So you can’t stand your back pain at a desk job anymore? But how long do you sit at your desk during a typical work day? How many times during the day do you get up out of your chair?
It has been well documented that many people are dealing with back pain at a desk job. In fact, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) nearly two-thirds of Americans were dealing with back pain and 37% of them did not seek help for it (APTA, 2012).
As our culture changes to encourage a sedentary lifestyle at work and home this is something the majority of the population will have to deal with at some point in their life.
1. Understand Your Issues
In order to solve the problem of how to deal with back pain at your desk job it is best to understand the issues that create this problem. Someone once told me that if there is a rock in your shoe you cannot take a pill and fix the problem – you must remove the rock out of your shoe.
First, identify your rock. Is it an equipment issue? Maybe you could benefit from a sit-to-stand desk, or a larger monitor, or an ergonomic keyboard. Next, how does your behavior impact your back pain at work? If you find yourself focusing for hours on end without getting up to use the restroom or take a quick break that could be a great starting point.
By identifying what the problem is and the factors that influence your back pain you are better prepared to pick the solution that you need for long-term success. Ordering a sit-to-stand desk is an easy thing to do and is an obvious change in your work area, but doing something small like bringing a smaller water bottle and getting up a few extra times to fill it in the day could be as effective.
2. Equipment Setup
Assuming you understand what your biggest issue(s) are it is time to take an active approach to solving your back pain. If you do not already have a favorable setup for your desk – that is a great place to begin.
Having the wrong equipment and trying to compensate with exercise, massage, and changing posture will not be effective because those same old habits will come back too easily.
Start with looking through the resources you have at you workplace. Ergonomists, exercise physiologists, and other environmental health and safety staff should have access to a catalog of equipment that is available to your up request. These people should be available to observe your current setup and make individual adjustments. If not, there are general guidelines below to reference.
Ergonomic Guidelines to Reduce Back Pain at a Desk Job
Computer Screen – Center of the screen should be at eye level and approximately an arm’s length away from your body. Rely on your eyes to pain the screen opposed to moving your head around with your neck.
Keyboard – The keyboard should be close to the body so that the elbows are at a 90 degree angle.
Mouse – The mouse should be right next to the keyboard and close to the body
Desk – The desk should be at elbow height for comfortable use of the keyboard and mouse.
Once your workstation is prepared with the proper equipment and position we need to address how your body fits into that system. There are several body parts in particular that can be leveraged to take stress off of you back and reduce pain while working long hours at a desk job.
Thinking of the body as a chain linked together by muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints if there is one area out of position, weak, or tight there can be effects above and below that part of the body manifesting in a variety of ways.
Starting at the top both head and neck position are very important. It is common for those who work at a desk to lean forward while looking at the screen. Keeping your “chin tucked” and relying on your eyes to scan the desktop screen will reduce the stress on the neck muscles.
The shoulders and chest are also important. Keep your shoulder back and “shoulder blades in your back pockets” will decrease tightness in the chest and keep your trunk upright. This position promotes a more stable spine as it is better aligned within the system.
Once your neck and shoulders are set think about your pelvic position. Often times the pelvis is forgotten about but it has a large impact on directly producing back pain. When people sit, their spine tilts forward like a bowl of soup spilling out the front creating tension in the low back. This position can be corrected by tucking the glutes tilting the pelvis back to a more neutral position.
The last parts to think about are the legs. With your chair adjusted properly it is important to focus on keeping your feet flat, legs apart, and knees bent at 90 degrees. It is common for folks to cross their legs, sit with their weight on one side of the chair, etc.
Balancing the weight of your body and how it is distributed will have a major impact in dealing with back pain at a desk job.
This tip might seem straightforward, but it is often overlooked and difficult to achieve considering the current work culture. Specifically, people on average are spending 6-8 hours each day sitting at work or at home (American Heart Association, 2016).
Taking a break also means different things to different people. A break could be 30 seconds or less, or longer like a lunch break. What makes the difference and is more realistic are the consistent, short-lived “micro-breaks” throughout the day.
Micro-breaks are informal and used as needed to reset posture, stretch, or exercise depending on what you need in the moment and the activity you are doing. An example of this could be standing up and moving your head around to stretch your neck for 30 seconds. Another example is rotating your wrists to reduce tension from computer use.
Pick 1-2 things to do each day that will oppose the positions your body is in to complete your work. Unfortunately, there is no specific dose available to recommend but a common practice is to complete a micro-break 2-3 times per hour at least. This could (but is not limited to) include:
- Rotating the wrists
- Pinching the shoulder blades
- Rotating the head and neck
- Rocking the feet heel to toe
- Swinging the legs
5. Workplace Health Programs
One of the ways to be most successful is exercise and improving your health is to do it with other people. Understand your benefits as an employee of the company and you may learn about some wellness or health programs offered at the company for free or a reduced rate.
Several industrial companies implement injury prevention programs that offer on the clock exercise classes to learn how to take care of your body.
While working a desk job experiencing back pain is incredibly common. Companies are starting to take notice and actively looking into ways to cut down on insurance costs and increase productivity which can help individuals feel better and be healthier at the same time – it’s a great combination. Seek out these resources which may include group exercise classes, massages, or discount programs for outside athletic clubs and health facilities.
If these things do not exist at your company you can try to get it going yourself. It is as easy as starting with you work team in the mornings completing a dynamic warm-up. This is a series of moving stretches (not your typical bend, touch your toes, and hold stretching) that promote blood flow, nervous system activation, and engagement of muscles that are impacted by working a desk job.
A dynamic warm-up takes between 5-7 minutes and requires no equipment. Below is a list of dynamic warm-up movements.
These are not required to do as a “specific” exercise – they are good ways to get the blood flowing. If you want to do something else that you prefer, feel free to mix this part up! The most important this is that you do something.
- Trunk Twist
- Leg Swings
- Backward Arm Circles
- High Knees
- Butt Kickers
- Arm Scissors
- Wrist Rotation
- Heel to Toe Rock
This tip has been touched on above briefly, as well as in the article “How to prevent back pain with exercise“. In its own right exercise is vital to dealing with back pain, especially for those who are required to work at a desk job. Focusing on specific exercises for the prevention and remediation of back pain is important too. Running, lifting weights, and stretching all sound great but if done improperly or not enough can actually encourage discomfort.
The best exercises for back pain as a result of working at a desk are core exercises and resistance training. Core exercises or exercises that focus on stability and strength in the trunk muscles are crucial to support the pelvis, back, and neck.
These exercises encourage quality movements in resistance training and everyday life. They also provide the body with a greater capacity to withstand unfavorable positions such as overhead work or sitting at a desk job.
Resistance training’s biggest benefit outside of strengthening the muscles is providing longevity to the body as a whole. Loading our bodies with weight and moving in various planes and ranges of motion create the opportunity to accomplish difficult tasks more easily and safely. Core and resistance training in combination give people the best chances to reduce or prevent back pain throughout the lifespan.
With the proper equipment, posture, breaks, and exercise there is a lot of good things happening when you deal with back pain at a desk job. But these are all active things the body is doing which need to be balanced with recovery and care. One of the best ways for the body to recover and rest is stretching, and it is also a great way to balance out the body.
Thinking back to tip no. 5 regarding workplace health programs and the dynamic warm-up, stretching should be done dynamically at the beginning of the day or activity and static stretching, or holding a single position for 20-30 seconds, following physical activity. Static stretching is important to reduce tension in the muscles and stress of the joints after activity and is a great tool to fight back pain with.
Stretching works best as a micro-break activity throughout the day to relieve symptoms of tightness as a result of sitting at a desk. Balancing out the shortened and tightened muscles from sitting with stretching periodically throughout the day is key. Below are several stretches that are great to back pain specifically.
8. Self-Care Tools
This final tip is one that is often misunderstood or overlooked. Self-care is crucial to managing a desk job because it is a focused attempt to reverse the impact of being in a seated position for long periods of time. There are several tools for self-care including lacrosse balls, foam rolls, and theracane. These tools are a way to self-massage, stretch, and relax muscles that are underutilized as a result of a desk job.
Self-care should be conducted frequently and primarily before symptoms arise. The further ahead of any discomfort, soreness, or pain you are the quicker it will be remediated through these means. Similar to stretching, self-care is done over several parts of the body and over a short period of time. Foam rolling and lacrosse ball massage should be done at a rate of 1 second per 1 inch of the body. This is very slow allowing for the muscle to relax and let go of tension.
Using an easy to carry neck massager can also be a good idea that you can use both in your car and at your desk.
All of these tips are effective but cannot be used in isolation. As stated in the first tip – identify the problem and find the appropriate solution. Most often the problem begins with positional and behavioral aspects and a greater capacity for sitting at a desk job can be developed utilizing the rest of the skills discussed including exercise, stretching, and self-care. Another note is that all of the tips can be accomplished without special training and minimal equipment. The secret to working at a desk pain-free is to keep moving and actively eliminate those rocks in your shoes.
The best thing, of course, is to prevent the pain – but cautionary action is not taken before the pain is already there. You can share this post with anyone you think will benefit from this information. It will also make me happy that more people can take part in what i have to say!