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Customizing counter & sink to minimize back problems?

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vjb May 14, 2011 06:43 AM

I have back problems. Spending time leaning over the sink to wash and rinse dishes, scrub, peel or rinse foods, etc., often leads to my spending time afterward lying on the floor to relax and stretch my spasming back muscles. We're beginning the renovation process for our kitchen, and I want the sink and the countertops on either side of it to be higher than the usual 36".

I want them to be at least 4 inches higher than usual (I'm 5'5"). 6 inches might be possible, too, but I worry that adding too much height might cause new problems. For example, 42" counters and sink might avoid back problems but end up causing shoulder problems.

So I have some questions for the chowhounders with back problems:

1. Do any of you have any experience with changing the height of their counters or sink? Or have any of you ever moved into a place in which the counters or sink are at a different height than the usual 36"? What are your observations of the effects on you? What have been the advantages and disadvantages? (leaving aside all references to resale issues)

2. If you are shorter than average, have you had problems working a long time at counters and sinks that feel too high?

3. Have you chosen a particular kind of sink to help you deal with back problems? An apron sink would _seem_ to be a potential solution if it brings the sink and sink edge closer to me (so I do not have to lean forward as much), but the bowls of most of the apron sinks I see advertised, even though the front is further forward than the counter edge, are just as far from the edge as with ordinary sinks, so what is the benefit?

Has anyone found a type of sink that helps them minimize back pain?

4. What changes or additions have you made to your kitchens and their equipment to allow you to work without causing pain or spasm or leaving you unable to stand up straight for a while afterward?

5. Have you made any changes to adapt your kitchen to your back problems but that you regretted afterward?

I look forward to reading the responses.

  1. e
    escondido123 May 14, 2011 08:17 AM

    I have back problems and I'm fairly tall at 5' 10". I believe raising the counter can be helpful, but you can also "raise" the sink by purchasing a shallow one that is 5" deep rather than the standard 8" or 9". Pair that with a gooseneck or pullout faucet and you will still be able to fill tall containers. It might also help if you kept a very large bowl or small plastic tub handy that you could set on the counter and fill with a little water to use for vegetable prep at a higher level. PS I have also seen kitchens where the dishwasher was raised so not so much bending...and the good ones also don't require so much dish rinsing so that can help your back too. PPS Don't be put off getting what you want by people who tell you it's all about resale value. As long as you won't be moving in the next five years that should be a nonissue. Good luck on your renovation.

    1 Reply
    1. re: escondido123
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      lgss May 14, 2011 08:20 AM

      When we renovated our kitchen we raised our sink and counter and put in a shallower sinks.

    2. s
      smartie May 14, 2011 10:26 AM

      You can get corner units that have a lazy susan configuration that you could put heavy items like pans and glass cookware into so that you don't have to reach in but turn the contraption around. There are also pull out systems that go into the kitchen closets. These might help alleviate back ache too. Or think about hooking pans and utensils up on the walls or above the counter or island.

      1. Stephanie Wong May 14, 2011 10:41 AM

        When my barely 5-ft. auntie renovated her kitchen, she had the counters and cupboards lowered by a couple inches but also had a pull-out step installed in the space between the floor and bottom of her counters in front of various work areas -- sink, built-in wok, chopping blocks, etc.. This way these work areas weren't too low for others working in the kitchen.

        Unfortunately, she'll gone now so I can't ask her what other modifications she made.

        1. s
          sedimental May 14, 2011 02:21 PM

          My guest house was designed by a physician and physical therapist with aging in mind. The kitchen and bathroom are really cool. The counters are higher than normal and a bit deeper than normal, the sink is shallow, the faucets are the German one handled kind that that you can turn off/ on/cold/hot with your elbow (and have a high arch) and the cabinets (which are taller) allow for more shelves which are deeper than normal- with pull outs to minimize bending. This extra kitchen storage allows for you to easily have almost everything at hand and not have to reach for it. My friend living in it now is retired (and not very tall) and she loves the modifications.

          1. i
            Indy 67 May 14, 2011 03:20 PM

            Based on experience, I'll put in a good word for an apron sink. My husband and I installed a custom-made under-counter mounted apron front sink. Maybe the key word is "Custom-made" but our sink is much closer to the edge than a conventional sink. Our sink 9" deep, deeper than the sink it replaced, but I use it comfortably. Go to a kitchen design display and measure how far you can reach down without strain. Then you can order with confidence.

            You haven't mentioned flooring material. Frankly, I think that's a big contributor to back pain. There's no give on stone or ceramic tiles, and standing on such a hard surface gets tiring. With some sleuthing, you'll be able to identify natural and composite alternatives that have offer some cushioning for your feet with happy results.

            Good luck!

            2 Replies
            1. re: Indy 67
              v
              vjb May 14, 2011 04:18 PM

              Uh oh. Too late. The ceramic* flooring's a done deal. But I've gotten dish-washing back aches on vinyl floors and wood floors. I can get a foam mat for my feet.
              *_I_ chose the ceramic, and it's so that I can clean the floor with a wet mop and any old damned cleaner I want. The fussiness that went into caring for the marble floor -- which the previous owners had put in -- was outrageous. Husband refused to have vinyl, so we compromised on ceramic/porcelain.

              1. re: vjb
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                Indy 67 May 14, 2011 07:59 PM

                Actually, I was thinking of some flooring I've seen made out of recycled tires. It was very high-tech/industrial looking so it might not have fit your decor. But as you say, "Too late."

            2. r
              RichardM May 16, 2011 02:16 AM

              No recommendation of height but my orthopedic surgeon once gave me a great tip for people with back strain while standing in front of sink or other work surface. Simply press one of your knees against the cabinet.

              1. l
                LovinSpoonful May 16, 2011 04:50 AM

                I suggest that you create a section of your existing counter that is raised and work on that for a few weeks. You can buy a section of inexpensive laminate countertop from Home Depot or Lowes and experiment with what height works best for you given the various tasks you do for how you cook.

                A shallower sink is going to be better for you most likely. We have 32" wide 5" deep sink and I love it for washing heavy items and for general clean up and food prep.

                Consider adding a swing-out faucet behind the range if you cook with larger pots of water. Saves you a trip from the sink to the range with a heavy pot.

                Definately go for drawers under your counter instead of doors with shelves. No getting on your knees to hunt for stuff.

                Also, consider designing your kitchen so you have a minimum of over-the-counter storage, or wall cabinets. This is a design goal usually pursued in kitchens for older people, but it applies for anyone who has mobility issues.

                Consider an island that has a different height than the rest of the counter, particularly if you have some task that you do that is more comfortably accomplished at a different height than everything else you do, such as chopping or kneading bread.

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