A Physical Therapist Explains How to Prevent Back Pain from Sitting at Your Desk
Sitting for a long time can cause back pain. Learn how to avoid back pain at work with ergonomic tips and gentle stretches from physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Dr. Heather Broach, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Ever felt a little stiff, sore, or achy after a long day at your desk or during a marathon of meetings without enough time for stretch breaks? Join the back pain club.
“The more you sit, the more likely you are to develop back pain,” explains Heather Broach, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Here’s why: Sitting in the same position for a long period of time means you’re not doing all the things that are really helpful for your back, like moving, stretching, and bending.
In fact, a 2021 study published in Health Promotion Perspectives found that prolonged sitting increased the risk of developing lower back pain by 42%.
But no matter what your work situation is, there’s a lot you can do to prevent back pain from a long day at your desk. Here’s what Hinge Health physical therapists recommend, including the best back pain exercises you can do during work.
What Causes Office Back Pain?
There are many reasons you may experience back pain from sitting at a desk all day. They include:
Sitting for prolonged periods. “Our bodies weren’t designed to sit at a desk for hours at a time,” says Dr. Broach. “When you don’t move around enough, your joints and tissues can get grumpy.”
Sitting position. Some of us sit in one position all day long, and that can cause pain. You want to have options for sitting (and standing), which gives different back muscles a break. Shift around from sitting very relaxed to sitting upright. And, of course, take breaks to stretch, stand, and walk.
Office furniture. If your desk chair doesn’t provide good low back support, it can contribute to back pain. Another culprit: the position of your desk and/or computer monitor. If they’re not at the right height, it can put your neck in an awkward position and affect your back pain.
Health conditions. If you’re prone to low back pain (say, because of arthritis or sciatica), sitting at a desk for long periods can exacerbate it. Being overweight can also contribute to back pain.
That said, having a health condition doesn’t mean you’re stuck with back pain at work. There’s a lot you can do to relieve back pain while sitting and feel better during your workday.
How to Prevent Back Pain When You Sit All Day
Hinge Health physical therapists discuss this issue with members a lot. (Truth time: It’s something our staff is working on too!) Try these tips:
Take short breaks. Penn State University researchers found that lower back pain from sitting could be relieved simply by switching positions every 15 minutes. Stand up and stretch or head to the kitchen for a water or coffee refill. If you have trouble remembering, set an alarm on your phone every 15 to 30 minutes.
If you have to stand in one place for a while, place a block of wood or exercise step on the floor and step up and down every few minutes.
If getting up every 15 minutes feels impossible (say, you’re booked in hour-long meetings most of the day), try ending your meetings five to 10 minutes early and take that extra time to stretch.
Try a standing desk. Sit-stand workstations may reduce lower back pain among workers, according to a 2018 review of studies published in the journal Ergonomics. If you have a laptop, perch it on a kitchen countertop or tall filing cabinet for periodic changes of scenery (and position) during your workday.
Pay attention to your position. When you sit at your desk, this is a good place to start. Bend your knees at a right angle and keep them even with or slightly higher than your hips. Your feet should be flat on the floor, or flat on a footrest. If you have a wallet or cellphone in your pocket, remove it. This reduces extra pressure on your butt and low back. From there, don’t be afraid to adjust to find what works for you. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to sit.
Stay active when you’re off the clock. If you sit at a desk all day, make time for activity outside of your job, says Dr. Broach. A 2018 review of studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that regular exercise two to three times a week reduced the risk of a bout of lower back pain by 33%.
Ergonomic Sitting: What Does That Mean?
There are ways to arrange your workstation to make your 9-to-5 life more comfortable and reduce risk of lower back pain from sitting.
Set your computer screen at eye level. This way, you don’t have to constantly look up or down.
Use an ergonomic chair. The backrest should support the natural curve of your lower back. Adjust the armrests so they just slightly lift your shoulders.
Try using headphones or a bluetooth headset when you’re on the phone. You’ll be able to move more freely and change positions. And it may be easier to type and talk without straining your neck or shoulders.
Move your keyboard. It should be at a height where your elbows are bent at about 90 degrees.
What Else Can Help with Back Pain from Sitting at a Desk?
In addition to taking frequent breaks, getting exercise outside of work, and doing gentle stretches for a healthy back (see below), these tips can help relieve back pain when it flares up:
Apply heat. Warm, moist heat can help relieve back pain, either at work, or once you’re home, says Dr. Broach. Stash a heating pad near your desk and use it a few times throughout the day.
Take over-the-counter medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for back pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.During a flare, try taking a dose on a regular basis, according to directions, for a few days, rather than using it only when your pain becomes unbearable.
Schedule some stress relief. Stress is known to make back pain worse, so incorporate your favorite stress-soothing activities into your work routine. Take a short walk during lunch, pop by a coworker’s desk to blow off steam, go to your favorite workout class before or after work, or listen to your favorite playlist or podcast while you work.
When to See a Doctor
Most of the time, back pain resolves on its own. But you should see your doctor if:
Pain keeps you up at night or makes it harder to fall asleep
You experience back pain along with weakness in one or both legs
Back pain spreads into your lower leg
It doesn’t get better after a few weeks
Is associated with any changes in bowel or bladder function
Exercises for Back Pain
Here are a few gentle exercises from Hinge Health that are commonly used to prevent and treat low back pain. “They stretch and strengthen lower back muscles and they lengthen your hamstrings, which is important because it allows you to shift some of your body weight from your back to your legs,” explains Dr. Broach.
PT Tip: Keep a Yoga Mat Next to Your Desk
“I always have one right behind me in my office so that I can stretch periodically throughout the day to make sure my lower back muscles don’t get all grumpy,” says Dr. Broach. It’s perfect for doing the above exercises (Cat Cow, Bridge, and Down Dog) throughout the day. It’s also a good idea to stand and stretch once an hour or so. Place your hands on your lower back and gently arch backward.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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