How Should I Sit To Avoid Lower Back Pain?

Sitting to your spine is like sugar to your teeth!

Sedentary lifestyle, couch potato, lazy, idle, lack of physical activity…words and phrases that we hear consistently when talking about the health of Americans today.  We no longer need to get up to change the channel, leave our house to go shopping, or even go to the library to look up information.  It’s all at our fingertips and it seems that’s the only part of our bodies that is getting any meaningful exercise these days.

It’s a fact of life in the first world that most of us have jobs that have us sitting at our computers all day and then the rest of the time we’re staring down at our phones. 

This sedentary lifestyle has increased overall morbidity and mortality in our country.  Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns including a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, spinal pain, migraines, and headaches.  

When you sit, you use less energy than you do when you stand or move. Any extended sitting, such as at a desk, behind a wheel, or in front of a screen can be harmful. An analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying like the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking. However, unlike some other studies, this analysis of data from more than 1 million people found that 60 to 75 minutes of moderately intense physical activity a day countered the effects of too much sitting. Another study found that sitting time contributed little to mortality for people who were most active.


What can you do when you have to sit for long periods of time?

More study is needed on the effects of sitting and physical activity on health. However, it seems clear that less sitting and more moving overall contribute to better health. You might start by simply standing rather than sitting when you have the chance or finding ways to walk while you work. 

Here are some basic examples:

  • Take a break from sitting every 20-30 minutes. Move and stretch. Do some of the spinal range of motion exercises found in your personal exercise booklet.
  • Stand while talking on the phone or watching television.
  • If you work at a desk, try a standing desk (we can even provide you with a prescription for Human Resources at your company for approval or to save the tax if you purchase yourself!) You can even take it up a notch by using your wobble disc while standing at your computer so that you can be in motion throughout the day!
  • Walk with your colleagues for meetings rather than sitting in a conference room and schedule timed breaks throughout the day. During these breaks, you can work on stretching exercises to help with proper posture, do a 10-minute walk around your neighborhood if you work from home, or take a full lunch hour to be away from your desk. Even just standing up for a bit can help. Not only will breaks help your neck and spine, but they’ll also help you return to your workday feeling refreshed and energized.
  • Exercise can promote improved posture by strengthening your core and back muscles and reducing tension. Being active can also relieve stress and improve sleep.  Whenever starting new exercises, talk to your doctor and start slow, gradually incorporating and increasing your exercises. Meditation, yoga, and aerobic exercise are excellent options. Adding these to your regular routine can help manage overall spinal fatigue and the brain fog that tends to accompany sitting for too long. 

The impact of movement, even leisurely movement is very helpful, when, over time, burns more calories throughout the day. This could lead to weight loss and increased energy and productivity. Also, physical activity helps maintain muscle tone, the ability to move, think and relieve stress, especially as you get older.


Why does sitting cause more low back and spinal pain than standing?

According to the Cornell University Department of Ergonomics, up to 90%, more pressure is put on your back when you sit versus when you stand. There are several reasons why, the first being that if you’re like most Americans, you habitually sit in ways that cause tension and imbalance in your back and neck. This applies to sitting at work, in the car, and at home.

Ask yourself a question, have you ever sat for a long period of time, and when you stood up not only did you have a lot of low back pain, but it felt like your hips were on fire?  As you walked across the room, it took a few steps to even stand upright? Well, long-term sitting can start a cascade of events in the core and legs that results in several problems. When sitting for a long period of time, the hip flexors (This is why we work on the iliopsoas every visit!) are in their shortened position, which can prevent the glutes from firing, making them weak, and also causing the hamstrings to overwork. This causes your hips to tilt forward excessively (You guessed it!  It’s those pesky SI joints that get angry every day!).  This position then can cause the abdominal muscles to become flabby and weak, which will make the pelvis tilt even more, which can make your belly look even bigger! (Less belly please!)

The iliopsoas not only connects to your anterior pelvis, pulling it forward, but it connects to the discs in your lumbar (low back) spine.  The irritation of the discs leads to even more pain that, in some cases, can even mimic or increase digestive or menstrual pain. 

Prolonged sitting can also compress spinal structures like discs and lead to deterioration which is irreversible once it begins and may also cause or aggravate sciatica. 


What’s the right way to sit?

Correct sitting posture

Take a moment and look at the above picture.  Does your home or office workspace look like this?  If not, it’s a great idea to change it up now!  Most of the time it can be an easy fix and if not, you can improve on one area at a time.  If you work at an office, many times, the Human Resource Department can typically help with getting your station set up properly—it’s in their best interest for you to be comfortable and productive during your day!  Also, many companies that have transitioned into having more of their employees work from home, have programs that provide stipends to those that would like to purchase items that can aid them in creating an ergonomically correct workstation.  We would be happy at HealthWorks Family Chiropractic to provide you with any documentation necessary to make it happen! 


Can sitting cause a migraine?

Your sitting posture does have a whole lot to do with your standing posture.  At HealthWorks Family Chiropractic we consistently monitor the changes in your standing posture over the course of your care, but what about your sitting posture while you’re at work all day?

You see, sitting is not just detrimental to your low back, but it can impact your midback and neck causing significant stress and muscle fatigue that leads to tension headaches and can even trigger a migraine—a real day wreaker and productivity zapper!

Whether it’s incessantly checking our phones or sitting at our desks for eight to ten hours straight, forward head posture may be a common cause of headaches.  


Let’s look at the muscles that work hard every day to keep you upright.

forward head posture

Honestly, just looking at this picture gives me a headache!  Take a look at the bright red area on the back of the neck.  Ask yourself, do your headaches typically start in the back of your neck/head and travel forward giving you the throbbing tension headache that becomes that day-wrecker?  If you said a resounding “YES!”, then it’s quite possible that text/tech neck or a chronic forward head posture is the bane of this miserable malady.

So, what are some good tips to have better posture while sitting to combat possibly triggering a headache?

For the best-seated posture, sit with your head and neck upright in a neutral position. Rest your feet flat on the floor (or supported by a footrest) and avoid sitting on your feet or crossing your legs. Keep your arms and elbows close to your body, use an armrest for support, and keep your wrists in a neutral position. Sit with your hips fully back in your chair and with your back supported. Try placing a small, rolled towel behind your lower back to decrease the space between the chair and your back.

Ok, what can you do if you feel a headache or migraine coming on and you still have half your workday ahead of you?

One way to reduce tension and physical stress when you feel a headache coming on is to try a recovery pose. To do a recovery pose, lie on your back with your knees bent and gently clasp your hands together behind your head and neck. Allow your elbows to relax toward the floor until there is a slight, comfortable stretching sensation. Focus on your breathing and relax; this should not feel painful. Hold for 1-2 minutes (as long as it is comfortable), lifting elbows for a break as needed. Repeat. This should not be irritating or heighten your headache. Stop if that occurs.

How can I protect my neck at work?

Having a dedicated workspace is super important for supporting your neck and spine during your workday.  With so many people working from home these days, it’s very tempting to use your couch, bed, or your favorite comfy recliner to spend your day in, however, it can be extremely detrimental to your overall spinal health doing so. Virtual learning or working from home allows you to create a personalized workstation to suit your needs. Consider a more traditional setup with a table or desk and a chair. Position your laptop or monitor at or slightly below eye level. When using books or smaller electronic devices, bring the book or device to eye level. Consider using support devices like cases or stands when possible. Make sure your frequently used items are within easy reach.


Our promise to you

HealthWorks Family Chiropractic is dedicated to a comprehensive and specific approach to taking care of spinal and nervous system needs. Let us help you find out how taking care of the most important system in the body will create optimal health that will last a lifetime!  

If we find we’re not the best to help with your condition, we promise to refer you to someone who is.