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Nature of ranch work creates opportunities for many types of back injuries

Written by Heather Smith Thomas

Back pain is common among farmers and ranchers because they do a lot of heavy lifting, pushing and pulling. This can put great strain on the back, especially if it’s not done correctly, says Juniper MacFarlane, a physical therapist at Steele Memorial Medical Center Rehabilitation Services in Salmon, Idaho.

MacFarlane deals with many rancher patients who have strained or injured their backs. 

Ranching strains

“I grew up in Wyoming, and my father was a rancher. I understand this lifestyle,” she says, noting that she was surprised not by the number of back injuries caused from lifting and moving incorrectly but at the trauma ranchers suffer from accidents.

Such occurrences are common for ranchers, MacFarlane says, and she often treats patients for trauma.

“Ranchers get slammed against a fence or barn wall by an angry cow or calf, get thrown from a horse or have a tractor accident,” MacFarlane explains. “There are so many things that are dangerous in ranching, that cause back injuries.”

“Being hit by a cow, for instance, was not something I had ever treated patients for before moving to Idaho, yet this is a common type of ranching injury and can cause broken bones and other problems. But, a lot of these are also back injuries,” she says.

Prevention

Prevention of injuries can be challenging. Ranchers don’t always know how to predict what might happen with an unpredictable animal, and lifting tasks are also greatly varied.

“What doctors and physical therapists recommend for lifting is to practice good exercises to build strong abdominal muscles,” MacFarlane says.

She recommended lifting using the legs by bending at the knees rather than stooping over to pick something up. MacFarlane also said ranchers should keep their spine in a neutral position, rather than curled.

“The best defense against back injury is keeping abdominal muscles strong, doing a lot of lower abdominal exercises or crunches or exercises where we lie on our backs and do leg lifts,” she says. “Then, when we do have to lift hay bales or do a lot of shoveling or moving, pipe we won’t be as likely to injure our backs.”

Hurrying and planning

“Try to plan any lift carefully. For example, if we are not thinking about it and just trying to get jobs done quickly, we might make poor choices of body position, twisting while lifting, etc.,” she says. 

Opening and dragging heavy gates, picking up a salt block or a bale of hay, etc. can often put a person at risk for straining the back. 

Hurrying to do something can also put ranchers at risk.

“Instead of getting ourselves in the best position for instance, we just lean off the 4-wheeler and hoist something onto it,” MacFarlane explains. “By contrast, if we take a moment to get off the 4-wheeler and bend down with our knees instead of our back, we can put it on more easily and with less strain.”

“All too often, ranchers are in a rush and not planning through that lift,” says MacFarlane. 

It pays to take the time to think it through and make good plans for lifting something, instead of just doing it in a hurry. 

Ranchers also do hard work in cold weather and in the dark, though, when they may not have the luxury of planning every action. 

Treatment

Different injuries need different treatment techniques.

“In an acute injury, ranchers need to take it easy and listen to their bodies,” MacFarlane says. “If doing something is painful, avoid doing that until the acute injury has healed.”

In general, injuries of the back that cause leg symptoms like numbness, tingling or pain in the legs or feet or pain shooting down the leg are more alarming and should be checked by a doctor.

“Injuries that involve nerves to the legs could be more serious in terms of future prognosis,” says MacFarlane.

Differentiating

“We usually try to differentiate between various types of back injury, some of which are musculoskeletal, such as a strain.  Those generally get better in one to three weeks without much treatment, except ice or some heat and rest,” MacFarlane explains. “By contrast, disc injuries or damage to nerves that come out by the discs will need longer for healing and could potentially have more problems down the road.”

Though many ranchers are reluctant to take time or pay the expense of going to a doctor, there are certain back injuries that need to be assessed.

“The ranchers who have leg pain make me worry, because permanent damage can occur to a nerve, which could be prevented if we catch it early,” she says.

Injury occurrence

“We’ve all probably injured our back at one time or another, and not all back injuries require a doctor’s intervention,” she says. “Many get better on their own.”

“More worrisome is chronic back pain or recurrent injury. Some people have a back that ‘goes out’ with increasing frequency, and we worry about those cases,” she says.

The physical therapy prescribed by a doctor or exercises a patient should continue doing at home will depend on the injury and whether it is acute or chronic, or whether it’s muscular or affecting the joints in the back. 

“The usual physical therapy suggested for home would be light exercises, progressing to more challenging ones to increase strength and use of a thermal modality like heat or ice. We also suggest resting the back and avoiding doing things that cause pain,” MacFarlane comments.

“Sometimes physical therapy includes manual treatments of rubbing the muscles or deep heating.  The treatment and therapy will vary, depending on the structure that’s injured,” she says.

“Most back injuries have some muscular component, even if it is a disc problem, but some injuries are simpler – just muscle involvement as opposed to nerve injuries,” MacFarlane summarizes. “Those tend to be more serious, and future repercussions tend to be potentially more problematic.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..