As if you needed another reason to hate going to the office (where your annoying co-worker Tina makes your life a living hell), doctors say the very act of sitting at your desk can cause back pain.
“Without question, sitting in an office chair can be a significant cause of back pain, especially when done over long periods of time,” says Dr. Stefano Sinicropi, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with a sub-specialty in spinal surgery. “The method in which we have come to be accustomed to sitting — multiplied by the endless periods of sitting itself — is a recipe for back misery.”
According to Sinicropi, sitting is even more stressful on the spine than standing, and slouching makes it worse. “Hunching forward pushes the back into a ‘C’ shape, and in medical terms, puts the back into a position of kyphosis, or round-back,” he says. Aside from contributing to “round-back,” these types of stresses can actually prevent blood-flow to the discs between your vertebrae.
But what’s an aching office-worker to do? Many jobs pretty much require employees be seated at a desk for hours at a time — if not the entire day. If this sounds like your job, Sinicropi suggests two things: adjusting your office chair for optimal ergonomic comfort, and learning to sit correctly.
First, get your chair in order:
- Lumbar support is critical: Your office chair should have a contour in the back rest, so that when your butt is pressed against the back of the chair, your lower back arches slightly forward. If not, you’re more likely to hunch forward as the day progresses, putting strain on your back. “If a proper lumbar support is not [built in], then adding a lumbar cushion or pillow may make a significant difference,” says Sinicropi.
- Find the right chair height: According to Sinicropi, seat heights usually range from 16–21 inches off the floor. Adjust until your feet are resting on the ground, your hips are level with your knees (or higher), and your eyes are level with the center of your computer screen.
- Use the armrests: Your forearms should rest easily on your chair’s armrests. If not, adjust until they sit slightly higher than where your forearms fall, so that they just barely lift your shoulders up. “Use of an armrest takes strain off your neck, and makes it less likely that you slouch forward.”
Next, get into proper sitting habits:
- Don’t slouch or slump. ”This is the most important thing to be conscious of,” Sinicropi urges. Even good chairs won’t help unless we’re sitting up straight, he says.
- Relax. Overworking neck and lower back muscles, because of tension caused by discomfort, can lead to further strain.
- Change sitting positions often. Sinicropi recommends changing the position of the pelvis, moving the legs, and readjusting your posture throughout the day.
And now that you’re aware of where and how to sit, Sinicropi has another important piece of advice: Get up.
“The most important habit to develop and reinforce is getting your body moving throughout your workday,” Sinicropi says, adding that a static sitting position — especially one that’s detrimental to your discs — can cause chronic pain or cirulatory conditions over time. “As a general rule, one should get up and move around every 15–20 minutes or so. Stand up, stretch and walk around, if possible.” (That’s not the only reason you should be getting up out of your seat; regular exercise strengthens the muscles that support the spine and general lumbar area, says the doctor.)
If back pain persists after applying these practices, Sinicropi suggests a consultation with a back pain expert, such as a chiropractor, a physical therapist, or a specialist who deals in spinal disorders.
Otherwise, get ready to enjoy less and less back pain at the end of each workday. (Tina will still be a huge pain in the butt, though.)
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