According to a study published in 2013 by the Mayo Clinic, back pain is the third most common cause of doctor visits in the United States. And according to American Family Physician, only 25 to 30% of people seek treatment for their back pain. So if you're experiencing back pain, you're not alone. Many back pain sufferers struggle with what's causing their back pain, not realizing the 8 or more hours they spend sitting could be the main culprit.
The most common cause of lower back pain is postural stress. For this reason, lower back pain is frequently brought on by sitting too long, prolonged bending, heavy lifting, or even standing or laying down, all for a long time in a poor, rounded back position. According to Cornell University Department of Ergonomics, up to 90% more pressure is put on your back when you sit vs. when you stand. There are several reasons why, the first being that if you’re like most Americans, you habitually sit in ways that cause tension and imbalance in your back and neck. This applies to sitting at work, in the car, and at home.
Common Posture Mistakes That Lead to Back Problems
1. You’re looking down at your screen, phone, or desk, and your head tips forward. As your head weighs on average 10 lbs, any slight angle forward puts a strain on the muscles of your neck and upper back. The further forward that you lean your head forward, as well as how long you keep that straining posture, determines how much extra work your neck and upper back need to do.
2. Your shoulders are rolled forward. Some of the most common causes are a lack of lumbar support from a chair that’s too soft or one that doesn’t encourage good posture, a muscular imbalance where your pectoral muscles (chest) are stronger than your back muscles (common in men who like to work out their beach muscles more than their back), or habit. If you’re wondering if you’re guilty of this, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and let your arms hang down at your sides. If your thumb points forward, you’re probably balanced. If your palms are pointing behind you, you probably have an imbalance.
4. Your elbows are too far away from your body. The rule in lifting anything is that the more the object weighs, and the further your elbows are away from your torso, the more strain you put on your shoulders and upper back. Reaching your arms forward to type or write might not seem like much, but doing it 8 hours or more per day will take it’s toll.
5. You hold your phone to your ear. Many people multitask and talk on the phone while their hands are doing other things. Doing this for a few seconds isn’t going to cause an imbalance in your body, but anything more that that will cause tension on one side of your neck and upper back.
6. You sit for too long. Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of the Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, explains“We weren’t designed to sit. The body is a perpetual motion machine.” When you’re sedentary, your muscles get less oxygen and nutrients from your blood.
The rule of thumb is to frequent changing of postural positions and take movement micro-breaks for every 30 minutes of sitting throughout the work day. A helpful strategy is to drink lots of water: it keep you hydrated, which is healthy, and it forces you to get up and move in order to use the bathroom!
For a comprehensive list of how to sit, stand, and use your phone properly, check out Proper Workplace Ergonomics.
- Reference: McKenzie, Robin (2001) 7 Steps to a Pain-Free Life: How to Rapidly Relieve Back and Neck Pain. New York, New York: Penguin Group.