How Sitting Causes Back Pain
Updated: March 12, 2018

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

poor posture looking down

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.

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.

poor posture holding phone to ear

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.

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.

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.

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.

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