You were designed to be active. Unfortunately, despite the substantial body of research which concludes that a sedentary lifestyle leads to severe back problems as well as other serious health conditions, the average person spends approximately 55% of their waking hours sitting, according to a study by Vanderbilt University. Maintaining a static position for too long causes stiffness and tension to develop around the spine and can consequently lead to a short-term, or even a permanent, lower back condition.
If a sedentary lifestyle is the cause of lower back pain, why do so many of us spend our waking hours sitting? To understand why, look no further than modern work habits. Many of us spend 8 hours a day – if not more – sitting at a desk as part of a typical work or school day. And while there is nothing inherently wrong about using an office desk and computer to conduct business, how our working area is set up, our posture, and the level of activity we engage in throughout the day all put our spine at risk.
Fortunately, these are all factors that we can control.
Dr. Jaideep Chunduri has helped many patients at Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine address their lower back pain and prevent the dangers of sedentary work. Here are a few of his recommendations on how you can modify your work or study environment as well as your personal habits in order to preserve the health of your spine.
#1. Adjust Your Workspace
Proper care for your back starts with adjusting your work environment. Whether you use an office desk or another type of workstation, you need to set it to a height that you will be most comfortable working at for long periods of time.
Once you have determined the optimal height of your desk, you will then need to select appropriate seating. Ergonomic chairs are an excellent choice; however, keep in mind that simply owning one is not enough to preserve your back. Whether you use a traditional office chair or an ergonomic option such as a Swedish kneeling chair or a Swiss exercise ball, you will also need to adjust it to your individual proportions.
Here is how you can ensure that your chair is properly adjusted.
Adjust the Height of Your Chair
Sit as close to your desk as you comfortably can. With your upper arms parallel to your spine, place your hands on the surface of your desk. Your elbows should form a 90-degree angle. If your elbows hang lower than the surface of your desk, adjust the height of your chair either up or down until your arms form the correct angle.
Adjust Your Armrests
An ideal chair has armrests and they should be adjusted to slightly lift your shoulders. Doing so will not only reduce the strain placed on your upper spine and shoulders, but it will also make you less likely to slouch forward.
Adjust Your Backrest
With your body situated against your backrest, form a fist and place it between the back of your calf and the front of your chair. If you do not have enough space for your fist, your chair is too deep and the backrest needs to be adjusted forwarded. If the back of your chair cannot be adjusted, you can use a cushion or a rolled up towel to achieve low back support.
Determine Your Resting Eye Level
While you are still situated in your chair, close your eyes for a few moments and then slowly open them. As you open your eyes, your gaze should be on your computer screen or the area where you will be looking for the majority of your work. If this area is not aligned with your resting eye level, or if you sense that you are tilting your head either higher or lower, you will need to make adjustments accordingly.
Position Objects within Arm’s Reach
By keeping the items you use most frequently within arm’s reach, you can reduce your need to stretch and consequently reduce your risk of straining a ligament. At the same time, this prevents the need to “break” your current position and thereby helps you maintain correct posture for longer periods of time throughout the day.
#2. Practice Correct Posture
While the optimal setup of your office chair and desk are important, preserving the health of your spine also requires active muscle use in order to maintain correct posture. Slouching forward or slumping back strains the muscles, ligaments, discs and other components of your back. Over time, poor posture while sitting can even increase the amount of stress placed on other areas of your body, including your shoulders, arms and legs.
To minimize the amount of stress placed on your back, you should sit as close as possible to your desk with your head upright, your upper arms parallel to your spine, and your hands rested at a 90-degree angle on your work surface. Your legs should also be positioned at 90 degrees, directly above your ankles. If you properly adjusted your workspace in accordance with the aforementioned guidelines, you will already be in the correct position.
#3. Stay Active
While correct posture will minimize the amount of gravitational force placed on your spine, it will not solve your problem of simply being stationary for too long. While you should take every opportunity to be active at work, at a minimum you should stretch at least once during the first half of your day, once in the middle, and once towards the end. If you find it difficult to set aside a few minutes in your day to stretch all of the areas of your body, you can stretch one area at a time as you transition from one room or another or as a dedicated portion of your lunch.
While stretching will help relieve your body of the aches and pains that develop from being stationary, work-related back pain can also be the result of stress. Between tight deadlines, budget demands, performance reviews, or even just the ordinary challenges of the day, it’s easy for stress to build up in the body. You can combine breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques with your stretches to keep both your mind and, by extension, your body healthy.
Our time at our job or at school comprise the majority of the time we spend sitting. By adjusting your work environment and your personal habits, you can significantly reduce the amount of stress placed on your back over your lifetime. Keep in mind, however, that excessive sitting, whether at work or during your leisure, is harmful. Because of this, it is also important make the necessary adjustments in other areas of your life in order to ensure complete care for your back.
If you require more specialized spine care, Dr. Chunduri can guide you towards an appropriate treatment. As a board certified orthopedic surgeon for over a decade with a sub-specialty in Spinal Surgery and Management of Spinal Conditions, Dr. Chunduri can diagnose the cause of your back problems and effectively treat your condition. While a very small amount of cases actually require surgery, Dr. Chunduri will be able to help you determine the best course of action for your particular situation.