If you work at a job that requires sitting at a desk (either at home or in the office) for the majority of the day, you know the never-ending battle for lower back pain. All it takes is a few days of sitting in a slightly uncomfortable position, and boom – low back pain for a week. Accidentally slipping into the habit of poor posture or slouching? You may look back at a few weeks or months of back pain if it isn’t treated.
The severity of the pain (and how long it lasts) may vary, but one thing remains true: How you actually sit affects the health of your back, especially when you’ve been sitting most of the day. Lower back pain can occur from bending too much forward or backward, from not giving your lower back enough support or from positioning the keyboard and mouse too far. The frustrating part is that unhealthy sitting positions often don’t feel bad, at least not at first. “It’s very common to slip into some of these positions, because at that time, they can feel super comfortable,” says Subrit Shah, DC, MS, CCSP, a chiropractor at TruSpine in San Francisco. But a slouched or slouched posture can put pressure on your muscles and make it difficult to activate them when you get up and start moving again, which is when your lower back can ache.
It’s not always easy to know when to slip into the sitting positions that can cause lower back pain, but knowing how to spot them is the first step. From there, it’s about changing your habits, the office setup, or both, to help you and your back find some relief.
Sitting positions that cause lower back pain
There are two main types of slouching and both can cause lower back pain. The first is kyphosis, which occurs when you bend your shoulders forward, causing your upper back to rotate, according to Dr. Shah. Lordosis is the opposite: an overhang of the spine, which creates a large C-shape in your lower back. “these two [positions] “It puts extra pressure on the neck and back,” Dr. Shah told PopSugar. The extra pressure can reduce blood flow to the muscles in the back, trunk, and abdomen, which can lead to “increased stiffness and weakness in certain parts of the body, such as the lower back and trunk,”
The problem is, it’s not always easy to tell if you’re slipping into one of these slouchy poses. At the most obvious end, stiffness and pain in your lower back is usually a sign that you are starting to slack, and that your current or usual position is not good. Sometimes, though, certain sitting positions can cause pain in other areas before causing pain in your lower back. Here are some warning signs to look out for:
- Round shoulders: If you sit a lot with your shoulders pushed forward, Dr. Shah says, it can first cause pain at the base of your neck, across your shoulders, or between your shoulder blades.
- high shoulders: It’s common to let your shoulders drift toward your ears, which can lead to tightness and stiffness in your upper back. You may also find that one shoulder is raised slightly higher than the other due to uneven use. “Most activities that are performed are generally one-sided,” Dr. Shah explains, such as using a computer mouse or carrying a briefcase or backpack. “What you will notice is that there will be a pat on one of the shoulders … which can lead to pain in that part of the body.”
- Head dipping forward: Dr. Shah, also known as the neck tech, says the front head wagon puts extra pressure on your neck. Every inch your head tilts forward, he adds, “equals about 10 pounds of additional neck weight.” “That’s a lot of work for the neck throughout the day.”
- Frequent tension headaches: Tension headaches usually feel at the base of your skull or on one side of your head, says Dr. Shah. It can also feel like a narrow band wrapping around your head. While tension headaches can be caused by a number of things, including stress, anxiety, eye strain, and sleep deprivation, a bad posture can also act as a trigger.
These postures and signs of slouching may not cause lower back pain right away, but over longer periods of time, they can lead to muscle strain that puts extra stress on your lower back.
How do you sit when you have lower back pain
When you’re dealing with lower back pain, the fix isn’t always as simple as sitting up straight. There are a few things you can do to quickly ease a flare-up of lower back pain, but if the problem is chronic, you may want to consider making adjustments to your desk setup or incorporating stretching and standing periods into your day.
Here are some things you can do right now to get relief from acute lower back pain:
- ice area. Inflammation may worsen your discomfort, so Dr. Shah recommends applying an ice pack to the areas of pain in your lower back. Leave it there for 10 to 20 minutes, followed by pieces of about the same duration, repeating as necessary.
- Do several rounds of cow-cat. Dr. Shah said this yoga pose puts you lower back through its full range of motion, which can help “take stress off your lower back.” Try two rounds of movement or combine them into a gentle yoga flow.
- Stand and walk around. Stiffness can happen when less blood gets to your back muscles and your core, which can cause them to “stop” and cause them to ache. Dr. Shah says: Standing from your chair and walking around, even for a few minutes, tells your muscles to stay active.
- Make an appointment with your doctor or chiropractor. If your lower back pain is severe or debilitating, make an appointment with your doctor. You should also see a doctor if back pain occurs after a fall or injury, or if it is accompanied by bowel or bladder problems, leg weakness, or fever. These may be signs of serious health problems, such as sciatica or a kidney infection.
If you are dealing with chronic lower back pain, here are some solutions you can try:
- Evaluate your office. Make sure your monitor is at eye level and that the keyboard and mouse are close to your body and not too high or too low – you shouldn’t feel like reaching or straining at all when using them. “The height of the seat is also important,” says Dr. Shah. And make sure the angle between your hips and torso is “a little more than 90 degrees,” he adds.
- Add lumbar support. Place a rolled up towel or blanket behind your lower back to provide extra support, especially if you tend to round your lower back.
- Tighten the area. In addition to yoga and stretching exercises like the cow-cat, Dr. Shah recommends trying a shoulder stretch if you find that your upper back is bent forward. Lift your shoulders toward your ears while keeping your arms at your sides, palms facing forward. Roll your shoulders into your lower back to reset them and relieve tension.
- Use a foam roller. Five to 10 minutes of foam rolling can be a gentle self-massage for your back and the supporting muscles in your legs. Dr. Shah recommends placing the foam roller horizontally on the floor, laying it on top of it, and running it along the upper back, buttocks, and hamstrings. You can also rotate the foam roller wisely and lie on it, with the roller positioned along your spine. Extend your arms out to the sides to open up your chest muscles, which tend to bend and contribute to slouching when working at a desk.
- Make an appointment with your doctor or chiropractor. Seeking professional help isn’t just about severe attacks. If your lower back pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks of trying these strategies, or if it gets worse, contact your doctor or chiropractor and make an appointment for individual treatment.