Back pain is extremely common. Eight out of ten people will experience back pain during their lifetime. Some people have back pain because of manual jobs that require heavy lifting. So why do our backs hurt when we are simply sitting down?
Let’s first discuss the bones of the spine. The spine is made of interlocking bones called vertebrae. In between each bone is a spongy disc that acts a shock absorber to cushion the bones with movement. The vertebrae are connected in a way that gives your back very specific curves. When viewed from the side, the spine is curved at the neck, upper back, lower back, and pelvis. The picture below illustrates these curves, called lordosis and kyphosis based on which way the bones curve.
There are very important muscles that run lengthwise along either side of the spine that help maintain these natural curves. These muscles also help you stand and sit up straight.
When you are standing, your legs hold the weight of your upper body and head while those back muscles simply help to maintain the spinal curves. When you are sitting, however, the back muscles become responsible for maintaining your posture and holding the weight of your upper body. This is why it is much more difficult to maintain good posture when sitting.
Poor posture is when you sit with your shoulders and head pushed forward which rounds out your entire back into a C shape, losing those natural spinal curves. When your back is rounded in this way, there is an abnormal tension put on the discs and vertebrae that overstretches the muscles and ligaments causing pain.
These problems become even worse when we sit for a long time like when you are sitting at your desk during work hours or sitting in a car or plane when traveling. Also, holding your legs in one position for a long period of time causes your hamstrings and hip muscles to become tight. Muscle tightness in your legs will pull on your pelvis increasing the strain on your low back.
When you move around normally, your muscles help pump blood back to your heart. So when you aren’t moving around, your blood pools in your legs and feet, starving your other muscles from oxygen, further causing pain.
What can you do?
If you have a job that requires you to sit at your desk, there are very simple things you can do in order to improve your posture, get your blood flowing, stretch your muscles, and get rid of your pain.
First, you can simply limit the amount of time you spend sitting. If you have to make a phone call, stand up while you talk. Simply standing up will stretch out your hamstrings and hip muscles. If you need to speak to a coworker, instead of emailing them, stand up and walk over to their desk to get your blood flowing. Physicians recommend that you stand up every 30 minutes.1 You could set an alarm on your computer or phone to go off every 30 minutes reminding you to get up and walk around. If you are pressed for time, stand up for just a couple of minutes shifting your weight back and forth from one foot to the other. Any sort of change in position that will get your blood flowing is good for you to do.
The second thing you can do is to change your work environment for you to maintain better posture. Level your chair so that your feet are on the floor and you’re sitting with your knees at a 90-degree angle. Sit up straight. Put a lumbar support on your chair so that your lower back remains in the right curved position. Place your computer directly in front of you so that your back doesn’t twist to reach the keyboard or see the monitor.
In addition, if you are in a position where standing up is difficult, like on an airplane, there are things you can do to decrease pain, increase your blood flow, and improve your posture while sitting down. For each of these exercises: place your feet on the floor with your knees at 90-degree angle and sit up straight.
- Seated Heel Raises – Lift your heels keeping your toes on the floor and then lower your heels back down. Repeat 20-30 times every hour.
- Seated Marching – Keeping your back straight, lift your leg as if you are bringing your knee to the ceiling and then lower it back down. Repeat 20 times on each leg every hour.
- Scapula Squeezes – Sitting up straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together pulling your shoulders backward. Hold 2-3 seconds and relax. Repeat 20 times every hour.
- Back Extension Stretch – Place your palms on your lower back just below your pants line. Bend backward slightly. Hold for 5-10 seconds and relax. Repeat 10 times every hour.
Lastly, in order to improve your posture, you can add back and core strengthening exercises into your normal exercise routine. Check out our Total Performance PT YouTube Page for the Top 5 Back Exercises.
If your back pain has become too severe for you to remain seated or standing, Total Performance Physical Therapists can help decrease your pain and get you back to moving normally. Call and schedule your appointment with Total Performance PT today!
1. Atlas, Deyo. Evaluating and Managing Acute Low Back Pain in the Primary Care Setting. J Gen Intern Med. 2001. 16(2): 120-131.