How to brush your teeth without damaging your back

If someone told you that brushing your teeth can trigger back problems, you’d dismiss it as crazy.

Yet the morning and evening ritual is just one of a number of everyday household activities that can cause damage to your lower back, neck and shoulders.

Also known as ‘waiter’s lean’, tasks which often involve leaning forward over an object such as a sink or ironing board and repeatedly twisting can lead to problems.

Brushing teeth, ironing and washing-up are among the actions that can result in back, neck and shoulder pain.

But there are simple ways of avoiding difficulties. “When you do any of these things use a small foot stool or bathroom scale to lift one foot,” says physiotherapist Jon Bongcawel. “This stops you from leaning, forces you to adjust your posture and keeps your lower back straight.”

Emptying the dishwasher can also lead to stresses on your body. “If you bend from your waist to load or unload the dishwasher – especially with heavy items like pans – you put strain on your upper back, lower legs and hips,” says Jon. “Kneeling is no better as it is torture for your knees, while repeatedly gripping and lifting items can damage your elbows.”

He advises: “Keep your back straight, bend from the knees and avoid kneeling. Load the heaviest items at the front of the dishwasher and don’t twist when unloading them.”

Jon, a senior physiotherapist at West-Yorkshire-based occupational physiotherapy provider Physio Med, which has a clinic at Aireborough Leisure Centre in Guiseley, has written a guide altering people to the many small changes they can make when carrying out basic tasks.

He includes checking Facebook and watching TV among the risk activities. “Whether sitting or standing, most of us hold devices in our lap, or below chest level, causing us to look down or lean forward, resulting in damage and muscle stiffness in the upper back and neck,” he says. “Staring at the screen for too long can also cause eye strain. You should always hold the device at chest height, so the top of it is level with your eyes, and take regular screen breaks.

“It may sound mad that updating your Facebook status can damage your back but prolonged or regular activity in the incorrect position can be bad for you and have a huge impact on your health and mobility.”

Jon previously worked as a senior locum physiotherapist covering neurology, MSK (musculoskeletal) and orthopaedic complaints for the NHS across North Yorkshire.

“The reason I have compiled these helpful tips is that they are so easy to put into practice. “If you are washing-up, for instance, you can rest one foot into a cupboard underneath which will force one side of the pelvis backwards and straighten your back.

“If you are watching TV it is better to sit square on to it, not to one side, so you have to twist your body to watch. You should be watching as you would in a cinema.”

He adds: “These activities cause cumulative strains on muscles – what we advise customers is make the muscle happy and you are happy.”

Clinical director of Physio Med Mark Fletcher, former head of physiotherapy at Bradford Bulls, says few people realise how basic actions can cause health problems.

“We recently had a woman who was vacuuming the stairs. Instead of using an extension lead she carted the vacuum cleaner and attachments up each step and was twisting and turning and hurt her back,” he says.

Sleeping positions, making beds and even pulling back the duvet when you get out of bed can cause strains on the back and neck, he adds.

For tall people, standard kitchen work surfaces are too low to offer a comfortable way of standing, leaving them open to problems.

Christmas brings clients to the practice who have damaged their backs or necks while leaning forward from a kneeling position on the floor, wrapping presents.

“I can’t understand why people wrap presents on the floor – why don’t they do this at the kitchen table?” asks Jon, “You can improve your health and wellbeing through these small changes.”

He also offers advice on driving, which generates a large number of back problems due to the seat being incorrectly positioned.

“A lot of people complain that the seat is not right. Sometimes is people car share they have to reposition the seat when they get in,” says Mark, adding that he often has to re-position his after his wife has been driving.

Sneezing can lead to muscle damage. “A sneeze is quite a violent force, causing muscles to contract,” says Mark. “We see people in summer who have back pain as a result of rapid sneezing through hayfever.”

He adds; “We say ‘protect, correct (bad habits) and develop (good habits)’ for a healthier future.”