Physio Myth Busters – 5 Ways for Desk Workers to Beat Lower Back Pain – Part 1
5 Ways for Desk Workers to Beat Lower Back Pain
You only get one back in this life to work with. You cannot order a new one off eBay!
Sadly, most people think they can abuse their back for years and years at work and get away with it. If this were true, I would likely be out of a job. As a physiotherapist, I have seen first-hand the emotional, physical, financial and relational stress placed on people, couples, families and workplaces caused by work-related lower-back pain. And the reality is that most low-back pain is preventable.
This blog is for everyone who works behind some sort of a desk. Whether you’re a ‘suit and tie’ business man in and out of meetings, an admin assistant in front of a computer, or an IT expert working from your home office, how you care for your back while working will impact your enjoyment of your work and life greatly.
Before we begin
Statistically speaking, there is an 80% chance; you will end up at some point in your life, suffering from low-back pain. This is the current reality facing all Australians and in my experience, the figure would almost be 100% if the stats were taken to reflect desk-based workers. 38 hours per week of sitting or standing behind a desk means your back is working hard all day and week-long to support you. Today we are going to explore some top tips to help prevent and fix low-back pain caused by the challenge of working behind a desk.
What causes low-back pain?
There are lots of different things that can cause low-back pain. As a general rule, most low-back pain results from an acute (ie. lifting a heavy box in the office) or prolonged (daily sitting for 8 hours) overload of the low-back joints, muscles, discs or ligaments. As a physiotherapist my role is in identifying the key contributing factors to a problem and working out the key risk and predisposing factors to a problem occurring. Back pain at work is rarely one-dimensional, but rather multi-faceted, with a number of factors contributing to someone developing low-back pain from their work. It makes sense then that a multi-faceted approach be taken to both prevent and fix low-back pain.
Top 5 workplace tips for preventing low-back pain
So here we go – employ these following tips, and I guarantee your back will thank you for it!
1. Optimise and manipulate your work environment
Analyse the demands of your work, think about how you work, what’s required of you and plan ahead. Change the surface, height, process of your desk work and adapt your tasks to minimise low-back loading. Be smart with how you do tasks and how you set up your workstation.
- Plan your day re sitting, standing and moving times.
- Get help learning optimal sitting and standing postures. Click HERE>> for some top tips.
- Get a physio or OT to help you set up your work station optimally and ergonomically to prevent repetitive use injuries and avoidable back overloading.
- Stop sitting! Get a stand up desk which helps minimises the load of prolonged sitting and allows variety for your back. To read about my verdict on stand up desks click HERE>>
- Take every chance to move in the office – stand for phone calls, go and get a coffee, walk to your workmates cubicle rather than a phone call.
- Get a good seat – a lumbar support is essential for maintaining neutral spine and helping de-load low-back structures
- Get a hands free phone set up – saves you reaching for the phone all the time and risking repetitive low-back overload.
- Don’t over-work! Don’t expect your back will like you if you sit or stand for 16 hours straight behind a screen – find ways to work smarter, not harder or longer.
2. Maintain optimal postures
Life is a series of postures. If you maintain poor postures repetitively, ie. repetitive sitting or standing in front of a desk, you can expect it’s more likely you’ll develop back pain eventually. Think about your posture and how you move in the office and behind your desk.
- Maintain neutral spine and optimal spine alignment – whether sitting or standing and maintain deep neck flexion (small chin tuck). This will help improve your body’s alignment, essential for preventing low-back pain over long periods of sitting or standing.
- Vary your work posture – sit some time, stand some time, walk for some time where possible.
- Explore sit-to-stand desks, excellent for reducing low-back loading and enabling postural variety.
- Get your posture assessed by a physiotherapist to work out what’s going wrong and how to specifically address this.
- Wear comfy supportive shoes if standing – high heels for 8 hours behind a desk will likely lead to low-back overload.
- To read more about why your posture is important click HERE>>
3. Always warm up!
The most ‘at risk’ time for your low-back to sustain an injury is when your body and back are not warmed up, especially after prolonged sitting. Warming up before you move, lift, bend and carry objects at work and at home after work is crucial in preventing the likelihood of sustaining a low-back strain. A warm up regime helps get blood flowing and muscles warm and increases elasticity in tissues, therefore reducing the risk of over-stretching and straining low-back structures.
- Park further away from the office or your work location so you can walk 5-30 mins to work from your car park. This will help get your muscles and back moving after the drive to work and after a long day of sitting/standing at your workstation.
- Cycle or run or walk to work – most workplaces have toilets and showers which can be used to change and freshen up before starting work. This way your body is warmed up for your sitting or standing, plus you get the health benefits of exercise and don’t have to make as much extra time to exercise.
- Do some stretches while at work to keep your back moving.
- Take the stairs instead of the lift when getting into work or leaving work. Use the stairs when visiting a colleague on another floor as well to maximise movement and back mobility at work.
4. Maintain good flexibility
Most low-back injuries are a direct result of overload. When too much load is applied to the low-back joints, discs, ligaments and muscles, low-back strain or injury can present either acutely or over a period of time. Often the first sign of being at risk is low-back and hip stiffness and tightness. Maintaining good hip, low-back and thoracic spine range of motion and flexibility is essential in reducing the load placed on your low-back from sitting or standing behind your desk. Stretching is mostly valuable to people who have a ‘stiff’ body type, more so than those who are hypermobile. For hypermobile workers, strength and stability are more required than flexibility in reducing the chances of low-back injury .
- See a physio and discover your body type – hypermobile (floppy), hypomobile (stiff) or somewhere in the middle.
- Get set up with a stretching and/or strengthening program to help support and de-load your low-back.
- Stretch in the morning and evening – 2 x day ideally to help prevent low-back pain occurrence and recurrence
- Stretch after you eat during the day – it will help prevent low-back pain and tightness from prolonged sitting and standing
- Simple quads, gluts and hip flexor stretches are all easy stretches to do on the go in the office or at your desk.
- Stretch during phone calls.
- Best ‘on the go’ stretches for office workers – gluts, hip flexor lunge and quads stretches
5. Get strong and stay strong
Core and hip strengthening really is the key to both preventing and fixing low-back pain. There a number of ways and methods you can use to strengthen your back and honestly, it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, as long as you enjoy doing it, do it regularly and get the strength and stability benefit you are after. Engaging the right muscles is really important also and this is where your local physiotherapist or personal trainer can help in teaching you how to use your core and hip muscles properly to support your back. Personally, I find with my clients clinical pilates is a fantastic, effective way to build functional core and postural strength, stability and endurance, especially for desk-based workers. Without good core strength prolonged standing or sitting postures tend to lead to slouching and low-back, mid-back and neck overload.
- Clinical pilates, swimming and gym programs all provide great avenues for core, postural and hip strengthening for office workers.
- If there’s a gym down the office building use it before or after work for convenience.
- Make sure you work with a personal trainer who knows and understands your back, especially if you have had a history of low-back pain.
- Home-based core exercises – ie. Mat-based pilates exercises including supermans, fire hydrants, dead bugs, planks and side planks (just to name a few), are good for office-based workers short on time and keen to build some core strength to prevent back pain.
- Get a training partner from your office and do clinical pilates or gym classes or training with them for social fun and support
- Join in on the pilates classes or yoga classes offered in your offices over a lunch time or before work (or help organise this for your office)
- Make time – don’t wait for back pain of put up with postural pain – decide to get a stronger back today!
I hope by now you are starting to realise the future of your back health is in your hands and your desk-based work does not mean you are going to develop back pain like everyone else. It’s up to you though! Even if you just pick one idea from each tip listed above and put it into practice, your back will thank you for it! Don’t wait for low-back pain to start impacting your life. Take action, be proactive and you can prevent and beat low-back pain caused by your work. Don’t look back and say ‘I wish I had….’ Instead, love your back – look after it!
If you have presently got low-back pain or have had low-back pain in the past and would like to find out more about how to beat low-back pain, contact your local physiotherapist.
To having happy backs! Cheers!
Jacob Taylor (APAM)