If you have back pain when sitting, you’re not alone. Nearly 65 million Americans report recent back pain, and 16 million live with chronic back pain that limits everyday activities. Back pain is a leading cause of work-loss days every year – accounting for 83 million sick days – and lower back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
Sitting for extended periods is a primary culprit. Consider these facts:
- Up to 23% of adults worldwide suffer from chronic lower back pain
- The average person sits for 12 hours per day
- 75% of all workers have sedentary jobs, and some professionals – such as computer programmers – sit more than 95% of the day
- Sitting adds 40 to 90% more stress on the back than standing, while slouching puts 30% more pressure on the back than sitting upright
Back pain from sitting isn’t just uncomfortable; it’s costly. In addition to lost work hours, back pain is the sixth costliest condition in the U.S., accounting for $12 billion in annual medical expenses.
The good news is that, with a strategic approach, you can treat back pain caused by sitting and prevent it from recurring. Here’s what doctors say about back pain from sitting.
- Why your back hurts when sitting
- How to prevent back pain from sitting
- How to treat back pain from sitting
Why your back hurts when sitting
Sitting can cause back pain via different mechanisms. Your back could hurt when you sit, after you sit, or both.
“Sitting is a major cause of back pain, especially for people who sit a lot or have to sit for a living. It is hard to differentiate whether your back pain is coming from sitting or from something else in your activities of daily living. To know for sure, you can experiment with your day by limiting your sitting to as minimal as possible for several days in a row,” says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, DC, CSCS, who owns and operates Body Check Chiropractic & Sports Rehabilitation in Scottsdale, AZ. He works with elite athletes from the NFL, MLB, NHL, USA Track and Field, NCAA and high school. “If your pain gets better, then sitting is a major culprit for you. If it doesn’t get better, try changing something else about your daily activities, such as your exercise, your sleeping position or your mattress to find the specific cause for your condition.”
When you sit, you relax your hip flexors, weakening them over time. This causes you to overwork your hamstrings, which could lead to an anterior pelvic tilt. Slouching and even just sitting in the same position for hours places undue stress on your spine, discs and ligaments.
These conditions occur whether you’re sitting at a desk, in a chair, on a couch, or driving. They’re not limited to occupational sitting, either, but extend to sitting for dinner or while watching Netflix.
“There are two main issues with sitting. When we sit, our gluteus muscles and our core muscles tend to ‘turn off’ because they are not really needed when we are resting in that position. Our brain is always trying to conserve energy, so it tends to turn off things that are not vital in the moment,” says Dr. Jan Lefkowitz, D.C., founder of Body in Balance Chiropractic in New York City. “The glutes and the core are vital for our postural stability, so when they are not active, our posture is going to suffer, and that ultimately means we have less protection for our spinal joints, discs and nerves. This never used to be an issue in the past, as humans used to be much more active and didn’t sit as much as we do now.”
Dr. Lefkowitz says the second problem with sitting is lack of movement, which means less blood pumps through the body.
“The blood delivers nutrients to different parts of our body that it needs to heal and maintain itself, such as oxygen as well as cells which repair damage,” he says. “Anytime we are not moving, our body is not going to heal or maintain itself as well, and this will lead to more pain and tension. It also puts more strain on the heart since movement is what is needed to help push blood back to the heart.”
Poor posture is a primary cause
The work-from-home movement exacerbates the issue, as the dining table or couch isn’t as ergonomic as many office setups. Technology is also a problem: looking down at phones, tablets and laptops can not only lead to tech neck, they can cause upper back pain.
Poor posture – and different types of posture – can cause you to feel pain in various areas of your back. Some people have lower back pain, others have mid-back pain, and others have upper back pain. Some people experience pain in more than one area along the spine.
“Sitting tends to strain the entire spine from the lower back to the neck. However, some people will feel the pain more in their lower back, and some may feel it in another part of the body such as the neck,” explains Dr. Lefkowitz. “This has more to do with where each person has a pre-existing vulnerability. There may be some wear and tear in one of the spinal discs, there could be a misaligned bone in the spine, or there could be a knot in one of the muscles from an old injury or overuse.”
Over time, the conditions that cause chronic back pain from sitting can lead to:
- Herniated, bulging discs
- Muscle strain and muscle spasms
- Degenerative disc disease
- Spinal stenosis
- Pinched nerves
These conditions can have life-altering implications, so it’s best to consult a medical professional if you have chronic back pain.
“It’s a great idea to get checked by a licensed health professional who has training in spinal biomechanics, such as a chiropractor,” says Dr. Lefkowitz. “A chiropractor can easily identify any areas in the spine where one of the vertebrae are not moving properly and causing pain and inflammation. If you have already tried fixing your sitting posture and you are still having pain, then it’s time to get checked by a chiropractor.”
How to prevent back pain from sitting
Follow these tips to prevent back pain when you’re sitting.
Practice proper sitting posture
Good sitting posture can relieve pain in your neck, back, shoulders and hips. It can also improve circulation, increase your lung capacity and reduce joint and muscle strain, decreasing the risk of overuse injuries.
When you’re sitting at a desk, proper sitting posture means:
- Feet flat on the floor
- Knees and hips bent at 90-degree angles
- Chin and thighs parallel to the floor (though your knees can be slightly lower than your hips)
- Head and neck in neutral position (ears positioned over your shoulders)
- Chest expanded and shoulder blades retracted
- Tucked tummy
- Screen at eye level
Consider that your “base” posture, but understand that it’s best to frequently change positions – known as dynamic sitting – so you’re never in one fixed position for too long. Start in your base position, switch your posture every so often, then return to base and repeat.
Posture correctors can help you find and maintain proper sitting posture by gently retracting your shoulders and providing physiological feedback. They’re designed to align your body and train it to hold good posture over time so that, eventually, you no longer need to wear one.
“Posture correctors will teach you how to sit upright over time and retrain the musculature, specifically of the upper and mid-back, to get used to sitting properly,” says Dr. Tanneberg. “The only issue with posture correctors is that if you take them off, you have the chance of going back into old habits and slouching again. Initially, you need to make a conscious effort, even with the posture corrector, to make the changes necessary to get rid of your pain.”
Look for a posture corrector made from quality materials that’s lightweight, comfortable and stylish enough to wear regularly. You can find posture correctors for men and women, and some can even be worn over or under clothing. Keep in mind that cheap posture braces often do not offer adequate support, so invest in a posture corrector that doctors recommend.
Posture apps can also help you sit with good posture. Some apps feature posture exercises and stretches, some analyze your posture, some offer reminders to sit with proper posture, while others are slouch detectors – they use your computer camera to monitor your posture and notify you when you slouch.
Take regular breaks
Sitting for too long – in any posture – can lead to wear, tear and overuse injuries. Set an alarm on your computer or phone to remind you to get up and walk around, stretch, or perform some posture exercises every 30 to 60 minutes.
“Preventing back pain from sitting starts with limiting the time you are sitting per session. Ideally, you limit the sitting to no more than 60 minutes at a time. I try to have patients get up on the hour, every hour, even if that means they simply stand up, readjust themselves, and then sit back down,” explains Dr. Tanneberg. “This limits the pressure being put on the spine and makes you more aware of your posture when you break up your day in this way.”
Movement and flexibility are essential to pain prevention, so take regular breaks whether you’re at a work desk, lounging on the couch at home, driving, or otherwise sitting for extended periods.
Invest in an ergonomic workstation
Ergonomics help you maintain your body’s natural, balanced position, which reduces strain on your spine and postural muscles and can help prevent back pain.
“Another tip is to get your desk and chair ergonomically set up, either by a professional or by watching videos online. If you are sitting for 40 hours per week at work, you want to make sure that you are sitting appropriately so as to not create an issue that is going to continue to get worse over time,” says Dr. Tanneberg. “In terms of ergonomics, you want to make sure that your entire back is contacting the back of the chair. There shouldn’t be any gaps. The space between your back and the chair will allow you to slouch over time and put abnormal pressure on your spine.”
Invest in an ergonomic office chair that provides good back support, keep the top of your computer screen near eye level to avoid slouching, and consider alternative sitting options such as kneeling chairs and standing desks.
“I highly recommend an adjustable sit/stand desk when working. Many companies will now pay for these for their employees with a letter from their doctor. These have become very popular, and I have definitely seen an immediate improvement in my patients when they start using a sit/stand desk,” says Dr. Lefkowitz. “If you have to sit, then having proper ergonomic support is very important. There are simple cushions, when properly placed, that can support your lower back curvature, which takes a lot of pressure off of the spine.”
Strengthen postural muscles and improve flexibility
Posture stretches, exercises, and yoga can help strengthen your postural muscles and improve flexibility, which in turn can help you sit with proper posture and prevent back pain from sitting.
Recommended posture stretches and exercises include:
Prone head lifts
Supine head lifts
Partial sit ups
Resistance band stretches
Recommended yoga postures for posture include:
In addition, excess weight can place undue strain on your spine and supporting muscles and ligaments, so staying in shape can help reduce back pain from sitting.
How to treat back pain from sitting
Despite your best efforts, you might still have occasional back pain caused by sitting. Consider the following treatment options.
Ice and heating pads
Many sources say to apply ice first, for about 10 to 15 minutes after your back begins hurting. Then, apply heat for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Some sources recommend alternating between ice and heat. Speak to your doctor or experiment independently to determine which works best for you.
Analgesics such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with acute back pain, but they’re not recommended for long-term use in chronic back pain sufferers.
A licensed massage therapist can work out knots and manipulate your muscles to relieve pain. Many people regularly schedule massages to help treat back pain.
A physical therapist can work with you to strengthen your postural muscles and increase your flexibility, which can help you treat and prevent back pain from sitting. Many physical therapists work alongside chiropractors.
Chiropractors can evaluate the cause of your back pain and prescribe treatment plans designed to reduce or eliminate it. They can make adjustments that provide instant relief and recommend exercises, stretches and lifestyle changes to prevent recurring episodes.
“Anyone with back pain should have their spine assessed by an expert doctor of chiropractic. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s so much easier to fix these issues if you treat them early. It’s really never a good idea to ignore any type of back pain and hope it goes away,” says Dr. Lefkowitz. “A good chiropractor can identify misaligned vertebrae that can be causing the issue. Modern chiropractors use many different types of techniques to comfortably and safely realign as well as assess the muscular system and prescribe specific exercises to help strengthen and support posture.”
When to see a doctor
Though some back pain can be self-treated, some conditions require medical attention or even surgery. See a chiropractor or orthopedic doctor if:
- Chronic back pain doesn’t improve
- Back pain is caused by injury
- Your pain is severe
- You’re unsure how to treat your pain
“If your pain is becoming unbearable and negatively affecting your activities of daily living and not allowing you to do things that you enjoy, it is time to get checked out by a chiropractor,” says Dr. Tanneberg. “A typical chiropractic assessment will start off with an examination and most likely some form of imaging, typically an X-ray. From there, the chiropractor should give you a diagnosis of your condition and a treatment plan, including adjustments and typically some form of adjunct therapy such as electric muscle stimulations, soft tissue therapy or massages, and therapeutic exercises.”
Ultimately, preventing and treating back pain from sitting often requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Learn to sit with proper posture, take regular breaks, strengthen your postural muscles, increase flexibility and seek expert advice to design an appropriate treatment program for your condition.
“Limit sitting as much as possible by utilizing sit/stand desks and alternating between the two,” says Dr. Lefkowitz. “Have proper ergonomic support when sitting, work on your posture, and have a professional help you build an exercise program that properly balances the core.”Looking for a lightweight, comfortable, stylish posture corrector that works? Try BackEmbrace!