More and more people are discovering that a long workweek at a desk can lead to crippling back pain. While we can't always change our workplace, we can all take some helpful steps to limit or eliminate back pain caused by sitting in front of a computer all day.
Going in Strong: Regular Exercise Helps Prevent Back Pain
Studies have consistently shown that the best way to avoid or alleviate back pain is to stay active and get regular exercise. For the office worker, being active can also provide tremendous improvement to general health and wellness.
What and How Much Exercise Should you do to Avoid or Cure Back Pain?
To avoid back pain, the recommended approach to exercise is is to undertake a mixture of cardiovascular activity (such as walking, running, or swimming) and an occasional strength-based activity (such as weightlifting, yoga or pilates). Even ten minutes a day can make a positive difference.
Dr. Mike Evans, Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto, and a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital, has found from a review of a large amount of peer-reviewed studies that moderate exercise (generally brisk walking) in the range of a half hour a day is one of the post powerful changes someone can make for their health and wellness: scientifically proven to even be better for a person's quality and length of life than quitting smoking, losing weight, or dealing with hypertension!
Some great ways for the office worker to fit in a half-hour of exercise in their busy schedules are:
walking or bicycling to work (or getting off of transit or parking slightly further away from your office);
using your lunch time to take energetic walk around your office or in a local mall;
take the stairs over elevators or escalators whenever possible; or
even getting a dog (medical studies have shown that 67% of dog walkers get their 30 minutes of exercise a day)!
Improving Your Posture at Your Desk to Avoid Back Pain
For many office workers, the main cause of back pain is poor posture: particularly when working at a computer. In order to sit with correct posture, the British National Health Service recommends the following approach:
Adjust your chair: when sitting at your desk, be sure that your thighs are at a 90-degree angle to your torso, with your feet firmly planted on the floor or on a footrest, actively supporting your back. Your arms should also form a 90-degree angle when naturally placed on your keyboard.
Monitor placement: your computer screen should be placed at eye level, and directly in front of your body.
Keyboard and Mouse Use: the keyboard and mouse should be directly in front of you when you are at your desk, and a gap of four to six inches should be left between the keyboard and edge of the desk. While typing, your wrists should be kept as straight as possible and your elbows held vertical under your shoulders, next to your sides. The mouse should also be as close to you as possible, and efforts should be made to avoid twisting or bending your frame when using the mouse.
Good Posture: try to keep your head and spine in a vertical alignment, and avoid slouching forward or backwards. Emphasize having your shoulders back, and shoulder blades pressed down, when you're seated. Some people have success in this process by either sitting on an exercise ball at their desks, or by placing a tennis ball in the smile of their back between the chair and the typist. Keeping the tennis ball in place will help to ensure better posture, without attracting much extra attention in a busy workplace.
Taking Breaks - Moving Around During your Day to Avoid Back Pain
A key strategy for the busy office worker dealing with back pain is to avoid staying in the same position for overly long periods of time. Change your posture as often as possible, with frequent breaks being better for back pain than fewer long ones.
A helpful strategy is to try to work a postural break into the fabric of your workday: set an email or day-timer system reminder to take a break twice each morning or evening. Make arrangements to get coffee or visit with a coworker, and be sure that process involves at least as short walk through your workplace or outside of the office. Make an effort to stand whenever possible, such as when on a conference call, or reading an item at your desk.
Many chronic back pain sufferers have also looked towards adjustable standing desks, which can provide a helpful way to keep up your workload while avoiding the long periods of sitting that can lead to back pain.
Stretches Before, During and After your Work Day to Help with your Back Pain
A leading cause of back pain is muscle tightness and a lack of proper muscular balance. Stretching is a helpful preventative strategy as well as a treatment methodology.
The following video from the British Chiropractic Association provides a three minute stretching routine called Straighten Up, aimed to help improve posture and decrease back-pain.
The Office isn't Just a Pain in the Neck Anymore
By following these helpful steps, you can hopefully make a positive change in your posture, habits and self-care and prevent or limit back pain from your office time. For prolonged or serious pain, you should always consult a medical professional.