Tactical Athletes

Answering the call

By Tracy Howard

Whether lifting people on stretchers, carrying equipment or caring for critically ill patients, paramedics bear a heavy load.

“There’s a fair bit of lifting, and, unfortunately, people are getting bigger,” says Carl, a paramedic from the Quebec City area, who cites back and shoulder injuries as common in his field. “And just awkward positions, you can imagine in an accident when a car’s been crushed, and you need someone to go in there.”

While Carl is obviously knowledgeable about health, we consulted with Jennifer Johnson, a Certified Athletic Therapist in Mississauga, Ontario, on additional things he and other paramedics can do to help prevent job-related injuries. Johnson owns the SMART Clinic, which provides mobile clinics across the Greater Toronto Area that teach workers how to help avert injury, and also offers rehabilitation to injured employees.

Stretch it out

While Carl says he often lifts people who weigh upwards of 250 pounds, that’s not how he injured his back. “I reached from the back of the ambulance to get a piece of paper and I twisted awkwardly,” he shares. He was off work for three weeks, followed by desk duty for three weeks.

Johnson says injuries from everyday movements are fairly common when the body is tight. The antidote: frequent stretches. While Carl now has a 25-minute morning stretching routine, which Johnson applauds, she suggests he also do quick stretches throughout the day. “They may be driving in their ambulance for a period of time before they get a call and their muscles can get stiff,” says Johnson. “So even doing dynamic stretching, like moving arms in circles and bringing knees to the chest, or swinging legs back and forth throughout the day to keep muscles moving.”

Getting stronger

Paramedics deal with physical and emotional challenges at work only other first responders can relate to. “Nothing can prepare you for the things you see,” says Carl. He’s had colleagues with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and, on the physical side, he knows a paramedic whose teeth were knocked out from an assault.

 While Johnson acknowledges there’s only so much paramedics can physically prepare for emotional trauma or assault, she says the stronger their bodies are, the better they’ll be able to deal with unpredictable challenges. “Anything you can do to prepare your body functionally, just doing regular core work, strengthening and cardio is always going to be a benefit,” she advises.

 Lessening the load

Fortunately, better equipment, such as electric stretchers, is helping make parts of the job easier. In addition, Carl says he’s learned some helpful techniques over the years. “You might see a way of lifting a patient and you’re thinking we would have taken the whole load, but instead we used a little sheet and then did a maneuver and lifted 20 kilos rather than 100.”

 Johnson loves this approach, advising workers to use any lift-assist provided. She also recommends working with a partner for heavy loads, mentioning a client that requires weights over 80 pounds be lifted by two employees.

 Injured, now what?

Unfortunately, work-related injuries still happen. When Johnson’s team identifies employees at their client’s workplaces, who would benefit from athletic therapy, they attend an on-site clinic three times a week for manual therapy, work-specific exercise and direction on a home program.

 As for knowing when they’re ready to return to work? Johnson says it’s about workers demonstrating they’re able to do their daily tasks pain-free. “If you’re doing bicep curls, that’s great, but we don’t work in a one-plane motion,” explains Johnson. “You have to mimic what you do day in and day out; I think that prepares them a lot better to get back to their everyday activity.”

 With these preventive and treatment strategies, paramedics should be ready to answer any call.

Contributing Athletic Therapist
Jennifer Johnson

BPhEd(H), DipSIM(H), CAT(C)

Jennifer graduated from Brock University with an Honours degree in Physical Education. She then went on to obtain her Diploma in Sports Injury Management from Sheridan College in 2003. Jennifer opened up the SMART clinic and began specializing with the Industrial Athlete and has set up Athletic Therapy clinics on-site at various industrial settings across the GTA. These clinics use Athletic Therapy’s critical thinking, assessment and rehabilitation skills to keep employees working and preparing them for the motions they do on a daily basis. Currently Jennifer manages the industrial athlete clinics, which provide services to over 5000 workers, and treats various clientele at her private clinic in Mississauga, Ontario.