As we move towards occupations that require us to sit longer and move less, back pain and other musculoskeletal pain seem to be on the rise.
In one study office workers were asked to sit for 2 hours at a computer as their discomfort level was measured throughout this time. The results showed that discomfort increased significantly over time across the entire body – but low back pain was reported to have increased the most.
Let’s look at what causes low back pain while sitting and what can be done about it.
While there are mixed research and opinions on what exactly causes lower back pain from sitting, it is clear that when compared to other activities like lying or standing – the compression on the spine from sitting is greater, and increases even more when sitting in a hunched forward position (Flexed).
Take a look at the image below showing the pressure on the spine’s discs during the different activities:
As you can see sitting while hunching & sitting while hunching forward with weight puts great pressure on the spine.
Scary Fact: According to Juststand.org the average person sits 12 hours a day! (At office, Car, Watching TV).
Related read: 7 Stretches for Low Back Pain
#1: Excessive Sitting (Longer than 30 Min)
Just sitting alone puts a lot of pressure on the spine’s discs (As shown above) which can cause pain symptoms, muscle tightness and postural issues. This can contribute to:
– A flattening of the intervertebral disc (Degenerative disc disease)
– Bulging disc and herniated disc
– Sciatica Pain
– Low back muscle tightness
– Tight hip flexors
– Inactive core
– And more
#2: Sitting with Hunched Posture (Kyphosis)
Many people sit with their shoulders rolled forward and their heads sticking out.
This can cause many issues including:
– Stress on the low back muscles and ligaments
– Can cause Bulging discs, Herniated discs, Sciatica
– Can cause trigger points, muscle tightness & Spasms
– Neck and Shoulder pain
#3: Sitting in a Static Position
While sitting alone is bad, what’s even worse is sitting in one position (“Static”) for a prolonged period. Our bodies were designed for movement and sitting in one position for long hours will cause:
– Back pain aches and stiffness
– Muscle tightness
– Activation of low back muscles
– Poor Blood Circulation
#4: Sitting with Flattened Low Back
Our spines have a natural “S” shape curve to them – Often referred to as the “Neutral position”. It is generally accepted that this neutral spinal position places the least amount of stress on the joints, muscles and ligaments. However, when sitting (Especially without back support) many people “cave in” and “flatten” their backs (Creating a “C” shape curve). This can cause:
– More pressure on the spinal discs
– Contribute to bulging discs/herniated discs/Sciatica
– Low back muscle tension
– Leaning forward
#5: Sitting with Excessively Arched Low Back
Often referred to as “Hyperlordosis” or “Anterior Pelvic Tilt” or “Lower Crossed Syndrome”, in this posture your your low back will have an excessive low back arch to it. This can:
– Strain your low back muscles (Erector Spinae)
– Shut off your core muscles
– Tighten up your hip flexors
– And more
What can you do about it?
Here are some ideas of how you can relieve (or ease) back pain from sitting.
#1: Stand Up/Walk Around/Exercise Every 30 min
In this article on the many health issues of prolonged sitting it states: “Muscle fibers composed of sarcomeres, the functioning units of striated muscles, shorten during inactivity, which contributes to muscle stiffness”.
So what to do? Every 30 minutes get up and walk around, stretch out, jump up and down, etc.
There are a variety of exercises and stretches you can do at your office, that don’t require lots of space. For example, you can do a standing “Cat & Cow”. This will loosen up you pelvis, low back and upper back area.
#2: Vary Your Posture/Move While Sitting
This study showed how Dynamically changing the positions of the low back and pelvis during sitting has been found to help reduce posture-related pain.
If you’re unable to get up, at least try to change your posture WHILE still sitting.
Move to one leg, rest on the elbow for a moment, etc – Remember not to stay in any one of these postures for too long though. Also, try moving – Rock in your chair, stretch your arms out, or do some pelvic tilts in place.
#3: Use a Sit-Stand Desk
Research is inconclusive in this area, however this one study did show that the Sit-Stand method can in fact reduce back pain.
The best thing about having a sit-stand desk is that you can continue working while changing from sit to stand and vice versa. It’s not always possible to step out for a walk so this approach will at least give you a break from “static sitting”. Also, there is less pressure on the spinal discs (See chart above) when standing, compared to sitting, so this can provide instant relief.
#4: Get Lumbar cushion support
As I mentioned above one of the reasons people get lower back pain can be due to losing their “Neutral Spine Curve”. To ensure that you maintain the natural curves of your spine, get a lumbar cushion support. Place it at the “small” of your back or just above and notice how it supports your back.
#5: Raise your laptop to eye level
One of the things that can contribute to “Kyphotic” (Hunched) posture is having the computer/laptop placed below eye level. This will cause you to look down and contribute to that Forward neck posture. To combat this get a Laptop stand or a stack of books to elevate your computer closer to your eye level. This ergonomic adjustment will FORCE you to look up!
#6: Improve Your Overall Posture
Improving this posture will align your shoulders and ears with your hips, knees and ankles. This will enable you to maintain the natural curve of your spine for longer periods of time.
#7: Keep elbows at your sides (Not reaching)
When working at a computer with a mouse it’s important to NOT reach forward too much as this can activate the Upper Trapezius muscle (Causing painful trigger points around the shoulders). Reaching forward can also round (Flex) your low back, causing tightness/pain.
#8: Self Massage
One of the easiest and fastest ways to relieve muscle tension and trigger points is to do self massage to the low back, upper back, and buttocks area. You can use your fingers, a massage ball or a foam roller to apply pressure.
Note: Be careful to not apply direct pressure to the spine – instead work on the muscles around the spine and butt area. Check out these Self massage techniques.
Corrective Exercise Specialist (NASM-CES), Certified Personal Trainer (NASM-CPT), Professional Dancer
As a long time back sufferer Leon found unique methods to alleviate his pain using natural methods including self massage, exercise/stretching and postural habits. He founded Backintelligence.com to empower others to fix their postures and ease their back pain from home.