Your spinal column consists of bones called vertebrae that protect the bundle of nerves called the spinal cord. Separated by gelatinous cushions called discs, the vertebrae stretch from the cervical or neck region to the base of your spine, called the lumbar area. Various conditions, injuries and repetitive stresses can damage these delicate structures, including sitting in a chair working on a computer for several hours a day. Back pain from computer use is related to a number of internal and external factors.
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The risk of developing back pain is higher for some people than for others. Risk factors that you cannot change include spinal deformities such as scoliosis; conditions such as osteoporosis; and being a woman, according to a 2012 report published in "BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders." Modifiable risk factors include the type of work you do, how long it takes, your workstation design, your posture, the intensity of your work and other changeable parameters. Because of the number of individual variations, it can be difficult to determine a cause-and-effect relationship between back pain and computer use in a particular person.
If you experience back pain while using the computer, your chair may be contributing to the problem if it does not support your body properly. Poor body alignment for long periods can cause pressure on various areas of your spine and contribute to pain in your back, neck, shoulders and arms. Choosing a chair that can be adjusted to your body seems to assist in relieving back pain, although the evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship is modest. Important features include the ability to adjust the backrest, armrests and the height of the chair. A curved versus a flat seat may also affect whether your upper or lower back are stressed with prolonged sitting.
Even the perfect office chair will not help your back if you sit with a slumped posture for long periods. Your spine is designed to be in an upright, neutral position with your shoulders back and a slight curvature at the base. Leaning forward to reach the keyboard, twisting your body while talking on the telephone, dangling your feet off a too-high chair or bending your head to see the computer screen takes your back out of a neutral posture. In an article published in "Spine-Health," John J. Triano, D.C., recommends sitting back in your chair and using a footrest to keep your knees and hips aligned, relieving pressure on your back. The height of your computer and desk should be adjusted so you can look straight at the screen rather than leaning forward.
Sitting in any position for more than 20 minutes can contribute to back pain by reducing the flexibility of your tendons and ligaments over time. To prevent back pain at work, shift your position often and take brief breaks every 20 minutes. Standing and leaning back with your hands behind the small of your back can help to improve your spine flexibility and prevent pain while working at the computer.