When you think of back-breaking labor, you might imagine someone carrying heavy loads all day. You may not realize that sitting at a desk has it’s own back-breaking repercussions.
If you’ve ever gotten up from your desk with a stiff and achy back, you know how miserable and crippling back pain can be. Office workers may not be doing as much heavy-lifting as a manual laborer, but they definitely don’t get off the hook when it comes to aches and pains.
Back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and the second most-commonly treated medical problem in the United States. Eighty to eighty-five percent of Americans suffer from recurring back pain. A whopping 31 million Americans are suffering from back pain at any given moment.
Our work environment can play a big role in recurring back pain. Sitting at your desk for hours on end puts pressure on your lower back, which can leave you feeling sore and stiff at the end of the workday.
The health impact of sitting has been compared to smoking
If someone asked you to lift a heavy dumbbell right now, you’d immediately know if you asked too much of your body. Your arms or shoulders would tell you that they weren’t happy, and you’d probably stop trying to lift the weight.
The pain caused by sitting is a bit harder to spot. When you sit, you might feel a sense of comfort or relief. You won’t notice the ache that begins gradually until one day, it’s difficult to move.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” the phrase first uttered by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, summarizes the insidious nature of sitting-related injuries. Sitting, like smoking, used to be considered a harmless activity, but research is showing that it can cause health problems. Sitting too much can even shave years off your life.
Sitting too much seriously kills your productivity
You know how hard it is to work when you feel under the weather. If you suffer from chronic back pain, it means that you don’t feel good most of the time. It costs half a million dollars in health care spending and missed work time for every thousand people suffering from back pain.
Health care spending is quantifiable, but how back pain affects individual workers is not always as easy to understand. Concentration on work-related tasks takes a big hit when you are in pain. When a bout of serious back pain strikes, it can keep you from being able to focus on your projects.
Concentrating when you can feel the pain coming on is nearly impossible. At the first twinge, you may already know that you are going to be in for a long day. It’s just like trying to rest after you’ve hit the snooze button repeatedly. You can’t go back to sleep because you know the interruption is coming.
As back pain goes from being occasional to chronic, it can have an impact on the way that you walk or sleep. If you aren’t able to stretch or get a good night of rest, this can make it even harder to work with a clear head.
There are ways to find relief
Just because back pain is so common doesn’t meant that you have to become hopeless when it affects you. There are several things that you can do to relieve tension in your back.
1. Use a hot or cold pack to ease your pain.
Whether you should apply heat or cold depends on the cause of your pain. If your pain is coming from prolonged periods of sitting, or there doesn’t appear to be an obvious injury, then heat may be the best thing for you. Heat relaxes tense muscles that could be triggering your pain.
A hot shower can offer many of the same benefits as using a hot pack. Whether you use a hot pack,electric blanket, or shower, try to let the heat hit the affected area for at least 15-20 minutes. Some commercial heat packs will work for up to eight hours, and can be worn under your clothes at work.
Pain from an injury or arthritis may respond better to the cold. The cool temperature reduces the blood flow that causes swelling and inflammation. There is less evidence to support using cold packs to relieve lower back pain caused by postural problems or prolonged sitting.
When you apply cold to an injury, start out by applying ice for about ten minutes every hour on day one, and decrease it to 10-15 minutes per day three times per day as you heal.
2. Give yourself a massage.
Getting a massage from a professional massage therapist can provide some relief, but daily treatment of chronic back pain is likely to break your budget if you take that route. Instead, you can learn a few basic self-massage techniques to relieve the pain yourself.
Massaging trigger points with your fingers, a tennis ball, or other tools can offer you relief.
3. Know when its time to call your doctor.
We can do everything right at home and still experience back pain. Pain that is persistent and disruptive–even after you’ve tried different treatments at home–may require a professional help. Back pain that stems from trauma, or sharp “electric” nerve pain should also be addressed by a professional.
Sciatica, slipped discs, and spinal injuries require the help of a doctor so that you don’t further aggravate the problem. 
Your doctor can perform additional tests, refer you for physical therapy, recommend adjunct therapies such as yoga, and develop a pain management system with you.
Prevention is easier than treatment
When you feel pain, your body wants you to stop doing what you’re doing so that you don’t cause irreparable damage. A recent study found that about 41% of respondents don’t do anything to proactively address back pain.
Get into the practice of listening to your body so that you can notice and correct pain-inducing behaviors. With a few simple actions, you can prevent or significantly reduce back pain.
- Learn proper posture. Our bodies are made to be in motion, which means that sitting is already problematic for us. Hunching at your desk is one of the leading causes of back pain, and it’s easily corrected by being mindful of your posture. Slouching can feel more comfortable to us if we are tired or need to strengthen our core, but having good posture is our first line of defense against back pain.
- Choose an ergonomically-sound chair. If you must remain seated for several hours per day, then having the right chair is paramount. Choose a chair that supports the natural curves of your spine and allows you to put your feet on the floor for extra support. Arrange your work station so that your monitor is at eye-level, and avoid cradling the phone between your shoulder and ear.
- Take stretch breaks throughout your work day. Even if you don’t mind sitting for extended period of time, get up every half hour to stand and stretch. Walk a lap or two around the office, take a drink of water, or perform a few standing stretches to get your blood flowing. Even 1-2 minutes of this can make a big difference.
- Support your muscles to protect your spine. Think of your skeleton as the framework for your body. The muscles that surround your bones protect them and enable you to move. Building strong back muscles can help you prevent spinal injuries. Strengthening your core will also make it easier for you to maintain proper posture throughout the day.
Your spine has your back every day
When you think about how much we ask of our spines, it’s no wonder that we encounter back pain from time to time. Back pain can affect your quality of life and sabotage your productivity if left untreated.
Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to tend to you spine. When you take actions to support your back, it will support you. As fitness guru Bob Harper says,
“You’re only as young as your spine is flexible.”