twist a long way.”
Supportive footwear is essential—make sure you have good arch support and lots of room for your toes. Softening the surface underfoot can also help. “Use anti-vibration mats on top of concrete floors,” says Dripps. “Standing on a softer surface, rather than a firmer one, helps distribute load.”
Ultimately, he says, you can rest assured that too much standing has fewer health risks than the dreaded sedentary behaviour. “The cumulative effects of lots of sitting for long periods of time have been shown to be harmful to people’s health,” says Dripps. “It’s really important that we try to minimise that and fortunately, it’s not such a challenge for vets.”