The spine is our body’s central support structure. It provides us with a unique mix of flexibility to enable movement and rigidity to support our body weight. Our spine is designed to move around freely, however, certain lifestyle habits such as sitting for long periods can have a significant impact on your spine and cause acute or chronic pain.
Why Does Sitting For Long Periods Cause Back Pain?
The spine relies on constant movement to keep itself free and pliable. Sitting down for prolonged periods causes the intervertebral discs to lose their cushioning which can lead to
stiffness and pain.
How Does Sitting Affect Our Muscles?
Our body is designed to be upright and moving. Frequent activity helps maintain bone strength, improve circulation and constantly activate the muscular system to remain strong and durable. Prolonged sitting is therefore a hindrance to the benefits of movement. Sitting also increases the pressure through the intervertebral discs by up to 30%. This is because our core muscles are not activated in sitting and do not support the spine. The combined deleterious effects of sitting often culminate in the onset of back pain.
Sitting down for too long can lead to:
- Poor posture
Sitting for too long can cause you to become stiff in certain positions which can then be difficult to move out of. When you experience pain or discomfort when standing up from a seated position, this is your body trying to recover from the unnatural position it was placed in for so long. Most common changes to posture seen when sitting for long periods include slouched shoulders, poked neck and a stiff thoracic spine and lumbar spine. While seated postural corrections can help mitigate these negative effects, sitting down for long periods is inherently linked to back pain.
- Pinched nerves
Sitting for long periods can cause increased pressure on your neck, mid back and lower back. This can lead to pinched nerves and trigger symptoms such as neck pain, pain around your shoulder blade, lower back pain and sciatic nerve pain among others. If left untreated, pinched nerves can progress to numbness and weakness in the arms and/or legs.
- Muscular degeneration
Our muscles need constant movement to maintain mass and strength. Sitting for long periods of time can lead to muscle wastage, known as atrophy. Muscle groups like your glutes become weak and are unable to stabilise your hips, pelvis and lumbar spine making them more susceptible to injury and pain. Sitting also causes your hip flexors to tighten, which can cause lumbar lordosis (i.e., exaggerated inward curve of your lower back) and increase pressure through your lumbar spine.
- Weight gain
Moving is the most effective way to burn calories. If you sit down all day, the digestive system slows down and you are less able to sufficiently burn enough calories. This can result in a calorie surplus which can lead to significant weight gain. The added weight is often gained around the thoracic and lumbar spine and increases pressure applied to abdominal organs and intervertebral discs, potentially causing pain.
How to Manage Your Back Pain from Sitting
- Ergonomic chair
If sitting down for extended periods is unavoidable, buying an ergonomic chair (preferably with lumbar support) can lower the chance of developing back pain. A good ergonomic chair can help to maintain the natural curvature of the spine when sitting.
- Take breaks and stand up often
The best way to reduce the risk of developing back pain from sitting is to reduce the amount of time that you sit. Stand up often, go for a walk or even lie down. The important thing is to avoid keeping your body locked up in one position for too long.
Back pain from sitting can be an early indicator of more complications and should be assessed and diagnosed by a registered health professional. If you are experiencing back pain please don’t hesitate to reach out and we would be happy to assist.
Back pain should not be left untreated and treating it early leads to better outcomes – that is, getting you back to doing what you love most.
Written by Nicholas Dimos (Physiotherapist)