Work-related back pain is one of the most common occupational
disorders in the US, affecting four out of five Americans at some
point in their life. Sounds silly, but something as innocent as
sitting at your desk all day puts you at a great risk for back pain
or injury. For most of us, this position is more natural than
standing or even sleeping. Does this mean you should opt for a
desk-less and chair-less career? Not necessarily.
Between my family, friends, and patients I have seen, lower back pain
is, without a doubt, the most common complaint. While studying to
pursue a career in physical therapy and after seeing countless
patients suffer from lower back pain, I noticed a common trend, long
hours of continuous sitting was becoming a theme. This makes sense
when you realize that when you sit, your lower back is supporting
more than half your body weight.
While sitting can
damage your back in a variety of ways; the main cause of your back
pain stems from your back being pulled out of its natural position
when your legs are at a 90-degree angle to your hips. Studies show
that while sitting in a chair, your hips stop rotating after the
first 60 degrees of descent. To move your legs the final 30 degrees
into position, "the muscles of the back of your thighs pull the
bottom of your pelvis forward to tip it backward," says Cranz,
Ph.D., a professor at the University of California. Simply sitting in
a chair “flattens our lumbar curve.” Who would have
thought that something as standard as a piece of furniture can be
causing such anguish?
Before we go on to
mitigate that pain, there are some myths that need to be cleared up:
1. Lower back
pain is caused by weak abs and tight hamstrings. Back pain is
caused by an inability to activate certain muscle groups. When
muscles haven't been used in a while, they become lazy. When you
don't use certain muscle groups they won't activate on their own. In
a sense, if you don't use it, you lose it.
2. A flexible
spine is better. A tighter spine with well supported muscles and
ligaments is best. The stronger the muscles that secure your
spinal column, the more safely your body will be able to move.
straight in your chair with good posture is good for your back.
Although you are not slouching, which strains the ligaments, sitting
erect can actually strain the muscles around the spinal column,
stressing the disks in your spine.
Now that you
understand the fairy-tales, let’s look at some real precautions
you can take to minimize the pain and risk of injury.
- Do not
jump up from a seated position. Sitting for lengthy periods
at a time then springing up to do something quickly can lead to
- Use a cushion under your
tailbone. Desk chairs compress the spine out of its natural
- Do not lean forward to
stand. Leaning forward from your chair to stand up causes
shear compression on your spine. Instead, you should hinge from the
hips as if your hips and torso are one unit.
- Raise your work space.
Raise the seat and computer screen and desk surface to bar height.
This puts your hips at a better angle and allows your spine to
remain in its natural shape without any added stress.
- Walk and talk.
Standing up while talking on the phone gives your back a chance to
regain its normal curve.
- Move as a unit.
Move your upper and lower body together when twisting (i.e. as in
twisting to answer the phone). This allows your pelvis and rib cage
to move as a single unit.
question probably going through your mind is “how can I
strengthen my spine to prevent injury?” When lower back pain
strikes, most people think that inactivity and taking a few Tylenol
until the pain subsides is the best option. Bed rest is actually not
your best option to rehabilitate this problem. Proper exercise is
ultimately the best solution to help lower back pain. Exercise and
movement will help tone and strengthen core muscles. This will also
help to hydrate the disks around the spine to alleviate pain caused
by lack of fluid. Exercise will actually pump fluid into the disks in
your spine. Although it may not seem you are hurting your back while
sitting at the desk, your back may be at risk. Exercise can help
rehabilitate your existing back pain and it can also act to protect
and prevent future injury. Some preventative lower-back exercises are
listed below. Please do these exercises at your own pace and stop any
exercises if pain worsens. If back pain persists or worsens please
see a physician or health professional.
- Lie flat on
your back. Bring both your knees and your chin to your chest. Hold
this position for 30 seconds.
- Begin on your hands and knees.
Simultaneously raise and straighten your right arm and left leg
until they are parallel to the ground. Hold for 2 seconds and come
back slowly to a starting position. Repeat with left arm and right
- Lie facedown, arms extended
overhead, palms on floor. Simultaneously raise your right arm and
left leg as high as comfortably possible. Hold for 10 seconds and
slowly return to start. Repeat with left arm and right leg,
alternating 10 times.
- Lie facedown, arms at your side
and place heels under couch. Slowly raise chest off the floor as
high as you comfortably can. Hold for 2 seconds and return to
If you are desk
bound, don't worry, there is hope for your lower back. By simply
being aware of this issue and knowing that there are preventative
exercises and precautions to take, you and your lower back are
already better off. The ultimate answer to recovering or preventing
pain is to strengthen the muscles that support your spine.
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