Whether we’re commuting to the office, working at a desk or hunched over a computer or other device, these activities have one thing in common: We do them while sitting. But all of this sitting can take a huge toll on our spines, resulting in acute or chronic back pain, according to Dr. Kaliq Chang of Atlantic Spine Center.
If you’re aware you spend many of your waking hours in a chair, you’re certainly not alone. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25% of adults sit for more than eight hours a day. The problem is, our bodies were made to move and not sit all day, Dr. Chang explains. When we do, it often leads to pain in various areas of our spine, including the neck, upper back, or lower back.
“There’s no escaping that modern life requires us to sit a lot, whether in a car, at the office, or even at home,” says Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “But standing upright is the body’s natural position, helping bones stay stronger, exercising the muscles, and boosting circulation. On the other hand, sitting forces our spine into unnatural positions. It’s no wonder we end up with back pain from sitting too much, but there are ways we can fight back.”
How sitting hurts our back
According to Dr. Chang, several things happen to our spine, surrounding muscles and nerves, and our bodies overall when we sit for hours that can result in, or worsen, back pain.
- Poor posture: Hunched in a chair, we often form a slouch or C-curve in our spine. This can lead to a tense and tight neck and a strained trapezius muscle in the upper back and shoulder area. “The longer you’re seated, the more you tend to slouch, which can increase muscle stiffness and pressure on spinal discs,” Dr. Chang says. “It also overstretches ligaments, tiring them out.”
- Muscle weakness: Staying seated for prolonged periods sets off a chain reaction in muscles surrounding the spine that can prove very damaging, Dr. Chang says. By sitting, we stop using muscles that normally support our body when we’re standing upright. In turn, these muscles aren’t working to support the lower back, which causes an imbalance in the weight that’s pressing on spinal discs. This imbalance can lead to bulging discs, which can press on nerves in the back and neck and cause pain.
- Pinched nerves: Sitting for hours on end can cause spinal discs to compress, pinching nerves and triggering symptoms that include neck and back pain along with sciatica, which leads to radiating pain down the legs. “Spinal discs can only absorb nutrients from blood when we’re moving,” Dr. Chang explains. “Sitting actually deprives them of this nourishment, so they’re more easily damaged.”
- Weight gain: A downstream but very real effect of too much sitting is gaining extra pounds. Since many people tend to gain weight around the belly and lower back, it makes sense that the spine would suffer from the extra pressure. “There are lots of great health reasons we should try to control our weight, but we shouldn’t forget that maintaining spine health is among them,” Dr. Chang says.
Try these tactics
How can we avoid back pain from sitting so much? With habits that better support the spine while in a chair, as well as by moving more. There are several ways to make this goal easier to achieve and to maximize the benefits to spine health. According to Dr. Chang, these include:
- Practicing better posture: Sitting is inevitable, so make sure your posture is impeccable while doing so. This means keeping your back straight, shoulders back, and having your buttocks positioned to meet the back of the chair. Ideally, this sitting position will replicate the spine’s natural curvature while also keeping your neck straight.
- Taking more breaks: Get up from your desk or chair at least every 20 to 30 minutes and walk around (say, to get a cup of coffee, fetch the mail or talk to a colleague). Bonus points if you stretch your back out during these breaks, bending backward slightly to ease the pressure on spinal discs from extended sitting sessions.
- Exercising: Any form of movement is good for the spine, but exercises that strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding it can help forestall further back problems. “Aim for exercise that strengthens your core, which includes not only the back, but abdominal, hip and buttock muscles,” Dr. Chang advises. “Strong core muscles do the best job of supporting the spine and keeping it in proper alignment.”
- Trying a standing desk or a treadmill desk: Either gets you on your feet, and one gets you moving at the same time. “The less time you spend sitting, the better,” Dr. Chang says. “Your spine can only benefit.”