Why your upper back is so tight

If you work in an office and spend the majority of your day sitting down, you are probably not a stranger to back pain. Sitting at a desk for eight hours a day can lead to stiffness and tension that causes serious discomfort while working. If your job requires you to twist or bend frequently, you may be at even higher risk of developing back pain. 

Back pain can range from sharp and sudden pain, such as from twisting or moving abruptly, to a constant and dull ache that develops over time. Back pain may be acute, lasting only a few weeks, or chronic, lasting twelve weeks or longer. Lower back pain that lasts between four and twelve weeks is called subacute. In most cases, lower back pain is short-term and will go away naturally with proper self-care. However, about   20% of people who experience acute back pain, later develop chronic back pain. As a person gets older, they are also more likely to develop back pain and chronic back pain.

When working in a sedentary office job, lower back pain can develop from physical inactivity, incorrect posture or a poorly designed workspace. How you move can also aggravate existing back pain. Luckily, by adjusting your workspace and developing healthy habits, you can prevent and reduce back pain at work.

Common Causes of back pain in the office

Poor posture is one of the most common causes of office back pain. During the workday, a person may slide forward in their chair, slouch or lean towards their computer. Fatigue can also encourage employees to have an overly relaxed posture while sitting or standing. These positions can stretch spinal ligaments too much and stress your spinal discs. Holding a phone between your ear and shoulder for an extended time can also create tension in your spine.

The design of a workspace can also contribute to poor posture or strained movements. If an employee must twist or reach frequently, they are likely to develop back pain. A cramped workspace can also cause tension if employees cannot move freely. Office chairs that do not offer proper lumbar support and other ergonomic features may encourage poor posture that leads to back pain.

Sitting for an extended period of time without standing or stretching also contributes to office back pain. Experiencing little movement during the day can compress the intervertebral discs in your spine and push the water out of them. This causes your spinal discs to bulge, which puts pressure on your spinal nerve. Pressure on your spinal nerve can lead to numbness and tingling in the back and a pain that radiates from your spine. Spinal nerve pain may also increase when sitting and cause difficulty walking or standing.

Other factors that may cause office back pain include stress, an unhealthy lifestyle and lack of exercise. Stress and anxiety can lead to muscle tension and may cause a person to perceive their pain more severely. Excess body weight and muscle weakness can also add pressure to your spine and cause back pain.

How to reduce back pain at work.

1. Create An Ergonomic Workspace

In an ergonomic workspace, employees can reach everything they need without straining. Proper office ergonomics also encourage good posture by adjusting the height of desks, chairs and monitors. Below are a few tips for creating an ergonomic workspace:

  • Position everything within arm’s reach: Instead of straining to reach pens, tape or your telephone, position all items that you use frequently within arm’s reach. Keep your computer mouse next to your keyboard and your keyboard close to you. Make sure you can reach anything you need without leaning or stretching.
  • Adjust your monitor height: Raise or lower your monitor so the top of your monitor is at eye level. Your gaze should fall naturally on the area of your screen that you look at most often so you do not have to tilt your head or lean forward.
  • Adjust monitor brightness and size: If the brightness on your computer screen is too low, you are more likely to lean towards your screen. If you need to squint to read something, consider adjusting the size of your font so you can maintain good posture while reading comfortably.
  • Adjust your desk or chair height: Make sure your work surfaces are at comfortable heights, and you are not leaning forwards or straining upwards. If your chair and desk are at the correct height, your elbows should form a 75 to 90-degree angle when your hands are on the surface of your desk, and you are sitting up straight.

2. choose the Right Office Chair

Choosing a good office chair can also play a significant role in promoting proper posture. Below are a few things to look for in an ergonomic office chair:

  • Adjustable height: Choose a desk chair that allows you to adjust the height so your elbows can sit at a comfortable angle with your desk.
  • Adjustable backrest: If your desk chair has an appropriate seat depth, there should be 2 to 4 inches between your calves and the front of the chair when sitting with your back against the backrest. Choose an office chair with the right seat depth or one that has an adjustable backrest.
  • Adjustable armrests: The armrests of your desk chair should lift your shoulders slightly to reduce the strain on your upper back. When armrests are adjusted correctly, you will also be less prone to slouching.
  • Lumbar support: Choose an office chair that provides support to your lower back. Lumbar support encourages the proper curvature of your back to reduce tension and pressure. If your office chair does not have lower back support, consider using a small pillow behind your back to improve your posture.
  • Comfortable material: A good office chair will have soft and padded seat material that makes it comfortable to sit throughout the workday.
  • Able to swivel: If you have to rotate or turn frequently, choose a chair that swivels so you do not have to twist your torso. This will allow you to rotate while maintaining good posture.

3. Practice Good Posture

When sitting for long periods of time, it is easy to begin to slouch or lean unknowingly. Over time, this poor posture can cause serious back pain that can lead to chronic back problems if not corrected early. Using good posture minimizes the gravitational pressure on your spine for improved comfort and reduced risk of back pain. Here are some tips for practicing good posture when sitting:

  • Keep your head and neck aligned directly above your shoulders.
  • your back against the backrest of your chair.
  • Keep your shoulders back and square with your computer screen.
  • your upper arms parallel to your spine by moving your chair close to your desk.
  • Keep your feet flat on the ground and do not cross your legs.
  • Keep your knees at a 90-degree angle and use a footrest if necessary.
  • When adjusting your posture, remember to keep your body relaxed. If you already experience office back pain, a stiff posture can increase neck and back pain.

4. Take Frequent Short Breaks

When working long hours at a desk, it is important to take frequent short breaks to get up and move around. Ideally, employees should stretch their back and legs at least once every hour by taking a walk and performing stretches. Even a short one minute walk can be very beneficial for preventing back pain. If frequent breaks are not possible, try to stretch at least three times during your workday. You can even perform dynamic stretches while moving from room to room in your office.

Incorporating other relaxation techniques into your workday can also be very beneficial. Practice proper breathing techniques to help elongate your spine. Doing yoga can also reduce stress and physical tension.

5. Consider seeing a specialist.

There are many types of health practitioners that care for patients with spinal conditions, and each has a slightly different role. Selection of the most appropriate type of health professional – or team of health professionals – largely depends on your symptoms and the length of time the symptoms have been present.

The different types of health professionals who treat back pain tend to have varied training and interests. While it is common to start off with a primary care provider (a medical doctor, chiropractor, or doctor of physiotherapy), if the patient’s back pain is resistant to initial treatment then the services of a spine specialist may be necessary.

Ten to twenty years ago a person experiencing back pain would most commonly be advised bed rest and immobilization of the back. Research within the past 10 years has shown that inactivity weakens the muscles that support the spine and, if continued too long, can prolong recovery or even make certain conditions worse.
References:

  1.  https://spineina.com/blog/back-pain-at-the-office/
  2. https://www.spine-health.com/treatment/spine-specialists/how-a-physical-therapist-can-help-exercise
  3. https://www.spine-health.com/treatment/spine-specialists/specialists-who-treat-back-pain

Composed by Sharanya Thomas
Physical therapist
Chiropractic and Physiotherapy health center

Know Why Your Upper Back is so Tight In The Office.

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