How Sitting Causes Back Pain


Dr. RJ Burrby Dr. RJ Burr
Updated August 9, 2018

You’re Not Alone

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 Causes

The most common cause of lower back pain is postural stress. For this reason, lower back pain is frequently brought on by sleep position, 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

So many of us are guilty of a few common mistakes that increase postural stress and can ultimately cause back pain. Over our lifetime sub-conscious habits form and make it easy for us to not notice when we're putting additional stresses on our bodies. Here's the most common causes of back pain and what you can do to correct them.

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.

poor posture looking down

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.

poor posture leaning forward

3. You’re leaning forward from your lower back. This posture puts even more pressure on the vertebrae of your lower spine (lumbar area), as it compresses your disks.

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.

elbows too far away from body at your desk

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.

poor posture holding phone to ear

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.

Getting rid of Back Pain

Everyone's path of treating back pain is different so it's important to try out different solutions and see what results you get. Here are some of our top suggestions for those suffering from lower back pain

Try a New Activity

Yoga - Yoga can be a very effective way of preventing and treating back pain from sitting. Bear in mind that some poses can provoke areas of pain so be mindful of which positions you can tolerate and work up to new positions as your body allows. Yoga is a very low-risk activity to try. Many studios will offer free first classes or a very low promotional price to get started. If you're suffering from sitting caused back or neck pain, there's no excuse for not giving yoga a try.

Pilates - Pilates has shown to help back and neck pain, especially certain types of exercises. While many other forms of physical activity can magnify body pain Pilates is a great choice for those currently suffering or those wishing to avoid pain risk. Pilates also offers a path to burning calories and losing weight that may not be accessible for those of us that are suffering from back pain. Pilates has gained tremendous popularity in the last 15 years and you should have no problem finding a local business that can help you get started.

Tai Chi - While many martial arts are very healthy activities, Tai Chi has developed a reputation for its extensive health benefits from the mind to the heart and energy levels. Tai Chi has also gained popularity for helping reduce neck and back pain as well as simply getting you into shape. Tai Chi has very popular and if you're looking to try it there are likely local options for beginners where you live.

Get Help From a Professional:

Massage - Getting pain treatment through massage is another great way to get rid of pain. While this is more of a luxury approach a monthly massage can be affordable and effective. There are many types of massage options so be sure to ask about the pain area you're suffering from or ask about a particular type of massage that addresses that area.

Go to a Chiropractor - Finding a good chiropractor can be the key to your pain. Chiropractors are trained in musculoskeletal manipulation and can identify the cause of your pain and specifically treat areas of pain with specialized procedures. They can also advise you on managing your pain in your day to day and suggest other activities that may help.

Physical Therapy - Often treating patients that have suffered trauma or recovering from surgery, physical therapists and their staff are also more than qualified to help treat back pain and even more extreme conditions. Overlapping some with treatment from a chiropractor, seeking help from a physical therapist can be another highly effective option for treating back and neck pain caused by sitting.

Products That may Help:

Get a standing desk - standing, even for short periods throughout the day has been proven to help elevate or even avoid sitting-caused back pain. By standing at your desk you'll burn extra calories and the variability offered by a sit-to-stand desk will benefit you in more ways than you might think.

Get an ergonomic chair - for most of us sitting is just part of our daily lives and jobs. Even for those with the benefit of a standing desk, it's still important to make sure that you have a quality chair for the considerable time you still spend sitting. Ergonomic focused chairs offer lower back or lumbar support which is key in making your sitting time much less painful.

Use an inversion table - the only way to get 100% decompression of your spine compared to when you stand is to invert at a 60 degree angle. There is some research supporting the use of inversion tables to get rid of back pain. And besides getting rid of back pain, there are many other benefits reported by users.

Install a Keyboard Tray - A keyboard tray is an excellent ergonomic accessory that allows you to adjust your keyboard height and angle independently from your desktop or monitors. This can aid in achieving good posture and can help minimize pain both sitting or standing.

Get Monitor Arms - Monitor arms allow you to position your monitors exactly where you need them. Monitor arms are often bought to improve desktop aesthetics or organization but they are great for those suffering from back pain. They allow you to bring your monitors closer and position them at an ideal angle and height. This can reduce your tendency to lean forward or look downward at your screen.

Read more about how to prevent back pain...

REFERENCES

  • http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(12)01036-1/abstract
  • http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0415/p1181.html
  • 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.
  • http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/
About the Author

Dr. RJ Burr

RJ received his Doctor of Chiropractic Degree from the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) and has accrued more than 700 hours of post-graduate work with an emphasis on manual therapy, rehabilitation, biomechanics, nutrition and movement restoration. He's earned certifications in Active Release Techniques (ART) and Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) medical track, and can sit for the American Chiropractic Rehab Board Diplomate (DACRB) and Certification in Mechanical Diagnosis & Therapy (McKenzie). RJ's owns and operates Reach Rehab + Chiropractic Performance Center out of Plymouth, Mi.

Comments

  1. I believe that the explanations regarding back pain are exactly what happen today with the people suffering of this reason. I am going to find a good chairopractor and beside follow all steps given in this report.

  2. Personally I would rate item 6 as the golden egg – don’t sit too long. Nerve blocks by a pain specialist, adjustments by chiropractors, pills from medicos, exercises and messages via physios and the use of an ergonomic chair have provided little relief. I was told several times about sitting too long and, when I remembered, I got up and moved around a few times during the day, again with little relief. Then an osteopath, while getting the knots out of my back muscles, impressed on me the advantages of making the period between getting up a lot shorter. With nothing to lose I downloaded a free timer app (there are many – I chose “Snap Time”) and set it to repeat an alarm every 15 minutes. “Every 15 minutes!!” I hear the cry, “I’ll never get any work done”. Wrong – if it works for you like it works for me you will get more work done. When the gentle alarm goes off I just stand up and move my hips around a bit, waddle my rear, move my feet a bit and sit back down. Now and then I walk around a few steps. I am now virtually pain-free while working at my computer. And because there is less inflammation in my lower spine I find I can now walk further before pain starts to interfere.

    The advice and encouragement from my osteopath has improved my life enormously. I chose a 15 minutes interval at random. Soon I will experiment with a slightly longer interval. But the time spent getting the blood flowing every 15 minutes is so little I have no desire to try lengthy periods and risk the pain and inflammation returning. Ahhh – there goes my alarm right now.

    Cheers,
    Phil.

    1. Phil, that’s great that the timer is working for you. Hopefully, this serves as some positive encouragement for others to try the same!

  3. Thank you for sending this valuable information. As a patient, and a Registered Nurse
    this is helpful for demonstration purposes.

    1. We’re glad you enjoyed our resource! Let us know if you have any questions that we may be able to help with.

  4. This will probably come across as totally backwards, but there’s one other new activity that would be of great benefit to people with back pain – lifting weights.

    I know, crazy, but hear me out.

    From a physiological standpoint, retraining the muscles of your back to do their jobs right & keep your back secure will help make them better able to support the vulnerable areas of your back, and hypothetically increased bloodflow to the back as a whole could speed the healing process of whatever is wrong. Also, the sensory input of lifting heavy (for you! Don’t be reckless) weights can distract you from pain. Once “rehab” is complete, the process of strengthening your back further will be protective against further injury, and will leave you with a reserve of strength in case of reaggravation.

    Anecdotally, barbell squats with light (for me) weights have been one of the only things that gets my back feeling right, especially if sitting is the cause. Unweighted air squats (to proper depth – hip joint below knee joint- & with a rigid back) have also helped my dad get through bouts of back pain.

    I encourage anyone looking for a paradigm shift in fixing back pain to check out Starting Strength and Barbell Medicine, two sites I lean on in their suggestions for working with pain. They do a better job of explaining this concept than I do, give it a look.

  5. The content is very engaging and informative, thanks for sharing such amazing content with us. The part in the content that really helped me a lot, is the list of products to get rid of the chronic back pain.

  6. Hi Tracy Wysor,
    When you feel pain in a backbone then you must use a tablet of cafflame for the instant pain relief and also go to the doctor of physio theosophist and also understand all the steps of exercise and include in the routine of daily life otherwise you may have face problems due the increase of pain day by day and its dangerous for your health. So takecare of your heath and be care full about this kind of matter .
    Thanks.

  7. I would like to thank you for sharing such amazing and informative content with us. The most eye-catching point in the content was “Getting rid of back pain” & “Products that may help” to get rid of back pain. We all know that sitting for a long time make your posture bad. According to my experience using a standing desk might sort all these problems.

  8. Wow these are some good tips. It’s true that when working a desk job, you develop bad habits that can lead to tense muscles and lower back pain. I found using a standing desk to be helpful, but I like some of the tips you mentioned here. Thanks for a well articulated post!

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