Back Pain From Sitting – What Are The Symptoms & How To Relieve It

by: Scott Pierce (founder, blogger & ergonomic consultant)

Back pain is something that we are all likely to deal with at a given time of our lives. There are numerous causes of this pain including accidents, sports injuries, and muscle strains.

In offices, however, prolonged poor sitting posture is the number one pain in the back and it has actually been dubbed “the new smoking”.

Not to think that you are alone in this, a study conducted by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) on 2,127 British adults revealed that 82% of them had suffered back and neck pain.

And according to chiropractors, poor sitting posture not only causes back pains, but it also has other adverse effects including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

So, what is a poor sitting posture, and how does it cause back problems?

How sitting is causing back problems and how to avoid them

Poor Sitting Posture – How It Causes Back Problems

Sitting is among a list of other things that human beings rarely need to be taught. It is inherent. But maintaining the right posture when sitting is a totally different topic and something that most human beings aren’t good at.

Back problems related to sitting occur when you are not conscious of your spine’s alignment. Your spine consists of 3 curves that should be maintained at any given time; at your neck, mid-back, and around your lower back.

A correct posture balances and maintains these spinal curves thereby giving your back a characteristic S-shape.

On the other hand, a poor posture greatly reduces the curves thereby changing your back’s natural S-shape to C-shape.

This reduction in spinal curves while sitting in a slouched posture causes excessive pressure on the discs thereby leading to herniation, disc bulges, degenerative disc disease, and overstretched joints, and muscles. This is what you experience as back pain.

Now, you might not experience neck and back pain immediately after you start sitting for prolonged hours. This happens after a prolonged time and after the ligaments have overstretched thereby forcing individual vertebrae to gradually slide backward or forward.

Therefore, this is to mean that the back pains that you are experiencing at the moment are the results of something that has been cooking for some time. In addition, this is a call to everyone including those who might not be struggling with this back pains to evaluate their sitting posture and ensure that they maintain the 3 natural curves of the spine to prevent problems in the near future.

Maintaining poor posture when sitting for prolonged periods changes your back’s natural S-shape to C-shape
Maintaining poor posture when sitting for prolonged periods changes your back’s natural S-shape to C-shape

Symptoms of back pain

Back pain is among the leading cause of hospital visits and absenteeism at work. Studies also prove that it is a common pathway to disability.

The good news is that this issue can be curbed long before it turns out to be disastrous. If you are wondering whether you could be a victim of back pain, here are a few symptoms to be on the lookout for:

  • Muscle ache
  • Pain around your lower back whenever you try to stand up straight from a chair or bed. This may also be coupled with muscle spasms
  • A pain that seems to improve when reclining
  • A shooting or stabbing pain that is localized anywhere between your neck and lower back and mostly attacks you when doing some heavy lifting or engaging in a strenuous activity
  • Chronic pain between your middle and lower back after sitting or standing for extended periods
  • A persistent stiffness and/or pain anywhere from the root of the neck all the way to the tail bone
  • A sharp pain that starts from the lower back and then disperses to the buttocks, thighs, and downwards towards the toes

How To Relieve & Avoid Back Pain When Sitting For Prolonged Periods

Now, inasmuch as health experts continue to demonize sitting and associate it with all the side effects of sedentary life, let’s agree that you cannot work standing throughout your shift.

Standing is actually nearly impossible for some careers and activities, for instance, long-distance truck drivers and software developers.

The secret, therefore, is to determine how to avoid pain when sitting for prolonged periods. Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Maintain a parallel sitting posture- the essence of this is to prevent you from slouching. To ensure a good form when sitting on an office chair, pull your shoulders to the back and open your chest. You also need to force your back to remain straight and tall and ensure that your feet are planted on the floor flat. Doing this should generally tuck in your abdomen muscles and move your head backward too
  • Place the screen at eye level- a common mistake that most people make either knowingly or unconsciously is to position the monitor or laptop at below the eye level. This forces you to push your head forward and slant it downwards. As a result, you roll your shoulders forward, tuck in the chest, and push your abdomen muscles forward. Doing all the above is a perfect recipe for a c-shaped back that comes with all manners of pain. The correct way of positioning your monitor is to ensure that your eyes fall 2-3 inches below the monitor’s top line
  • Support your lower back- it’s very easy to forget to maintain an upright sitting posture especially if your seat doesn’t have a lumbar support. If you are using such a seat, you could consider purchasing a separate lumbar support or simply use a pillow to arch your lower back. You may also want to consider investing in a good computer chair with proper lumbar support.
Having the monitor below you eye level forces you to slouch down and may lead to back and neck pain
Having the monitor below you eye level forces you to slouch down and may lead to back and neck pain

When Should You See A Doctor?

In most instances, mild back pains can be mitigated simply by correcting your sitting posture- and this means either getting an ergonomic chair or tweaking your current model to support you ergonomically.

However, ‘serious back pains’ may require professional help. How do you know that your back pain is at the ‘serious’ level?

  • When it won’t subside in 1-2 weeks
  • The severity of the pain isn’t a perfect way of determining whether or not to visit a doctor (for instance, if your excruciating pain is emanating from a pulled lumbar muscle, it should fade away in just a few days with proper sitting posture)
  • On the other hand, you’ll find that lumbar degenerative disc disease causes a dull ache around the lower back but can last for over 2 weeks and get worse if not treated.
  • The pain intensity around the waist increases when you bend or cough
  • Soreness could be a result of a herniated disk and might require professional care
  • The pain triggers other problems such as a burning sensation when peeing and fever – it could be an infection
  • The pain does not minimize even after having enough rest
  • If the pain extends from the back to the back of the leg – it could be sciatica
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