Back pain

3-Step Guide on Relieving Low Back Pain at Your Desk

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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

Photo Credit:  Yoga Journal

Photo Credit: Yoga Journal

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

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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

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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.

Conclusion

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.

4 Tips to Identify & Mitigate Common Pains

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Pinpointing the origin of many of your aches and pains is no easy task. Whether it be the crick on the side of your neck that just won't go away or the mild tension on your outer hip that annoys you while seated in your chair at work, the reason for these discomforts can’t be easily identified. Many pains that start off as minor discomforts can snowball into full-blown-it’s-time-to-do-something-about-this-right-now-excruciating pain. The source, in many of these circumstances, unveils itself sneakily in the unconscious ways you move or don’t move your bodies throughout the day.

Let’s take a moment to think back on the last 24 hours of your life. How long have you spent seated in a chair, on the couch or even reclined in bed? How was your posture during these periods? Do you cross your ankles throwing off the weight in your hips while seated? Do you lay on one side applying more pressure to one shoulder? How about the shape of your spine? If someone took a picture of you without your awareness, what would you look like typing on your phone/computer or even driving? Add up these minutes and hours. How much time per day do you spend in these precarious shapes?

The reality is most of us sit, stand, and move throughout our days like we are some sort of contortionist, twisted into pretzels without the delightful cinnamon topping, setting ourselves up for a lifetime of pain and injuries. So what can we do about it? By being aware of your posture and integrating mindful habits you can discover the root for your pain and retrain your body to move with you instead of against you. Check out these 4 quick tips to realign your daily movement and identify the culprit of your pain!  

1. Start By Identifying Your Problem Areas

Stand facing a floor length mirror without thinking about your posture. What shapes reflect back to you? Now, turn to the side. What shape does your spine make from the top of your neck to your tailbone? What you are looking for is an “S” curve. The concave curve of your neck matches your low back. The convex curve of your upper back matches the tiny convex curve of your sacrum and tailbone. This natural shape helps shock absorb when walking or moving and also helps the spine hold up your head.

We all have misalignments and much of our pain comes from the misshape of our spines. Some things may be obvious, others less so. Pick one area of your body that you notice a discomfort and visual misalignment. Below you will read a few realignments cues that can help with common aches and pains.

2. Shoulder Maintenance: Aligning the Upper Part of Your S Curve

Neck, shoulder, elbow or wrist pain? All of these may stem from poor posture in your shoulders from years of hunching over a computer.

The muscles between your shoulder blades are supposed to help with posture. The rhomboids and trapezius are responsible for pulling the shoulder blades together which naturally opens the chest. However, most of us round our shoulders and stretch the trapezius and rhomboids instead of strengthening them. If you strengthen your upper back, your chest will naturally open.  

Follow these steps to find your proper shoulder alignment:

  1. Lengthen your side bodies. Your upper arm bones may lift to the same height as your collarbone. The upper arm bones are now firmly rooted into the shoulder socket.

  2. Hug your upper arm bones back and squeeze the muscles between your shoulder blades (rhomboids).

  3. Move your shoulder blades closer to your hips.

  4. If you feel crunchy in your low back, breathe a little puff of space into your back ribs.

Walk around a little with your shoulders engaged in this way. You may notice it is difficult to maintain the squeeze between shoulder blades. If this is you, that’s your signal that this is an area to keep building strength.

There are many ways you can get stronger rhomboids and trapezius muscles. Practice squeezing your shoulder blades together when you’re sitting or walking for the bus or carrying groceries, do pull-ups, exercise with a rowing machine or a lat pull-down machine at the gym, or practice rowing at home without any machinery.

3. Low Back Strength: Align the Lower Part of Your S Curve

Low back pain? We’re talking to you. Our abdominal and low back muscles stabilize and control a significant amount of our daily movement. While leaning over the table, putting a heavy bowl down, and twisting in your chair to respond to your coworker who sits behind you, we need core strength. It’s important to build low back strength, front and side abdominals, so your body has 360 degrees of core strength.

Follow these steps to strengthen your low back:

Stand with your feet hip width apart or wider. Wrap an imaginary gym towel around your neck and hold each imaginary end with your hands at armpit level. Bend your knees, shift weight into your heels, and sit your hips so far back you almost fall backwards. Without moving your legs, lift and lower your chest 10 times, while only hinging at your hips. Your low back is most likely burning with effort. This is an excellent way to build low back strength and retrain your lumbar curve into a healthy shape.


In addition, missing the arch through your low back is pretty common. To retrain, practice core strengthening exercises or purchase lumbar support for your chairs to implement change in your daily posture. Even sliding a block or pillow behind your low back while seated in a chair can be a great reminder.

Standing? Visualize the lumbar curve or pretend there’s a yoga block between your upper thighs and you’re trying to squeeze it backwards.

4. Set Your Sight Straight Ahead

Look forward. It’s really that simple but as you can see in the picture above, many of us unconsciously look down at our phones. Bring your chin level to the earth and take note of how often your chin drops down or creeps up or out. You might notice your chin lowering most while texting, playing a game on your phone, or if your computer screen is on a desk that lower than eye level. Fix this by placing your computer strategically on a stack of books and use your upper back muscles to lift your phone to eye level.

Conclusion

It’s the little things that matter. Bad sitting habits—from slouching, crossing your legs, to looking down at your phone—can lead to serious injuries and chronic pain. The good news is, healthy postural habits can lead to longevity and less physical pain. Start small and pick one best practice to start implementing today. Then, ask a buddy to help keep you accountable. Chances are they could work on something too!

For specific questions, please email info@nwcorporateyoga.com. Please note we are not doctors or licensed therapists. If your pain persists or is unbearable we recommend you speak with your doctor today.