Farming is one of the most physically demanding occupations you can have, requiring constant heavy lifting, repetitive movements and long hours.
These together often lead to back injuries, causing pain for farmers and preventing them from carrying out essential tasks.
Exacerbating the risk of injury among farmers is the fact that the farming population is aging. Over the past three decades the percentage of farmers over 55 years of age has grown to 57% - from 45% in 1991. And with age comes a greater risk of injury.
Male and female farmers are both affected by back pain although several studies have shown that men are at greater risk of agricultural injuries than women.
Moreover, male farmers tend to be stoic about their health and less likely to acknowledge that they have a problem. This can be counter-productive. The sooner you address the cause of your back pain, the more likely you are to have a positive outcome.
If you get a back injury, it’s important to understand what steps you should take. Recognising that you have an injury, choosing the right healthcare facility and following a clear treatment and recovery plan can greatly improve your long-term health and productivity.
Can you tell me what happened to your back?
We live down an avenue with a hedge on both sides. I was finishing off the hedges after the hedge cutter had been and reached in as far as I could with the hedge trimmer and that was the final straw.
Over the next few weeks the pain worsened until I was doubled-over and had to use two crutches to get around, which was a nuisance as my two hands were tied up with them.
Before that I never had back problems and had been very active (and still am thank God!). Injuring my back was a wake-up call.
We farmers think ‘ah sure it’ll go away’ and we struggle on, we’re too busy to stop. My daughter Elizabeth pushed me to get it checked. I had an MRI and was told I would need to have surgery.
How did you feel when you knew you would need surgery?
I am very averse to needles! But I’ve had so many injections in the past year I’ve got over it! I was literally incapacitated. I had no option but to accept.
How did you feel after the surgery?
I’ll never forget the relief when I woke up of having no pain.
How would you rate the care you received?
The people were very capable and caring and I was well looked after at Mater Private. I was in the recovery ward first and then the ward. I met some great men there and we developed a great rapport. I absolutely enjoyed my stay after the pain had gone.
What post-operation care did you receive?
I had regular follow-up appointments for six weeks that became less frequent towards the end. They were checking that I wasn’t doing anything foolish!
The danger was that I felt so well, I might have pushed myself too far too quickly. The physios gave me a course of exercises. We farmers think we can do the exercises once or twice, but it is to our benefit to follow them through.
How long did it take before you were back to your normal activities?
I never stopped doing stuff, but I was very careful not to undo all the good work that was done.
Do you have any anything you would like to say to other farmers who may have injured their back?
Be sensible. You have an injury. It needs to be treated and you have to give it time to repair. There is only one person who benefits and that’s yourself. The benefit is no pain.
Understanding the signs of back injury
Back injuries vary from minor strains to serious conditions such as herniated discs or compression fractures. With minor back pain, often rest and over the counter medicine will be enough – provided you allow time for your symptoms to settle.
It's important to recognise the symptoms of back injuries early on to avoid aggravating the problem. Some common signs include:
If your back pain is intense, sharp or affecting your ability to carry out your normal daily activities, you should see a doctor. If it doesn't improve after a few days of rest and home treatments, or if it worsens over time, you should see a doctor.
If your pain radiates down your legs, or you have numbness, tingling or weakness in your legs, feet or arms, you should see a doctor. You should also see your doctor if your back pain is from an injury or accident – as your pain may indicate something more serious such as a bone fracture.
What to expect when you see your doctor
Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you and if you need further evaluation or your back pain requires specialist attention, they may refer you either to a specialist consultant or for a scan. X-rays, CT scans and MRIs are all used to diagnose the cause of back pain depending on your symptoms.
Asking the right questions
While your doctor may suggest a hospital or back specialist to you, they are happy for you to choose your own and willing to answer any questions you have.
Choosing a hospital and/or consultant that you trust gives you peace of mind. Some questions you should ask include:
Following your rehabilitation programme
Recovering from a back injury takes time and patience. Following a structured personalised rehabilitation plan can help you return to work safely and minimise the risk of the injury recurring. Every programme varies depending on the patient’s needs, so your programme will be tailored to you, but is likely to include:
Paddy Griffin is busy buying cattle and weaning foals again. His textbook recovery was in large part because of how well he followed his instructions after his surgery. We are very grateful to him for speaking with us for this article.
This article was brought to you by Spine Care, Mater Private Network in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Kilkenny. We treat more spine and back problems than any other Private Healthcare group in Ireland. Our dedicated team is here for you every step of the way.