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.
3. Sitting 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 injury.
- Use a cushion under your tailbone. Desk chairs compress the spine out of its natural S shape.
- 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.
The next 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 leg.
- 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 start.
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.