25 Tips for Relieving Holiday Back Pain

Don’t let back pain dampen your holiday spirit. Check out our experts' tips to make this holiday season the most wonderful time of the year.

For many people, the holidays really are are “the most wonderful time of the year.” But for others, it’s not all hot chocolate and snow angels. Depression, anxiety, and even suicide tend to rise during the holiday season, and if mental health issues in yourself or a loved one come to the fore, resources are available. And, even those not struggling with mental health can find that back pain and spine conditions can really put a damper on that holiday spirit.

Holiday back painDon't let back pain put a damper on your holiday spirit. Studies suggest that the holiday season can be a challenging time for the body and mind. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in 2017, around 18,100 people visited emergency rooms as a result of holiday decorating-related injuries. In 2018, PBS NewsHour shared a poll they conducted which showed that a third of U.S. adults say the holidays stress them out.

These things can quickly come together to bring about or worsen a bad back. We asked three experts to share 25 holiday pitfalls that can cause backaches, along with tips and tricks to alleviate less-than-jolly back pain.

1. Stringing up lights

Barbara Bergin, M.D., a board certified orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics, sees stringing up lights as a big cause of back pain. “Right after Halloween, Christmas lights go up in my neighborhood, and that’s just about the time I start seeing all sorts of resultant injuries,” she says. “Back pain is a common result of the repetitive strain of hanging lights, as well as frank injuries or falls.”

The solution: “Get someone else to do it!” Dr. Bergin asserts. “If you must do it yourself, then make sure ladders are on stable ground. Place ladders at the point of your best physical advantage so you don’t have to reach or tip toe. Put your decorations closer to the ground so you don’t have to reach or even get out that ladder.”

Holiday back pain lightsMake sure your ladder is steady when you're stringing up lights. 2. Putting up the tree

Randall Nemerovski, M.D., who specializes in physical medical rehabilitation at Advocate Aurora Health, Kenosha and Racine, WI, believes putting up the tree can be problematic for back pain.

The solution: He says, “Always be aware of not putting too much strain on your back muscles. Take a break and sit down to give your muscles some relaxing time when you’re on the go all day.”

3. Preparing food

Mark Drymalski, M.D., Medical Director of the University of Missouri Health Care’s Comprehensive Spine Center, says that the repetitive bending of preparing food can be taxing.

The solution: “Consider taking frequent breaks to stretch and change positions,” he says. “Try breaking up your tasks into multiple days. Don’t try to do all of your baking all at once or all in one day. Prepare ahead of time for cooking. This can mean washing and cutting all produce a day ahead or doing the baking days before.”

4. Shopping

If you do choose to purchase holiday gifts beyond online shopping this year, Dr. Drymalski warns that carrying around heavy bags is tough on the back.

The solution: “Consider using push or pull carts rather than trying to carry everything yourself,” he advises.  

5. Ladders

Dr. Bergin says, “Ladders are particularly important during the holidays because we use them for hanging Christmas lights, decorating the house and tree, and getting things in and out of storage. Of all the things which can cause injury to the back and otherwise, the ladder is likely the biggest offender.”

The solution: She says, “Avoid using ladders as much as possible. Hire professionals to use them. If you must use them, then be sure your health and life insurance are in order…and I’m not kidding. Keep someone beside you when using a ladder. Make sure your ladder is on firm ground. Get it as close to the worksite as possible to avoid precarious reaching. Make sure it is the right height to avoid getting into a position in which you must stand on the top rungs. Wear solid shoes. Make sure to look at every rung coming down so that you don’t step off before the last one.”

6. Climbing up in the attic and closets

You’ve likely stashed away last year’s Christmas decorations in the attic, closet, basement, or garage, but taking them out might be more perilous than you thought. It may require you to extend your arms or hyper-extend your back.   

The solution: “Get someone to help,” Dr. Bergin says. “Wait for the kids to get home to help you. That way, they start to appreciate how much work it takes to make that beautiful Christmas. Remember to pack things in smaller boxes. Put ladders in the right place and climb up to the right height to avoid putting a strain on the back and shoulders.”

7. Stress

We know from studies that stress is one of the factors that can cause or exacerbate pain, and that includes back pain. Unfortunately, all too often, the holidays and stress go hand in hand.

The solution: Dr. Drymalski says, “Build in personal time to do something for yourself, such as yoga, walking, back exercises, reading, or just decompressing.”

8. Assembling gifts

Putting together all those toys, trains, and gadgets into the wee hours of Christmas morning can certainly make your back ache. “This will test even the strongest back,” Dr. Bergin says.

The solution: She shares that while it’s hard to avoid putting together toys for your little ones (you could encourage your kids to ask Santa for smaller items which require no assembly, she says), it’s key to be mindful of your back and don’t put too much strain on it while assembling.

9. Eating more and exercising less

Overeating during the holidays is something many of us are guilty of. But as it turns out, all those goodies and time spent watching Christmas movies instead of exercising can turn up as a sore back.

Holiday back pain overeatingPUT. THE FRUITCAKE. DOWN. (Or just enjoy it in moderation.)The solution: “Avoid the temptation to discontinue your regular spine exercises around the holidays—try to exercise a little bit every day and make sure this is scheduled into your day,” Dr. Drymalski recommends.

10. Ignoring your symptoms

Even if you’re not feeling so great, there might be a part of you that does your best to smile through pain when with friends and family or push through holiday activities. This can be detrimental to your back though.

The solution: “Don’t ignore your medical conditions and symptoms,” Dr. Drymalski says. “Remember—if you are not at your best mentally and physically, you cannot be the best for those around you either.”

11. Long drives

If you’re celebrating the holidays with faraway family, there will likely be long car drives (or flights) involved. “Long-distance driving, in general, is potentially harmful to even the most stalwart back,” Dr. Bergin notes.

The solution: Dr. Bergin says that it’s key to schedule breaks and stretch. “Get a lumbar support, which will take pressure off your back and your sciatic nerve,” she adds.  

12. Slipping on ice

The weather outside can indeed be frightful during the holidays, which can be frightful for your back, too. Slipping on ice can cause a long-term injury you’ll feel well after Christmas.

The solution: “Make sure you treat your sidewalks and remember to re-treat during frequent thaws and freezes,” says Dr. Drymalski.

13. Shoveling

For many of us, shoveling comes with the territory of the holiday season. Whether you’re expecting guests or heading out to buy presents, shoveling can quickly turn into a backache.

The solution: “Try to anticipate this activity by working on gentle back strengthening and stretching exercises on a daily or every other day schedule, so that when you have to shovel your spine will have some preparation for this,” Dr. Drymalski says. “Look into shovels that allow you to push the snow rather than pick it up or shovels that are ergonomically designed, such as two-handled shovels, to reduce the deep bending and twisting of shoveling.”

14. Moving furniture around

Whether you’re moving furniture to decorate or in anticipation of your family gathering together, all that heavy lifting is never good for your back.

The solution: Dr. Nemerovski says, “Avoid lifting too heavy of an item, or if you are lifting, wear a back brace if necessary. Don’t move that heavy piece of furniture on your own.”

15. Cleaning

Cleaning is pretty much necessary during the holidays, from the kitchen to the living room strewn with wrapping paper. “Cleaning up is always a potential source of injury to the back, especially because we try to get it done quickly and our backs have been under some level of duress over the preceding holiday,” Dr. Bergin says.

The solution: She goes on to say, “Slow down. Be mindful. Get help. Lift lighter. Box lighter. And remember the things that caused back pain this year, then see if you can take some steps to lighten the load for next year.”

16. Dangerous road conditions

Some of your holiday driving may take place on roads glazed over in ice and snow, making for tricky driving and the potential for serious back injuries.

The solution: “Consider the condition of the roads before traveling,” Dr. Drymalski says. “Ensure the tires on your vehicle are in good condition and avoid driving at all if there is precipitation in the forecast.”

17. Hunting injuries

According to Dr. Drymalski, hunting injuries can involve falling out of deer stands or carrying or moving large animals, resulting in back pain or acute back conditions.

The solution: He says, “Prepare ahead of time—double-check all safety equipment and consider doing some light back exercises a few weeks prior to hunting to prevent injury.”

18. Standing too long

Whether you’re standing around visiting with family members, dancing to your favorite Christmas songs, or spending hours in the kitchen, all that standing can add up to an intense backache.

The solution: Dr. Nemerovski says, “If you get some back pain, try stretching it out, take warm baths, or turn to massage.”

19. Going to the Christmas tree lot

Dr. Bergin says, “Lifting heavy trees, strapping them to the car, dragging them in the house, and setting them up can put a strain on even the healthiest back.”

Holiday back pain treeToo big. Dads, we're talking to you.The solution: If you just have to have a “real” Christmas tree, Dr. Bergin says, “Let the folks at the Christmas tree shop do most of the work. Bring your tree stand so they can set the tree in it. Don’t be a ‘Christmas Tree Hero.’ Get your family to help with the unloading of the tree and the set-up. That’s part of the gig, and you shouldn’t do it by yourself.”

20. Wrapping presents

If you’re sitting on the floor wrapping presents for hours on end, you can basically count on a painful back later.

The solution: Dr. Bergin loves to wrap gifts but admits that it almost always results in a backache. She says, “This year, I’m not taking my back for granted. I will definitely wrap on the kitchen table and never again on the floor. And I’ll wrap fewer packages at a time.”

21. Lifting heavy food

It’s safe to say that “heavy” foods like turkey, casserole dishes, and sizeable bowls filled with mashed potatoes are associated with the holidays. That heavy lifting can bring on back pain later. “Standing at the kitchen counter all day, followed by the awkward roast turkey hoist, is a prescription for back injury,” Dr. Bergin says.

The solution: “Please recruit help,” she says. “Cooks tend to be kitchen heroes, and there is a wonderful feeling to preparing that meal independently. Divide and conquer. There is heroism in that as well! Prepare smaller vessels of food. Get only the amount of turkey you need for the meal and not for the next three months. Get someone strong to retrieve the turkey. Even better—cater!”

22. Lack of self-care time

The holidays can leave many of us with little time to care for ourselves, which can allow stress, and pain, to creep in.

The solution: Dr. Drymalski says, “Remember that even though the holidays are a time for thinking of others, don’t forget to set time aside for yourself to address your own physical and mental wellbeing. You and your family will all benefit.”

23. Doing too much

Those jam-packed Christmas schedules can easily bring on aches and pains in many forms, including back pain. “The holidays make us particularly vulnerable because we always seem to do too much—cleaning the house, shopping for food, shopping for presents, cooking, more cleaning, decorating inside and outside the house, and more,” Dr. Nemerovski says. “We are always on the go and we can’t seem to relax until after the holidays are over.”

The solution: He says, “The bottom line is, don’t overdo it, and enjoy the holidays. You can use Ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil), Naproxen (Aleve), or plain Tylenol for mild to moderate pain.”

24. Taking down decorations

Before you know it, you’re taking down Christmas decorations. Your back has already been through a lot during the holiday season, so this is when you should be extra-careful.

The solution: Dr. Drymalski suggests, “Practice proper bending from the knees rather than the hips when squatting or picking up boxes or totes, have assistance from a friend or family member rather than trying to do too much on your own, and consider light back exercises in the days and weeks leading up to this to prevent injury.”  

25. New Year’s resolutions

“There is always an uptick in office visits after the winter holidays,” Dr. Bergin says. “Some of it is simply because we close the office for the holidays and we’re getting caught up. But a lot of it is because our patients get started on aggressive plans to lose weight. They go run five miles a day after not having run for two years. They start doing squats, squat jumps, and even better: squat jumps with kettle bells. This behavior almost always results in back pain, knee pain, and stress reactions throughout the weight-bearing parts of the body.”

The solution: Dr. Bergin shares her words of wisdom: “Build up slowly, stretch, be mindful of pain, don’t work through bone and joint pain, and use common sense when planning that glorious return to your 20-year-old body.”  

Updated on: 12/16/20
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