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Why Sitting is Splintering Your Spine

By now, it’s no secret that desk jobs can take a toll on your body – especially your back. While sitting is never ideal, office environments generally provide optimal conditions for prolonged sitting – ergonomically efficient chairs, keyboards, high-quality monitors, etc. However, the COVID pandemic has shifted many workers away from their office desks. Home desks are typically far less suited for long periods of sitting. Put it all together, and you’ve got a whole lot of back pain. Luckily, physical therapists are here to help!

Ergonomics – Understanding Back Pain

Ergonomics is the study of peoples’ efficiency in their work environmentsPut simply, ergonomics works to determine what makes a good working environment and, just as importantly, what makes a bad one. If you’ve done even a small amount of research into on back pain, you’ve probably seen articles about ergonomically friendly chairs, desks, and more.

Ergonomics is a complex field, but you should know that better ergonomic habits generally mean less back pain. We’ll talk about ways to practice this in more detail later, but things like standing regularly, proper posture, and stretching can help significantly reduce your back pain and prevent future episodes. This is all to alleviate the negative side effects of sitting, which, while restful, can put up to 90 percent more stress on your back than standing.

In reality, we know that practicing perfect posture, always sitting at the perfect angle, and dragging around your perfect desk chair isn’t possible 100% of the time. That’s okay! Our physical therapists have put together some of their best recommendations for treating back pain from sitting that you can implement from the comfort of your own home.  

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Causes of Back Pain While Sitting

In this article, we’ll focus on back pain that’s caused by ergonomic and/or environmental factors, or by excessive sitting itself. However, back pain while sitting can be caused by a variety of reasons. If your back pain does not get better after several days of improved habits, or gets worse with exercise, please consult your physical therapist as there may be underlying causes increasing your pain.

Causes of back pain while sitting may include:

Injury 

Acute back pain caused by injury can manifest in a variety of ways and should always be assessed by your physical therapist as injuries can have long-lasting affects if not properly treated. If you’re experiencing back pain after an injury, schedule an assessment with your physical therapist to determine the best course of treatment.

Sciatica 

Sciatica is a condition that refers to pain in the sciatic nerve, which stretches from your spine to your legs. There are multiple conditions that can cause sciatic pain, so it is recommended to have your sciatica examined by a physical therapist, who can determine the root cause. Sciatic pain can range from a dull throbbing sensation to sharp, debilitating episodes of pain. Sitting usually exacerbates sciatica.

Herniated disc 

A herniated disc is a condition in which a spinal disc bulges outward, pressing on a spinal nerve and causing pain. This can cause back pain at any given time.

Muscle strain  

Overexertion can lead to straining or twisting muscle(s) in your back that cause back pain while sitting, standing, or moving. Strain usually resolves after a rest period and home treatment but may need to be evaluated if the pain persists.

Poor posture 

Your mom wasn’t lying – practicing good posture really is important! Poor posture, over time, can cause a variety of negative symptoms. This includes pain in your arms, neck, or back that will continue to worsen if you don’t correct your posture.

Here’s what your posture should look like while you’re working at your desk.

Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease is a product of aging. As you age, the discs in your spine can degenerate which causes protrusions and/or tears that often cause back pain. This pain is often made worse by bending or sitting.

Treating Back Pain While Sitting

You can work on reducing the intensity of your back pain using a few simple tips from our physical therapists. This should help ease your back pain while sitting.  However, if it does not help, you should consult your physical therapist for an assessment.

  1. Keep your screen level with your eye line. Angling your head throughout the day causes significant strain on your neck and back muscles. Make sure your screens are at eye level so while you’re using your computer throughout the day, you’re not straining those muscles and causing back pain.
  2. Relax your shoulders. People have a tendency to roll their shoulders forward while sitting, especially if they are frequently typing. Make sure to sit straight up in your chair (and use a decent chair, for that matter) and stay mindful that you aren’t hunched over when you’re using your computer.
  3. Don’t lean forward. This goes hand in hand with rolled shoulders – it feels natural to lean in while you’re using the computer. Don’t do it! Whether it’s due to focus or fatigue, if you feel yourself leaning forward into your screen often, try taking a quick break or stretching your back.
  4. Keep your elbows close to your body. Over the course of the day, you may find your elbows are sliding further and further away from your body. This can cause you to strain your arm and back muscles, so stay mindful of this and try to maintain proper typing position as much as possible.
  5. On the phone? Use speakerphone/Bluetooth. A quick phone call is no problem, but if you find yourself on the phone for several hours a day you should try to use speakerphone or a headset. Pinching your neck to your shoulder for that long can cause some serious muscle strain in your neck and back.
  6. Stand up! No matter how perfect your posture or desk setup, sitting still takes its toll. You should stand up and take a quick break from sitting at least every hour, but ideally every half hour. Even a minute long standing/stretching break is enough to help alleviate your back pain from sitting!
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Stretches/Exercises for Back Pain While Sitting

Targeted exercises and stretches are a tried-and-true method for treating back pain. These are simple, low-intensity activities that are designed to strengthen core muscles that support your back.

To see the full list of exercises with visual guides, click here! 

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