Neck and back pain are all too common, and they occur for a host of reasons. But sometimes, the way we sit — especially when we're sitting at a desk all day — may be to blame.
In fact, one in four people sit for more than eight hours every day, according to a November 2018 JAMA survey of nearly 6,000 American adults. And many of us are doing it wrong.
Workplace gadgets like sit-stand desks can help alleviate back and other sitting-related pain, according to a July 2019 review of studies published in Applied Ergonomics — but only when used properly. And that can be tricky, because factors like desk height, monitor height, the amount of time spent standing and the use of an anti-fatigue mat all come into play.
To that end, we asked Glenn Withers, physiotherapist, pilates master trainer and co-founder of the Australian Physiotherapy & Pilates Institute, to give us the lowdown on the biggest mistakes people make in this area, and how you can remedy them.
1. Sitting All Day Without Breaks
Why it's bad for you: Sitting puts more pressure on the discs in your lower back than any other position. "This pressure gradually builds up over time and can lead to significant back injuries in later life," explains Withers.
Additionally, prolonged sitting alters the normal biomechanics of the lower body. "We are designed to be upright, yet with the growing use of sitting in the workplace and at home, the muscles in the front of the hip tighten up a lot, the muscles in our buttocks weaken and our lower abdominals lose tone and form," Withers says.
The type of pain it can cause: Low back and hip pain.
How to fix it: Make it a point to move more throughout the day. Withers suggests standing up every 30 to 40 minutes and slowly arching your back. Repeat this 10 times, and do it four to six times a day.
2. Standing Too Long
Why it's bad for you: While standing is a good sitting alternative to work into your day, like most things in life, it should be done in moderation.
"When we stand, we are using muscles all the way from our feet to our neck. This is good of course," Withers says. However, standing in an incorrect posture for any length of time can lead to an increase in pressure, specifically on the lower back. "When we stand for too long, we often fatigue in our postural muscles, and we combat this by allowing the lower lumber spine to shift forward, using the support of our ligaments in the front of the hip and pelvis for support instead of the muscles," he says. Over time, this can lead to the wearing away of the disc and joint in your lower back.
Additionally, as fatigue sets in — and it will — most people lock their knees for additional support, leading to an overload of pressure in these joints. Lastly, he points out that the fascia in the foot is not built to withstand load all day long, and stressing this area of your anatomy can lead to problems down the road.
The type of pain it can cause: You may feel a low-grade pain, at the level of a toothache, in a strip across your lower back or behind the knees.
How to fix it: Withers suggests setting time periods for standing and sitting. "Perhaps alternate every half hour, or at the most every hour," he maintains. Additionally, learn how to stand correctly, with a posture that allows the body to be maintained in a balanced way. Exercise program like Pilates, yoga or even Thai chi can assist with this.
3. Positioning Your Screen Too Low or Too High
Why it's bad for you: A mispositioned computer screen is a common culprit when it comes to bad posture. "If you don't have your screen about two degrees from your central eye line, it can alter the position of your neck," Withers says. If it is too low, you will be straining the posterior (back) elements of your neck and pulling on some vital structures that transition up into your head. If it's too high, on the other hand, your chin will protrude forwards and this will lead to a shortened position of the back your neck and compression of the upper vertebrae. This can lead to significant neckaches and possible headaches.
The type of pain it can cause: A gradually worsening pain in the upper part of the back of the neck, as well as headaches and shoulder tension.
How to fix it: "Ensure the screen is straight in front of you and not to the side," explains Withers. The top of the screen should be at least two degrees down from your direct eyeline height.
4. Not Positioning Your Keyboard Correctly
Why it's bad for you: Similar to having your screen in the wrong spot, if your keyboard is in a bad position, your posture will be compromised. "If the keyboard is too high, you hunch your shoulders to lift your hands to the right height," Withers explains. "If it is too low, you will strain your shoulders by having them drawn down too far." Both lead to increased tension in the shoulder and neck muscles.
The type of pain it can cause: Shoulder pain and tension as well as headaches.
How to fix it: Here is the correct way to position your keyboard, according to Withers: Drop your arms by your side, then bend the elbows to 90 degrees. That's where your keyboard should sit.
5. Slouching in Your Chair
Why it's bad for you: Slouching is a pretty common posture faux pas, and according to Withers, it often leads to increased tension in the shoulders and neck, resulting in headaches, neckaches and even some loss of concentration. "The nature of the slouching position means we are not using muscles to support us, but rather end-of-range joints and ligaments," he explains. "These structures have a threshold of pain they can withstand, and after about 20 minutes they will start to reach that threshold and begin setting off pain signals." Over time, this leads to ongoing changes in these structures, and the threshold begins to get shorter and shorter before pain is felt.
The type of pain it can cause: Low back, shoulder, hip and neck pain.
How to fix it: Withers advocates setting a regular reminder on your computer or calendar. "Each time you see it, sit up taller, gently draw your shoulders back and try to lengthen the back of your neck as though it was a helium balloon floating above your shoulders," he suggests.
6. Hunching Your Shoulders
Why it's bad for you: When you hunch your shoulders, you are basically forcing your upper trapezius muscle to work constantly, explains Withers, which will eventually lead to a shortening and tightening of this muscle. "This has huge implications. The main nerve plexus from your arms passes right by the upper trapezius muscle, and if this is chronically tight, it can impact the nerve flow," he explains.
The type of pain it can cause: Arm, shoulder and neck pain in addition to headaches, pins and needles in the hands and a burning sensation down the arms.
How to fix it: Withers suggests thinking of your shoulders like a coat hanger. "If the coat hanger is in place, your shoulders are wide and strong," he explains. "If the coat hanger is not there, you crumple." Much like slouching, try setting a regular reminder on your calendar to help keep hunching in check. Or ask a friend or colleague to offer a gentle nudge whenever they see you doing it.
7. Cradling a Phone to Your Ear
Why it's bad for you: Cradling your phone to your ear is one of the worst habits you can adopt. This significantly compromises the space in your neck. It closes down the exit points of all the nerves and arteries out of your spinal cord on the side you are cradling. In addition, you are straining the muscles and nerves on the opposite side. Over time, you may find that your entire neck becomes misaligned and painful.
The type of pain it can cause: Significant neck and shoulder pain.
How to fix it: At work, try using a headset to take your phone calls rather than putting the receiver to your ear. At work, get a headset to use instead of your phone. On the move, try using headphones or a Bluetooth-connected earpiece.