The body’s natural instinct is to move. Yet various studies have found that an American adult spends from eight to ten hours a day sitting. According to Dr. Kaliq Chang, interventional pain management specialist at the Atlantic Spine Center, we are so sedentary that a sixty-minute workout isn’t enough to compensate for that inactivity. “Our bodies are designed for regular movement,” he says. “Long periods of sitting every day can impact your health and comfort in many ways, not least of which is that you are sure to suffer from a stiff neck, tight shoulders, and back pain.”
Many of us become accustomed to daily aches and pains and when the pain flares up, we treat it with rest or take an anti-inflammatory pill. But the problem is cumulative: As the working day stretches beyond eight hours, and the commute becomes longer, and we sit in front of a television or computer screen for hours of our leisure time, our backs suffer from the lack of support and movement and pain becomes chronic.
Why is sitting so bad for your back?
Sitting may naturally feel more comfortable than standing but sitting puts nearly twice the stress on the spine as standing. Hunching in front of a computer increases the pressure even more, as hunching pushes the back into a convex or “C” shape that fatigues and overstretches the ligaments. When we move, the discs in the back expand and contract, allowing them to absorb blood and nutrients so they can act as shock absorbers. When we don’t move, when we sit locked in one position for hours, the discs are starved of nutrients. “The discs have no blood supply of their own,” says Dr. Chang. “The only way they can absorb nutrients is through spinal movement. Sitting deprives them of nourishment and they become compressed, lose flexibility over time, and are more easily damaged.”
Sitting makes the back additionally vulnerable by reducing muscle support. When you sit, the muscles that normally support the body’s upright standing posture are no longer needed. They stop supporting the lower back causing an imbalance in the weight on the discs and precipitating a bulge, which becomes painful when the bulging disc presses on a nerve. “Considering the damage inflicted on the back by long hours of sitting, “says Dr. Chang, “it’s not surprising that eight out of ten Americans suffer from back pain at some point in their lives.”
How to reduce back pain from sitting
“You can reduce the back pain caused by sitting by improving your physical conditioning and by altering your sitting habits,” says Dr. Chang. “A back that is strong and well-conditioned through exercise can withstand the stresses of sitting and protect the spine better than a back that has not been conditioned. And making some simple changes to how you sit can reduce pain and forestall problems.” Dr. Chang makes the following recommendations:
- Engage in a conditioning program that strengthens the spinal column and the supporting muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Make sure your exercises focus not only on the back, but also the abdominal, gluteus, and hip muscles. These core muscles provide strong support for the spine, keeping it in alignment and facilitating movements that extend or twist the spine.
- Get up from your desk every 20-30 minutes and walk down the hall to get a cup of coffee or visit a colleague or send a fax… Put your hands at the small of your back and bend back slightly to help relieve the pressure and compression on the discs from sitting.
- Try a standing desk or, even better, a treadmill desk.
“You can think of lower back pain as a signal that you’re countering the body’s natural instinct to move,” says Dr. Chang. “The best way to relieve sitting-related pain is to move more. You don’t have to run three miles on your lunch hour. But it might be a good idea to set an alert to remind you to get out of your chair on a regular basis. Your back will thank you.”
Kaliq Chang, MD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in pain management at Atlantic Spine Center.