Injuries are inevitable in law enforcement. Among police officers, temporary and long-term lower back pain is one of the most common health complaints. Between the duty belt, body armor, riding in a vehicle all day, heavy lifting, pulling, altercations, quick turns, and sudden sprints (like going from 0 torque to peak torque chasing a suspect), the day-to-day of police work puts a lot of stress and strain on an officer’s back, neck, knees, and shoulders.
In a recent study, it was found that uniformed law enforcement officers suffer from a greater percentage of lower back pain than the civilian population. This finding was the result of a “Health Hazard Evaluation” jointly conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It focused on low back pain and back-related injuries among law enforcement personnel.
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A police duty belt can contribute to back pain
One of the main reasons for lower back pain cited in the study is the heavy duty belt worn daily as part of the uniform (often referred to as the “Sam Browne”). Equipment commonly carried on the belt includes handcuffs, radio, baton, hand-held protection devices such as pepper spray, firearms and ammunition, taser, flashlight, batteries, gloves, pens, pencils, keys, multi-tool, window punch, and more. Fully loaded, it can weigh up to 30 pounds! That’s a lot of weight to carry around your waist every day, adding pressure to the joints around your hips and your lower back muscles.
Because of the uneven weight distribution of all that gear, wearing a duty belt can affect posture and cause pelvic imbalances. To compensate for the gear’s uneven weight, an officer may shift their body weight from side to side, back to front or sit in unusual positions. This compensation leads to poor posture, fatigue, stress on the spine, discs, and muscles, and back pain.
The duty belt was designed to help uniformed officers be hands-free but it continuously places a daily strain on their joints, especially on lower extremities like the hips, knees, and ankles. Duty belts have also been found to increase the likelihood of developing injuries related to progressive degeneration and cumulative trauma. And those police officers employed the longest experienced the highest levels of lower back pain — many of whom never experienced lower back pain prior to joining the force.
Chronic back pain affects an officer's job performance
As studies have shown, chronic back pain among uniformed officers results in a loss of productivity, absenteeism, and increased use of sick leave. Additionally, many may be forced to retire early or take a desk job. In a conversation with a friend who spent twenty-seven years on his local police force, he agreed that the duty belt contributed to body aches. Although he was fit and maintained a healthy weight, he did suffer from aching knees which made getting in and out of his patrol car uncomfortable and painful. And he reminded me that new items are now included in the “Sam Browne”, making the belt even heavier.
How law enforcement officers can avoid back pain
Sitting or standing for long periods leads to postural fatigue, making it important to frequently change positions and pay attention to posture. For instance, sitting all day every day in a duty vehicle may cause lower back muscles to weaken and hips to tighten, making the lower back more vulnerable to injury. When the gluteal muscles become inactive, the lower back muscles are forced to work harder, making them prone to injury.
The good news is that taking a proactive approach to back health is key to keeping your back healthy when facing the daily challenges of police work. Some key tips include:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise: core strengthening such as yoga and Pilates 2-3 times a week can help prevent chronic pain
- If possible, reposition your gear on the duty belt to achieve a balanced weight distribution. Avoid pressure points, discomfort, or excessive friction.
- Avoid overly tight belts that restrict blood flow
- Avoid overly loose belts that present challenges to natural movement
- If possible, move some equipment into a MOLLE-style (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) vest to disperse some of the weight from the hips to the shoulders.
- Engage in breaks for stretching throughout the day. 5 minutes at a time is enough to reactivate the muscles in your legs, glutes, and back.
 NIOSH . Evaluation of low back pain and duty equipment wear configurations in police officers. By Ramsey JG, Eisenberg J. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Health Hazard Evaluation Report 2017-0049-3367, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2017-0049-3367.pdf.