sitting and back pain Colorado Pain Care

If you have ever encountered back pain, then you understand how difficult it can be. When you do experience back pain, you may feel that the ideal solution is to sit down. It turns out that sitting and back pain is not a good mix, especially if you spend hours in a seated position already. Your lower spine is meant to curve inward, and sitting often bows your back outward into an unnatural position that may lead to back pain eventually.

The Mayo Clinic published a finding that the third most common cause for doctor visits is back pain, but less than a third of people with back problems consult a physician. This suggests that there is an epidemic of back pain in the United States.

One of the hidden culprits behind this epidemic is prolonged sitting. The Cornell University Department of Ergonomics conducted a study of the spine and found that sitting places 90 percent more pressure on the spine than merely standing. While you are standing normally, your lumbar region naturally assumes an inward curvature.

Links between Sitting and Back Pain

Few people realize the links between sitting and back pain, but if you consider your normal day, you will understand why sitting is so problematic. Just consider how much sitting you do for the following activities:

  • Working—up to 8 hours of sitting if you have a desk job.
  • Academic study
  • Eating meals
  • Watching TV or using a computer
  • Driving

In addition, you may also be putting more strain on your back as you sleep if you sleep with your back bowed out.

Although not all seated positions are detrimental; if you keep your head, shoulders and hips in vertical alignment, you keep your spine naturally positioned. Unfortunately, most people don’t maintain such a rigid position for long periods of sitting.

Most people recline in their seat with their legs splayed in front which often puts additional pressure on the lower back as well as contorting the neck which must arch to keep the head vertical. Another popular but improper position is to hunch forward which can compress the lumbar spine while forcing the neck too far back.

Even if you have the correct spinal posture, you may place undue stress on various spinal areas if you use improper technique while performing tasks. Most people improperly position their computer mouse too far from their body, forcing muscles in the back and joints in the arm to take on unnecessary strain. Many people also may rest their phone on their shoulder, keeping it in place by tilting their head; this extremely unnatural position produces enormous strain on delicate neck muscles.

There are mechanical stresses that come from assuming unnatural sitting positions, but there are also some physiological disadvantages. Sitting too long may choke off circulation to some muscles, starving them of oxygen and other nutrients.

How to Limit Back Pain from Sitting

There is a wealth of evidence that links sitting and back pain, but the solution is not as straightforward. The position that places the least torque on your lower back and neck is the vertically aligned one in which the head and shoulders remain directly above hips.  For many years, this was considered the optimal sitting posture, but new research suggests that even this position has its faults.

The upright as possible posture has one primary problem.  Although this position places less stress on your spine than other sitting positions, maintaining it for long periods of time still raises the risk of lower back pain.   This is due to the fact that sitting in an upright position puts vertical pressure on the spine, compressing various components including the spinal discs. This compression over time can limit blood flow to the discs and starve them of essential oxygen and other nutrients.

In order to limit your back pain from sitting, you should employ one or more of the following strategies:

  • Dynamic sitting—sitting is an unnatural position for the human body, but if you must do so for extended periods of time, then employ an active movement strategy.  Regularly shift your positioning so that stresses are distributed across your body more evenly.  However, remain mindful of preserving the natural curvature of you lower spine and neck.
  • Take breaks—remain aware of the amount of time you sit and interrupt long spells with short breaks.  Optimally, you should take a minute or two every half hour to walk, stand or stretch.  This promotes circulation to your back muscles and spine.
  • Ergonomic office—if you want to minimize stress on your back, you should design your work space for optimal comfort.  Make sure that your desk is positioned so that your forearms extend horizontally from your elbows.  A chair with low back support is a necessity, but make sure it is adjusted to allow your lower legs to remain vertical with your feet planted flat on the floor.
  • Chair alternatives—many people may switch out an office chair for a Swedish kneeling chair (which promotes a more natural, upright posture) or a Swiss exercise ball (promotes dynamic sitting and strengthens back muscles).
  • Standing in the office—one of the more popular trends in the modern office is to eliminate the chair entirely. Instead people are using variable height desks or treadmill stations.  Standing while working is healthier for your back, and walking at a gentle pace through the work day is an outstanding way to strengthen your lower body and promote circulation.
  • Lose some weight—your doctor has probably repeatedly told you to maintain a healthy body weight to relieve stress on your spine, and she is right.  That belly fat can press against your lower spine and contort it when you sit.   Adopting a healthier diet and a regular exercise regime that helps you lose weight can make a big difference in your back pain.

Just remaining mindful of your back while sitting can greatly alleviate stress on your spine and limit your exposure to back pain.


Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.