Sitting and Neck and Back Pain

by Craig Liebenson

Is Sitting a Pain in Your Back?
More people miss work for back pain than any other ailment except the common cold. In fact, back pain is the single most expensive disease in the world, costing more that $50 billion per year in the U.S. Gordon Waddell, a British orthopedic surgeon, recently wrote in an award-winning paper in the journal Spine that “Conventional medical treatment for low back pain has failed and the role of medicine in the present epidemic must be critically examined.” He went on to say that management of back pain must change from a passive one of rest to an active one of restoring function. In recognition of this new agenda for managing back pain, this article will focus on one of the biggest causes of back pain – prolonged sitting.

Why Would Sitting Be Bad for My Back?
Prolonged sitting along with bending, twisting and lifting are the major mechanical causes of back pain. Many people believe that humankind’s recent evolution to the standing posture is the cause of back pain, however this does not explain why it is a 20th century epidemic. As it turns out, the spine is designed to be upright, but what creates muscle tension, joint strain, and disc pressure in the sitting posture. After only 15 to 20 minutes of sitting at a desk or computer station the back muscles become fatigued. Like any other mechanical structure that tires, the back begins to fail. As muscles become overloaded in this posture, they tighten to protect themselves. This protective reaction by the body eventually leads to back pain.

How Can I Relax My Back Muscles?
The first and most important thing to do is to stand up frequently. Micro breaks every 20 minutes are crucial to preventing the muscles from tightening. Simply standing up and extending the lower back a few times will help. A short walk every hour also reinvigorates the back muscles. Gentle exercise has two effects – first, it brings nutrients, like oxygen, into the muscles; and second, it drains irritating toxins away from the painful area. The result is that we break the self-sustaining pain-tension cycle which otherwise is gradually building up.

Another important way to reduce the ill effects of prolonged sitting is to use an ergonomically designed chair or work station. (Ergonomics is the study of placing human beings in their environment.) The L.A. Times reduced a multi-million dollar back, neck, shoulder, and wrist problem among its employees by 50% by implementing improvements in the work station and encouraging employees to take frequent short stretch breaks. A new San Francisco ordinance was just passed requiring up to $250 per work station be spent on improvements. Pac Bell announced it would spend more than $8 million during the next four years to help reduce sitting-related aches and pains. The U.S. government (NIOSH) has already found that ergonomic work stations result in an immediate 24% increase in work performance.