It’s Thursday mid-morning, you’re at your desk sipping on a warm cup of coffee as you stare down a tight deadline. After messaging your manager that you’re on track, you can’t help but notice the aching pain in your low-back preventing you from fully concentrating at the task at hand.
At first, you may be hesitant to mention anything to anyone. Aside from this pain, you feel vibrant and full of life but you can’t seem to kick the ache. Fifty percent of all working individuals admit to having back pain symptoms each year. In fact, back pain accounts for more than 264 million lost work days in one year - that’s about two working days for every full-time employee!
Unless you experienced a back injury by lifting something heavy or there was a meaningful event that you can recall your back feeling strained, your back pain may be result of general overuse, underuse of certain muscle groups, poor posture and/or the ergonomics of your desk.
These types of back pain are generally referred to as "non-specific" (no obvious cause) or "mechanical" (the pain originates from joints, bones or soft tissues around the spine). Additionally, back pain in these categories, or those not associated with a pre-existing conditions can be associated with feelings of stress, burnout, or feeling run down. For these reasons, it’s important to check in with your body.
Structure of the Low-Back and Sitting at a Desk
The most common back pain occurs in the lower back, also known as the lumbar spine. This includes the lower five vertebrae, referred as L1-L5.
Our lumbar spine supports a lot of the weight of the upper body and for this reason we need strong supportive back.
Between each vertebrae, there are round donut shape pads that provide a nice cushion-like support acting as shock absorbers for your bones as your body moves, jumps, twists, and turns. To hold this column in place, bands of tissue known as ligaments hold the vertebrae together. Lastly, the tendons attach the muscle to the spinal column. There are thirty-one pairs of nerves rooted to the spinal cord. These nerves not only control your body movement but also signal to your brain if and when you are feeling pain.
The natural shape of the low back is slightly curled inward. This easily becomes compromised when you lean back in a chair, losing the natural curve and instead round your lower spine (L1-L5). Similarly, while sitting at your desk your shoulders may roll forward and your head may tip as you look down at your computer screen. The human head weighs about 10 pounds so any slight angle forward starts to put strain on the entire back chamber of the body include neck, upper back, and low back causing an imbalance and potential pain.
On average, people spend about 50,000 hours sitting at their desk throughout a lifetime. Because of these prolonged stints of sitting, without stretching or moving, the low-back may begin to experience uncomfortable sensations or aching pain. Try this 3-step guide to alleviate some of the pain right at your desk sending you into your evening with more energy.
1. Stretch it out with Seated Twist in Your Chair
Seated twists are great for stretching the quadrates lumborum (QL) muscles. The QL are deep ab muscles located in your lower back region on either side of your lumbar spine. These muscles tend to cramp up because we use them while sitting, standing, and walking through our day.
To stretch, position yourself so that you’re more toward the edge of your chair.
As you inhale, elongate your spine, feeling the crown of your head reaching toward the ceiling.
As you begin to exhale, twist to your right side keeping the head and gaze forward to start. Then, begin to rotate slowly starting at the lower back, then mid back, upper back, and finally the neck and head as you gaze towards your back shoulder. The range of motion varies in our spine and for this reason we want to the neck (the cervical spine) which has the most range of motion to be the last to take the twist.
Grab onto the arm of your chair with both hands or if your chair doesn’t have arm rests, bring the left hand to the right knee, and the right hand behind to grab the back of your chair. Hold for about 3 - 5 breathes (long inhales and exhales). Gentle come back through center and repeat on the other side.
It’s best to practice this simple twist a few times through your working day. You may choose to set reminders every two hours to help keep you on track.
2. Strengthen Your Backside to Prevent Low-Back Pain
While you can stretch and strengthen your QL muscles, they aren’t the only muscle group that creates your low back pain. When your glutes are not working properly, your body compensates or tries to use other muscle groups, causing more of a strain on your low back muscles.
Standing at your desk or during you bathroom break, you can incorporate a few squats and standing leg lifts.
With your feet wider than your hips, lower your hips down to about the height of your knees. As you come back up to stand, push into you heels and engage your glutes. Once in a standing position, shift your weight to balance on one foot and then extend the other leg out to the side, away from the midline, like you're painting a straight horizontal line on with floor with you heel, until you feel your backside engage. Repeat 5 - 10 times on each side.
Head back to your desk or take another set. Make a mental note to yourself that every time you get up for either some water or a bathroom break, you include a few of these reps.
3. Use Heat to Relieve Low-Back Pain
A study conducted on 1,117 individuals who were experiencing low-back pain, found evidence that heat wrap therapy provides a small short-term reduction in pain and disability.
Contrary to what we may think around icing pain, ice or cold packs are for fresh injuries, strain, sprain, swelling or inflammation. Ice is a drugless way to calm down the swelling and dull the pain. Heat, on the other hand, is used for muscle aching and stiffness, chronic pain and stress. The way that heat therapy works is it dilates the blood vessels surrounding the lumbar spine, increasing oxygen to those muscles and damaged tissues. Because heat also stretches the soft tissue, it begins to decrease any stiffness and provide flexibility to the low back.
While you’re at work use a small electric heating pad to rest at your low back. There are many options for different preferences. Below are a few of our favorite:
Simple Function Option: This type typically has a Low, Med, High controller. For this option, set your own timer for about 15 - 20 minutes.
Auto-Shut off Option: Similarly, some electric heating pads have a built-in timer or auto-shut off if it’s been on for too long.
Adjustable Belt Option: This option is a bit more portable, it has a rechargeable battery and you can adjust it to your waist size, keeping it strapped on to yourself.
To mitigate low-back pain at work incorporate these tips one at a time to see which one works best with your body. After your trial, you may realize that you liked all three! Before and after your quick practice, remember to tune in to your breath. Filling up your belly and rib cage with your breath, to become more present with your body and mind. By simply tuning in to your breath, you release some of the tension from your body. The breath allows your nervous system to relax and feel more at ease throughout your day.
Finally, because pain is subjective to each individual, it’s important to note that while the sensation of pain generally makes it more or less alarming, only you can determine when it’s time to seek professional help. If the pain persist or if everyday tasks and activities are no longer possible, it may be time to speak to your doctor.