If your back bothers you after a day at work, you are not alone. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, low back pain is the leading cause of disability across the world. In America, many occupations require long hours behind a desk. An improper ergonomic setup and poor posture can contribute to many cases of back pain. Stretching, taking regular walk breaks and modifying your work space can help ease back pain from sitting at a desk.
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Sitting Too Long
The spine is designed to hold loads in its neutral S-curved position, which it naturally adopts when you stand up, but the seated position alters those curves. While sitting at a desk may not be the sole cause of your back pain, sitting for long periods can certainly exacerbate previous injuries to the low back. For example, if you have a herniated disc, your doctor may tell you to avoid sitting for long periods, as the flexed posture puts added strain on injured discs in the low back.
Slouching at the desk is even worse than slouching when you're standing up. The forward-head posture places stresses on the levator scapula and suboccipital muscles, causing headaches and shoulder stresses. A slouched posture also puts your lumbar spine into a flexed position, which causes weakening of stabilizing ligaments in your low back. Furthermore, your abdominal muscles act to protect the spine, but slouching causes them to weaken, further creating a spine that is vulnerable to injury.
An improperly planned workspace setup can lead to all sorts of repetitive strain injuries. The center of your computer monitor should be directly across from your eyes, and your feet should touch the ground when you're working. Your hips, knees and elbows should be bent at 90 degrees. A small pillow or lumbar roll should rest between the back of your chair and the small of your back, keeping your lower back properly aligned to reduce strain.
If you're getting back pain from sitting at your desk, make sure to stand up throughout the day and take walks. Check your ergonomic setup by having a friend photograph you sitting at your desk, and set an hourly alarm to remind yourself to check your posture. A fitness professional can teach you stretches and exercises to reverse the effects of poor posture. If your back pain is accompanied by numbness, weakness, tingling or bowel/bladder changes, see your doctor immediately.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Sitting Time and Mortality From All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer
- The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery: Lumbar Disc Disorders and Low-Back Pain: Socioeconomic Factors and Consequences
- The Spine Journal: Causal Assessment of Occupational Sitting and Low Back Pain: Results of a Systematic Review
- Bone & Joint Decade: Global Burden of Disease Study (2010)
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: How to Sit at a Computer