Despite only 30% of Australians working in a trade role, 60% of workplace injuries involve tradies – and it’s something we see extensively across our physiotherapy clinics.
Given that tradies are heavily reliant on their bodies throughout some very long hours, across some unforgiving surfaces and at times supporting heavy loads or engaging in repetitive straining tasks, it’s no surprise – yet just because injuries among trade professionals are common, does not mean they’re normal, and should never be shrugged off or treated like ‘part of the job’.
In light of Tradies Health Month throughout August, our physio team has shared about three causes of tradie pain we see often: lower back pain, shoulder pain and knee pain – and how to break the injury cycle for each.
Low Back Pain
Tradies are particularly susceptible to developing lower back pain, and it’s often triggered and worsened by repeated or heavy lifting – something that is often part of a day’s work in the trade industry. From labour-intensive tasks like working with large tools to simpler tasks like wearing a tool belt, putting constant strains on your back can quickly take its toll on the muscles and discs in your back and spine – especially when a job demands switching quickly between tasks that force your back to work at different heights and angles.
Most lower back pain is caused by an injury, such as a muscle strain from repetitive movements or lifting heavy objects in less than ideal ways. It’s most likely to affect people between 30 and 50 years old, as the discs in the spine are more easily irritated, which can make you more prone to injuring your back. Sometimes, lower back pain can be caused by other conditions, such as an injury to a disc in your spine, scoliosis (a curve in your spine) or arthritis.
Symptoms: Depending on the underlying cause of your lower back pain, you may experience pain and stiffness in your lower back, muscle spasms and cramping, pain that travels to your legs and feet, or pins and needles.
- Always try to use correct lifting techniques for heavy objects, keeping your back vertical and pushing yourself upwards through your knees
- Avoid twisting your back when you’re in a rush to lift something – make sure you take the time to fully turn your body into the position you want to lift
- A stretching and strengthening programme prescribed by a physiotherapist is a key way of minimising injury and pain, while providing you with techniques to minimise damage to your lower back in various situations. You can also get involved in our exercise classes like Pilates.
Many tradies put a significant load on their shoulders throughout their work days, with repetitive arm movements and lifting tasks where they often work overhead, and sometimes in awkward spaces and difficult positions. Over time, this can create a lot of wear and tear on their shoulder joints, making tradies vulnerable to developing shoulder pain and injury. Research has found that construction workers who do a lot of overhead work have high rates of shoulder pain that often progress to loss of function and even disability. For tradies, shoulder pain is often caused by:
- Shoulder strains and sprains: These can result from overusing the muscles, ligaments, or tendons past the point that they can safely handle
- Shoulder impingement: This happens when the tendons in the shoulder (or the bursae) are impingement upon by the bones in the shoulder. Tradies who repeatedly lift their arms, especially over the head, are more likely to develop a shoulder impingement.
- Tendonitis: When the tendons that attach to the bones and muscles are overworked and repetitively strained, they can become damaged, leading to inflammation, pain, stiffness or weakness.
- Bursitis: This happens when small sacs of fluid that allow your shoulder to move smoothly known as bursae become inflamed, triggering pain and limiting motion. This can be caused by a sudden injury or from repetitive movements over time.
Symptoms: Depending on the underlying cause of your shoulder pain, you may experience sharp pain when you lift an arm overhead or backward, minor but constant pain in your arm, pain that goes from the front of your shoulder to the side of your arm, shoulder or arm weakness, and swelling or inflammation.
- Try to avoid moving your arm above your head as much as possible. At work, this may mean standing on a stepladder to reach higher areas, or going to an upper level of scaffolding and working downwards.
- Some light exercises can also help to strengthen and stretch your shoulder to prevent injury, and these should be performed alongside the support of a physiotherapist. Your physio can also teach you proper techniques to reduce your chance of shoulder injury.
- Research has shown that shoulder stretching and strengthening exercises alongside a professional such as a physiotherapist is proven to reduce pain and improve function in construction workers with shoulder pain.
Our knees are not designed to support heavy, reptitive loads from direct contact to the joint – like many tradies experience from kneeling, crouching and squatting throughout the day. Studies confirm that workers who frequently kneel or carry heavy loads are more prone to developing knee pain due to the pressures put on their knees in often awkward positions, or through the strain of supporting extra weight. Frequently moving up and down stairs or ladders, as well as spending all day on the feet also adds to the risk.
Symptoms: Overloading the knees can lead to symptoms such as swelling, inflammation, stiffness, weakness and pain, especially when bending and straightening the knee.
- If you will be kneeling on the floor, consider wearing knee pads to soften the stress and impact of hard surfaces on your knee joints
- As part of your work gear, it may be worth strapping supportive garments to your knees to give them extra support, especially when carrying heavy loads.
- Address any tightness or weakness in the muscles surrounding or attaching to your knees, as they can otherwise increase your risk of developing knee pain. A common example we see in tradies with knee pain is having a tight lateral quadriceps muscle – the muscle on the outside of the thigh that attaches to the knee. Get a physio assessment so you know what’s happening with your legs, and use tools like foam rollers and strengthening programs to best prepare your body to stay injury-free
Breaking The Injury Cycle
One of the things we often see is that by the time we have many tradies in our treatment rooms, they’ve been suffering with pain for months – some even years. The hope that their injury or pain would go away on its own, and they just needed to ‘wait it out’, without realising that the nature of their work is regularly aggravating the injury and adding to the problem.
Moreover, longstanding injuries can lead to significant changes – for example, ligaments that are left unrehabilitated can weaken and loosen, which can then increase the re-injury risk while making daily life harder and less comfortable for tradies (something we often see with unrehabilitated ankle sprains that lead to chronic ankle instability, and many more sprains over the years).
As such, the key to breaking the injury cycle is having an assessment with your physiotherapist. It doesn’t matter if the first time you sustained your injury was years ago and it hasn’t been treated – our team will perform a comprehensive assessment that will tell us exactly what the consequences are on your body right now, the nature and current state of the injury, and what the best treatment approach is. We’ll discuss all our findings with you, and create a tailored rehabilitation and treatment plan that aligns with your goals and what you want to be able to do and achieve following your rehab.
An important part of what we do isn’t just treating your symptoms and helping repair the injury, but also to set you up for success in the long-term and help prevent your injury from recurring. We look to your long-term health and wellbeing so you can stay working for as long as you want – not as long as your body tells you you can.