(TNM Women’s Health Month is brought to you by Kauvery Hospital.)
The idea of ‘sharing the load’, that is men pitching in to do a lot more work at home when compared to their fathers, seems to have caught on in urban homes. The reality, however, is that women continue to do most of the household chores. A study by the OECD a few years ago found that in India, while the average woman spends close to six hours a day on household work apart from their day job, men don’t even clock in an hour.
The inherent gender bias in our homes puts the burden of keeping the family together and happy on women. This becomes evident when women develop back pain. What’s worse is that as a society, we ignore or downplay women’s pain. “We do tend to take men’s back pain more seriously, and women do take longer to voice their symptoms of back pain,” says Dr G Balamurali, Neurosurgeon and Senior Lead Consultant Spine Surgeon at Kauvery Hospital in Chennai. “There is definitely gender bias when it comes to back pain,” he acknowledges.
For most women, pain is a lifelong affair, so they normalise it. They start suffering from pain at a very early stage, when they attain puberty and start getting periods.
“Many young women also carry heavy handbags, wear high heels for a long period of time or do excessive pelvic exercises which can damage the back muscles – all of which are bad for the back,” he adds.
“As they get older, majority of Indian women do bulk of the household chores, so when they get excessive pain, they simply assume that they can manage, not knowing that it can be harmful,” Dr Balamurali points out. “When they get even older, they link it to old age and again ignore it,” he adds.
Back pain during pregnancy is also an important challenge for women, and while there is some awareness on it, there are several myths about it too. Watch the short and crisp video below to know more about it.
It is a common refrain in our society that since women do a lot of work at home and are always active, they are healthy. They’re required to feel proud that they work hard by bending and twisting themselves regularly. The problem, however, is that not all household work is good for the body, and some of it can even be harmful because they cause repeated trauma to the back.
Working in the wrong posture is a leading cause of back pain in women. “In the West, they usually use equipment which helps them stand and do their work, but our women bend a lot, or sit on the floor. We tend to do work at a lower height, which exerts more pressure on the back,” says Dr Balamurali.
He points out how even our tables and shelves are not designed for the average Indian woman’s height, which is shorter. “They are in the kitchen more than the men, but they have to constantly reach out to higher shelves and exert pressure on their back and neck, developing pain,” he explains.
As a result, women end up inflicting considerable trauma to their back on a daily basis, and over the years, it takes a toll. “They can handle their trauma better if they focus on their fitness and exercise to strengthen their back muscles, but how will they have any energy left to do that after working the whole day?” the doctor asks.
Working less for a fit body
To be clear, ‘back pain’ is not an illness by itself, it could be a symptom of several other serious and non-serious illnesses. The commonest reason for back pain is weak muscles, which is caused by repeated trauma to the back as discussed above.
“While 90-95% cases of back pain are not serious, about 5% of the cases are – they could indicate an infection, cancer, fracture, severe osteoporosis,” Dr Balamurali says. However, the weak muscles eventually lead to degeneration, which we know as spondylosis. Further, the change in hormones during menopause causes a weakening of the bones and osteoporosis, which leads to more pain.
While the serious illnesses need different kinds of treatment, the easiest way to ensure that women don’t develop severe back pain in their old age is to treat the body well in their young age. “How your spine is in its old age depends on how you treat it when you are young,” the doctor warns. At a young age, the focus must be on strengthening our lumbar muscles, which are the muscles on our lower back around the spine.
There are many ways to improve muscle strength.
One, men have to share the burden of work at home so women get to rest their back.
Two, women should have a better lifestyle. They should avoid doing work in the ‘wrong posture’, and not use heavy handbags and high heels. They must try and maintain a healthy weight and exercise to strengthen their back muscles.
Three, menopause must be identified early and if necessary hormone replacement should be started.
Four, women must start taking calcium supplements at an earlier age.
And finally – “Visit the doctor regularly and do tests to find out what is happening with the body. Women must stop downplaying or ignoring their symptoms,” Dr Balamurali says.
This series was produced by TNM Marquee in association with Kauvery Hospital.