Back pain isn’t exclusive to blue-collar workers with physically laborious jobs. White-collar workers can suffer from it as well. In fact, research shows about one-third of all office workers will experience back pain in a 12-month period.
If you work in an office, you’ll probably spend a large portion of your time sitting, which can take a toll on your spinal column and its supporting tissues. Many people assume that sitting is good for their back, but this isn’t necessarily true. Sitting, especially for long periods, is actually bad for your back because it compresses your spinal column. When you sit for long periods, your spinal column will essentially remain in a “squished” state where its intervertebral discs are all packed tightly together, resulting in back pain. You can prevent back pain when working in an office, however, by taking a few precautions.
Evaluate the Ergonomics of Your Office Chair
To prevent back pain, you must use a high-quality and ergonomic office chair. According to a survey conducted by Fellowes, the average office worker sits for four to nine hours each day. Over the course of a year, that translates into 67 days of sitting. If your office chair isn’t ergonomically designed, all that sitting can contribute to back pain.
How do you know if your office chair is ergonomically designed? Ergonomics refers to a product or place that’s designed to meet the needs of a human worker. Regarding office chairs, ergonomic features include a lower cushion for lumbar support, an adjustable height, a five-point rolling caster system, and a supportive bottom. If your office chair lacks these features, or if your office chair causes back pain or discomfort, you may want to replace it.
Use Your Office Chair’s Armrests
Assuming your office chair has armrests – which it should – using them will help stabilize your spine so that it’s less susceptible to pain and injury. Armrests do more than just support your arms and elbows; they support your spinal column as well. You can see for yourself by propping your arms on the armrests, followed by lowering the armrests. Upon lowering the armrests, your shoulders will immediately drop. And as your shoulders drop, your spinal column will compress.
Studies show that using an office chair’s armrests can reduce the amount of weight placed on the worker’s spinal column by up to 10%. Unfortunately, not all office workers use them. Neglecting to use your office chair’s armrests will only increase the amount of weight placed on your spinal column, which may cause or contribute to back pain.
With that said, you may need to adjust your office chair’s armrests for proper ergonomics. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the following problems can arise with improperly adjusted armrests:
- If the armrests are too low, you may inadvertently lean your body to the side while subsequently straining your neck and spinal column.
- If the armrests are too high, your shoulders will remain high, where they promote stress and tension in your neck.
- If the armrests are too wide, you’ll have to extend your arms farther in front of your body to grab objects, which can cause muscle fatigue in your neck and back.
- If the armrests are too close to your body, you may struggle to get in and out of your office chair.
- If the armrests are too big, your office chair may not fit under your desk. Alternatively, oversized armrests may interfere with your ability to type using a keyboard.
Wear the Right Shoes
The shoes you wear to the office can affect your susceptibility to back pain. Most companies have dress codes requiring their workers to wear a specific type of attire, such as a formal suit or business casual outfit. As a result, many office workers neglect to choose comfortable and supportive shoes. Instead, they choose footwear based entirely on whether it complies with their company’s dress code.
You should still comply with your company’s dress code, but it’s important to choose comfortable and supportive shoes. Shoes help to support your feet and stabilize your spinal column. With each stride you take, your shoes will absorb some of the impact. If your shoes are poorly designed, degraded, or if they don’t fit, they won’t be able to perform this task.
So, what type of shoes you wear to the office? If you’re a woman, consider wearing formal or semi-formal flats rather than high heels. According to The American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), 71% of women who wear high heels experience foot pain. If you’re a man, you’ll have a little more freedom regarding your footwear. Oxfords, derbies, loafers, and even dress boots are all great choices. Just remember to choose shoes in the right size for your feet. Otherwise, they may cause discomfort that manifests in the form of both foot pain and back pain.
Stand Up and Walk Around
Refrain from sitting all day! Even if you use a high-quality and ergonomic office chair, you should get into the habit of standing up and walking around periodically to lower your risk of back pain. Far too many office workers rarely or never stand after sitting down at their cubicle or workstation. They only stand when it’s break time or at the end of the workday.
By standing and walking around, however, you’ll reduce the amount of pressure on your spine, which may lower your risk of developing back pain. Sitting compresses the spinal column about three times more than standing. Therefore, extended periods of sitting forces your spine into a highly compressed state where it’s more susceptible to injury.
If you’re worried about back pain, try to stand and walk around for at least five minutes every half-hour. Even if it’s nothing more than a short walk around your office, this gives you an opportunity to alleviate the pressure on your spinal column. You can then return to your cubicle or workstation feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle the workday.
Perform Stretching Exercises
There are stretching exercises you can perform while working to promote a healthy spinal column. The “big hug” stretch, for instance, will stretch both your shoulders and back. Best of all, you can perform it while sitting at your cubicle or workstation.
As the name suggests, the “big hug” stretch involves hugging your body with your arms. While sitting, place your left hand over your right shoulder and your right hand over your left shoulder. Next, inhale and exhale slowly while maintaining this position. Rinse and repeat for three to five minutes, at which point you can return to your work activities.
Another type of stretching exercise that you can perform while sitting involves leaning back in your office chair with your arms behind your head. Start by placing both hands on the back of your head with your fingers interlocked together. Next, gradually lean your upper body backward in your office chair so that you essentially look up towards the ceiling. Hold this position for about 10 seconds, after which you can release your hands.
Avoid Using Your Smartphone
Unless it’s absolutely necessary to perform your job, you should avoid using your smartphone while working at your cubicle or workstation. It’s a little-known fact that excessive smartphone usage can contribute to back pain. How exactly does using your smartphone lead to back pain?
Unlike traditional office phones, smartphones have a digital display. When you get a call or text message, you’ll probably look down at your smartphone’s display to see who’s calling or messaging you. Each time you look at your smartphone’s display, though, you’ll inadvertently bend your neck at an unnatural and awkward angle.
Excessive smartphone usage is a leading risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like back pain. There’s even an unofficial term used to describe MSDs attributed to smartphone usage: text neck. Also referred to as turtle neck posture – a reference to the way in which it affects the curvature of your neck – it occurs when a worker constantly looks down at his or her smartphone. While occasionally glancing at your smartphone probably won’t have any ill effect on your neck or back, frequent or prolonged viewing of your smartphone’s display can lead to MSDs.
Be Conscious of Your Posture
You should be conscious of your posture at all times when working in an office. If you’re guilty of carrying yourself in a way that promotes poor posture, you may experience back pain.
Posture refers to the way in which we carry ourselves. Poor posture simply means that you walk, stand, sit, or otherwise carry yourself in a way that’s unnatural for your body, resulting in greater stress and tension. Good posture, on the other hand, means you carry yourself in a way that’s natural for your body. With good posture, you’ll experience less stress and tension in your neck and back.
When sitting, good posture involves placing both feet on the floor shoulder-width apart in front of your body. As previously mentioned, you should also use your office chair’s armrests to further alleviate stress on your neck and back. When standing, good posture involves maintaining an upright and vertical position without bending your neck or spine. Being conscious of your posture allows you to make the necessary changes to minimize your risk of MSDs, including neck and back pain. Whether you are sitting, standing, or walking, you should try to carry yourself in a way that’s natural for your body.
With good posture, you’ll reap the following benefits:
- Increased flexibility
- Less severe and less frequent back pain
- Increased energy
- Fewer and less frequent headaches
- Improved digestion
- Improved blood circulation
- Lower risk of MSDs and other work-related injuries
Got Back Pain? – Get a Massage!
Treating yourself to a massage can help eliminate work-related back pain. A study published in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that massage therapy was effective for treating back pain. Other studies have reinforced these findings, indicating that massage therapy can help alleviate back pain.
Although there are dozens of different types of massage therapy, each of which involving a different technique, they all involve the manipulation of soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments — all of which are used to support the spine. If you experience back pain after a long day of working in the office, a professional massage therapist may be able to “work” these soft tissues. Massage therapy will eliminate knots in soft tissues while also stimulating blood flow to them. The end result is faster recovery times from otherwise painful back injuries.
Lift Items With Your Legs
If you happen to drop something on the floor while working in the office, use your legs to lift it. Most people lift items by bending over, and by doing so, they stress their spinal column. Bending over may sound like the easiest way to lift an item off the floor, but it’s particularly taxing on your back.
The correct way to lift an item off the floor is to use your legs. Rather than bending your back, bend your knees to lower your body to the floor while maintaining your spine’s natural alignment. After grabbing the item, you can then extend your knees to raise your body back to a standing position. Using this method to lift items ensures that your spinal column remains straight and aligned.
Exercise Outside of the Office
Increasingly your levels of physical activity outside of the office can help protect against back pain. It’s estimated that fewer than one in four Americans spend a sufficient amount of time exercising. If you’re among this crowd, you’ll have a greater risk of developing back pain.
Back pain is often the result of the spinal column’s supporting soft tissues being overworked. By exercising, you can strengthen the muscles surrounding your spinal column. Performing core-building exercises, such as crunches and planks, can prove useful in protecting against back pain. As you build your core muscles, it will take some of the burden off your spinal column.
President at Office Chairs Unlimited – I have been in the furniture industry for over 20 years, and I’m an expert (just ask me) on all things furniture. I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.