How Sitting Causes
Back Pain


Dr. RJ Burrby Dr. RJ Burr
Updated September 29, 2019

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 sleeping in the wrong position, prolonged bending, heavy lifting, or even standing or laying down 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 versus 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.

Lots of sitting can start a cascade of events in the core and legs that results in several problems. When sitting for an extended period, the hip flexors are in their shortened position, which can prevent the glutes from firing, making them weak, and will cause the hamstrings to overwork. This results in anterior pelvic tilt (APT), which is an excessive tilt of the pelvis. APT can cause the abs to become underused and weak, which will make the pelvis tilt even more, making the sitter look like they have a bigger stomach than they actually do.

APT can cause low back pain, poor movement mechanics (when you walk, do sports, and many activities), and reciprocal inhibition (when one muscle on one side of a joint relaxes because the opposing muscle is engaged). 

Common Posture Mistakes That Lead to Back Problems

So many of us are guilty of the same common mistakes that increase postural stress and ultimately cause back pain. Over our lifetime, subconscious habits form and make it easy for us to miss when we're putting additional stresses on our bodies. Here are 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. The human head weighs, on average, 10 lbs. Any slight angle forward puts a strain on the muscles of your neck and upper back. The further that you lean your head forward, and 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 of lower back pain are a lack of lumbar support from a chair that’s too soft or one that doesn’t encourage good posture, a muscular imbalance in which 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 eight or more hours per day will take its 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, wedging the phone between their shoulder and ear. Doing this for a few seconds isn’t going to cause an imbalance in your body, but anything more than 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 frequently change postural positions and take movement micro-breaks for every 30 minutes of sitting throughout the workday. A helpful strategy is to drink lots of water: it keeps 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 the guide I’ve created: Proper Workplace Ergonomics Guide. In the guide, I explain all the key factors in sitting and standing ergonomics.

Getting Rid of Back Pain

The National Institute for Fitness and Sport has an excellent program for getting rid of low back pain due to APT. It includes:

  • Lengthen the short hip flexors with stretches.
  • Retrain the glutes and hamstrings to fire more efficiently.
  • Strengthen the abs to help pull the pelvis into place.

Finding an exercise that strengthens your core and teaches you to use those muscles properly can be really helpful for many people to get rid of their low back pain. Some of these exercises are called corrective exercises, and one that has become popular recently is crawling. Breaking Muscle gives an explanation of how crawling can benefit anyone and how to do it.

Everyone finds different solutions to the back pain problem. It’s important to safely try out different solutions until you find the one that works for you. 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 caused by sitting. Keep 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. Many studios will offer free first classes, or a very low promotional price to get started. If you're suffering from back or neck pain, there's no excuse for not giving yoga a try.

Pilates - Pilates has been 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 increased 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 is 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 may be a luxury approach, a monthly massage can be affordable and effective. There are many types of massage options, so be sure to ask about targeting your areas of pain. With the rising accessibility of massage guns, you can also get a frequent and affordable targeted massage. You can get a very high-quality massage gun for a few hundred dollars.

Go to a Chiropractor - Finding a good chiropractor can be the key to relieving 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 life 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. Overlapping 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 alleviate or prevent 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. Our writer, Ryan put together a great guide on buying a standing desk. His top recommended desk, the Jarvis is available on Amazon and is a really good value for money.

Get an Ergonomic Chairfor 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.

Get a Foam Roller - we think foam rollers are a great, cheap option for targeted massage and tissue release. We are a big fan because they come in many shapes, sizes, and difficulty levels that will fit just about any budget. You should do your research though as there is an initial learning curve to overcome.

Consider a Massage Chair - the great thing about a massage chair is that they are generally always there when you need one. You don't need to leave your space and set up an appointment to get a pretty good massage. The downside, of course, is that the massage chair can't adapt the massage completely to all of the needs you may have.

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.

Sitting Back Pain Frequently Asked Questions

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the relationship between sitting and back pain.

Can sitting cause back pain?


Yes, because according to Cornell University, up to 90% more pressure is put on your back when sitting versus stand. Most people sit in ways that cause tension and imbalance in your back and neck.

Why does my lower back hurt when sitting and getting up?


There could be several different causes, but postural stress is the most is common. Sitting puts up to 90% more pressure on the lower back compared to standing due to poor posture.

How should you sit if you have lower back pain?


Good posture includes having your head should be back so it's lined up with your shoulders. Your chest should be out, shoulders back, and your elbows should be close to your body.

How do I fix my back pain?


The best way to fix your back pain is to find out the cause of your back pain, which means you need to consult an expert. Many people have success with a good physical therapist or chiropractor.

Are there home remedies for back pain?


There are several home remedies that you can try for short-term relief of back pain, which include: epsom salt bath, light stretching, gentle yoga poses, massage, and magnesium cream.

Read more about how to prevent back pain...

REFERENCES


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.