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How to Combat Back Pain in Teachers and Educators: Tips from Physical Therapists

Learn how to alleviate and prevent back pain for teachers with targeted exercises and expert advice from Hinge Health physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 5, 2024
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Anyone who's a teacher or educator knows the profession can be tougher on the body than many people may realize. Hours spent standing on hard surfaces or sitting in less-than-ideal positions, combined with the stress of managing classrooms, administrative work, grading and lesson planning, and much more can certainly contribute to discomfort and pain. 

In particular, the struggle with back pain is a shared experience that often remains unaddressed and can be debilitating and frustrating. The reality is that school days can be rigid, and you might struggle to find pockets of time for yourself. But there is still plenty that you can do to take care of yourself and keep back pain at bay. A few minutes of targeted exercises each day that support and strengthen your back is a great place to start. (You don’t even have to leave your desk to do this.) 

In fact, a Hinge Health member who is a teacher recently shared with us: “I love my exercise routine and it has helped me a lot! I would not have been able to teach without the progress I've made on this program.”

Read on to learn how to keep your back healthy with exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists so pain doesn’t interfere with teaching or your workday responsibilities. 

Our Hinge Health Experts

Dr. Heather Broach, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Broach is a Hinge Health physical therapist who enjoys treating shoulder, low back, knee, and ankle issues.
Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Causes of Back Pain in Teachers 

There are many contributors to back pain, and people who work in education tend to experience their fair share of them: 

  • Standing for long periods of time. “Our bodies weren’t designed to be in the same position for hours at a time,” says Heather Broach, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. When you don’t give your body a break from sitting, standing, lying down, or being in any one position, your joints and tissues can get grumpy, she adds. “Specifically when you stand for too long, your hips might shift forward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can tighten the muscles in your lower back, which may cause them to spasm and misbehave.”

  • Standing on hard surfaces. There’s a little bit of fact and fiction to this one. Many people think standing on a hard surface is a direct cause of back pain. There is actually no convincing evidence directly connecting the unforgiving nature of something like concrete or an uncarpeted classroom and musculoskeletal (MSK) pain. But there may be some related connections. “Jobs that involve a lot of time on hard surfaces may also require a lot of physical and emotional hard work,” says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health, which can contribute to back pain. At the end of the day, it’s not so much a matter of what you’re standing on but how long you’re standing on the same surface. 

  • Repetitive movements. Teaching can involve repetitive motions. (Think: gesturing on a smartboard all day, holding a pen for long periods to grade assignments.) While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (or something you can control), that repetition can contribute to changes in your body’s natural posture, which can lead to some muscle tightness and back discomfort. 

Movement Is Medicine for Back Pain 

Back pain can feel frustrating, upsetting, or even a little hopeless, especially when it persists or interferes with your ability to do your job. No matter how bad your back pain is, or how long it’s been going on, you can always do something to help improve it. And that usually starts with moving your body in a variety of ways. 

You may worry that being active during your workday is the cause of your back pain, and moving any more will make your pain worse. But movement — through physical therapy and exercise therapy — can build strength, flexibility, and resilience to pain in and around the spine. “Targeted movements help to increase blood flow to the area, which promotes healing and reduces stiffness. The more you can move in a variety of ways, the more you’ll improve,” says Dr. Payton. 

Although moving through back pain can be scary and uncomfortable, small changes can yield huge benefits. And no matter what might be causing your back pain, Hinge Health can support you in dealing with it.

How to Prevent Back Pain at School 

You don’t have to learn to just live with back pain at school. There are things you can do to help prevent it, or at least make it more manageable:

  • Do gentle exercises throughout your day. Targeted movements, exercises, and stretches increase the strength and flexibility of the structures in and around your back and prevent pain flares. You can do a Hinge Health exercise therapy session before school or during a break — it only takes a few minutes — or try some of the exercises provided below. 

  • Wear appropriate footwear. There is no such thing as the perfect shoe, but proper-fitting, supportive shoes that feel comfortable are key. If you’re prone to back pain, shoes that tip you forward, like high heels, may be problematic. Even some athletic shoes can be an issue for some. “People often think they’re good because they’re wearing running sneakers. But if it has a thicker heel than the forefoot, gravity will tip you forward and can put more pressure on your back,” explains Dr. Broach. Try on several pairs of shoes in order to find one that works best for you during the day.

  • Change positions frequently. “Our bodies love movement, so it helps to vary the types of positions you’re in throughout the day,” says Dr. Payton. If possible, take a break from standing by sitting when students are working on something independently or out of the classroom. Or use a cue in your day, such as lunch time, to take a brief walk around the school or stretch for 30 seconds before moving on to the next task. Even shifting your weight from your toes to your heels, or from one foot to the other makes a difference. The movement helps restore blood flow to areas and reduces sensitivity, says Dr. Payton. 

  • Consider an anti-fatigue mat. These mats can help make hard surfaces (like the floor of a classroom) more forgiving. They provide some additional cushion and support, which may help reduce strain on your back if you’re on your feet for a long time.  

  • Bring on the heat. Both ice or heat can help take the edge off pain, but many people with back pain gravitate toward heat. Heat promotes muscle relaxation and increased blood flow, bringing nutrients to the sore area to stimulate healing. If your back is particularly sore after a long day at school, applying a heat pack before bed can reduce disruptive back pain as you sleep. 

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for back pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. 

  • Take a deep breath. Slow, controlled breathing helps to counteract the body’s fight-or-flight response, which elevates levels of stress hormones in the body and can contribute to back pain during a stressful day at school. One good technique to try is called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation found that this type of exercise helped to reduce back pain.

  • Physical therapy. A physical therapist can work with you on exercises to strengthen and stretch out your sore back muscles so that they can better support your back. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Stretches to Improve Back Pain for Educators

  • Standing Child’s Pose
  • Standing Back Extension
  • Forward Bend
  • Glute Stretch

The above stretches are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists as a way to help manage pain during teaching. These exercises can be done anytime, anywhere, including in the classroom.

Back Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Pain

  • Glute Bridge
  • Prone Press Up
  • Squat
  • Dead Bug

Back strengthening exercises help you build resilience to pain over time. Hinge Health physical therapists recommend the above exercises as a great place to start. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Be Aware of How You Stand 

One of our favorite sayings at Hinge Health is: Your best position is your next position. Being aware of your standing habits can be helpful in putting this into practice. Do you notice that you stand with your weight on one leg when you’re talking to a class of students? Or with your back arched? Slouched a little? “None of these things are bad, but if you notice that you tend to hold any of these positions too long or too often and your back feels aggravated, you might adjust your standing habits to take pressure off your back muscles,” says Dr. Broach. It may not be a problem, but it’s worth taking note of how you tend to stand so that you can tweak your posture and change positions if back pain is a problem for you.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

References 

  1. da Costa, B. R., & Vieira, E. R. (2009). Risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders: a systematic review of recent longitudinal studies. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 53(3), 285-323. doi:10.1002/ajim.20750 

  2. Waters, T. R., & Dick, R. B. (2014). Evidence of Health Risks Associated with Prolonged Standing at Work and Intervention Effectiveness. Rehabilitation Nursing, 40(3), 148–165. doi:10.1002/rnj.166

  3. Anderson, B. E., & Bliven, K. C. H. (2017). The Use of Breathing Exercises in the Treatment of Chronic, Nonspecific Low Back Pain. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 26(5), 452–458. doi:10.1123/jsr.2015-0199

  4. Choi, S., Nah, S., Jang, H.-D., Moon, J. E., & Han, S. (2021). Association between chronic low back pain and degree of stress: a nationwide cross-sectional study. Scientific Reports, 11(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-021-94001-1

  5. Chou, R. (2021, September 20). Low Back Pain in Adults (Beyond the Basics). UptoDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/low-back-pain-in-adults-beyond-the-basics

  6. Casiano, V. & Nikhilesh D. (2020). Back Pain. PubMed, StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538173/