How long have you been sitting?

4 Steps to combat back pain in the office

Back pain is the leading cause of long-term sickness in the UK, responsible for more than 15 million lost work days in 2013. A UK-wide survey by the chartered society of physiotherapy showed that a third of people who work in offices experience physical pain at work at least once a week. A further two thirds reported back pain as the most common problem.

The explanation is simple! The human spine was designed to be dynamic, supple and flexible, not to remain stationary. When we sit at our desks for extended periods, we often override sensations of discomfort which would encourage us to move about. In doing this we are putting our spine at risk of damage over time and increasing our susceptibility to chronic back pain.

You only have one spine and so it makes sense to look after it! There are some simple steps you can put into place to reduce your risk of back problems at work.

Step 1. Get up and Move!

Health experts recommend breaking up sedentary time every 30 minutes for at least one to two minutes. You could set an alarm on your computer to remind you to take these breaks even when you are busy.  If you really can’t move away from your desk, try standing up for a couple of minutes while you take a call –even this change in your spine position reduces intervertebral disc pressure for a short period.

Step 2. Check out your equipment!

Try to make sure that when you are sitting down, you are sitting in the best position possible to minimize pressure on your back. The following ergonomic factors are really important to get right for you to be in a comfortable position at your desk day in and day out.

  • seating posture
  • computer screen position
  • chair height
  • keyboard position
  • mouse position
  • desk equipment layout

Many companies will have a designated occupational health adviser who is trained to perform ergonomic assessments and ensure that your work station promotes the best posture. However you can check out some of these factors your self using the guidelines and picture below:

  • Your chair must be stable and adjustable.
  • When sitting your thighs should be at right angles or sloping slightly.
  • Your feet should be firmly planted on the floor for stability. If you are short you may need a foot rest to achieve this.
  • The back rest should be adjustable in height and angle and lockable to prevent it going backwards once in the desired position.
  • The depth of the chair needs to ensure your back is against the backrest whilst leaving approximately 2 to 4 inches between the back of your knees and the seat of the chair. The forward or backward tilt of the seat should be adjustable.
  • Ideally a good ergonomic chair should have a lumbar adjustment (both height and depth) so you can get the proper fit to support the inward curve of the lower back.
  • The armrests should be adjustable to allow your arms to rest comfortably with your shoulders relaxed. Your forearm should not be on the armrest while typing.
  • Your chair should easily rotate so you can reach different areas of your desk without straining.

Some back pain sufferers look at alternatives to a traditional office chair.

  • Kneeling chairs are reported to help open your pelvis and spine and keep your back neck and shoulders in good alignment.
  • Saddle Chairs concentrate pressure more in the lower pelvic region rather than the buttocks and thighs which has been reported as better for the lower back.
  • Using an exercise ball as a chair can help to improve core strength and posture

However don’t forget that avoiding a traditional sitting position is only part of the problem! The inactive nature of working in an office is also to blame. If you use one of these alternatives it won’t substitute the need for Step 1. Get up and Move!

Step 3. Exercise in your chair!

Ergonomic advisers Steelcase in conjunction with the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy have created an exercise programme that can be done in your chair-no excuses now!

  1. Extend your arms over head, clasp your left hand with your right, pull your left hand to the right and hold for 5 seconds, then relax and repeat with your other side. This exercise stretches core muscle groups, reduces tension in the back and improves your posture.
  2. Extend your right leg and point your toes forward, slowly flex your ankle until your toes point straight ahead, hold for 5 seconds then relax and repeat 5 times for each leg. This exercise increases circulation to the legs.
  3. Lean forward and touch your toes, hold for 5-10 seconds, then slowly return to an upright position. This exercise stretches the muscles around your spine.
  4. Hold your right leg just below the knee and hug it to your chest, hold for 5-10seconds, switch legs and repeat. This exercise helps increase blood flow and oxygen levels making you more alert.

Ask your physiotherapist about designing an individual programme for you at your desk which targets your specific symptoms, flexibility and weaknesses.

Step 4. Be more active generally!

It makes sense that the more active you are when you are not working the more chance the spine has to recover from the periods sitting at your desk. Even low impact exercise such as walking will help. Consider trying a pedometer and setting yourself the target of at least 10,000 steps per day! Try walking part way to work or getting off the bus or tube a stop earlier to boost your chances of achieving this.

More specific exercises such as Yoga and Pilates can help to increase flexibility of the spine and strengthen the core muscles which support your spine in sitting. This can be particularly important after an episode of acute back pain and for those with chronic pain. Studies show that these muscles have often switched off or become less active making the spine even more vulnerable when you sit at your desk.

Finally, don’t forget..

Taking these 4 steps now could help safeguard your back for the future! Can you afford not to??

Article by Nikki Richards MHPTY(Sports) BSc(hons)Physio MCSP