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Prevent back pain by sitting correctly in 5 simple steps

December 18, 2018 (Updated: October 7, 2019)
Lily Moran

Back pain is the leading cause of disability in the US and throughout the world. An estimated 80 percent of the population will experience it at some point, and it costs at least $50 billion in health care costs each year.

Back pain is a complicated problem, and there are dozens of causes. Accidents, injuries, and degenerative disk diseases are major culprits. Back pain can also directly result from health conditions such as osteoporosis or kidney disease.

Lifestyle plays a role too. Back pain can be brought on by things you do or don’t do on a regular basis, such as lifting heavy objects, being sedentary, and wearing high heels. But the most common daily habit that contributes to back pain is sitting.

Being in a seated position can place a lot of pressure on the joints, muscles, and lower disks in the spine. In fact, up to 90 percent more pressure is placed on the back when we sit than when we stand. This is mainly because of how the majority of us sit…we tend to slouch.

To compound matters, “ergonomic” chairs that are contoured to the body and designed to make sitting more relaxing and comfortable, are actually making the health of our backs worse in the long run.

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For thousands of years, chairs had very simple designs and were built primarily with wood. Rarely did they have cushioned seats or even arm rests. They were flat, firm, and perfectly proportioned to fit the body.

But then about a hundred years ago, new materials began to emerge and chair manufacturers got creative. Wood was replaced with steel, aluminum, plastic, and lots and lots of cushioning and fancy designs.

Sure, today’s soft, fluffy chairs may feel great, but they’re terrible for the spine and joints—and our backs are paying the price.

Reduce Back Pain with Proper Posture

The sensible solution to eliminating back pain associated with sitting, is to not sit so much. But with desk jobs so prevalent, this is easier said than done. Therefore, if your job requires lots of sitting—and especially if you suffer back pain from sitting for long hours—here are some tips and tactics you can implement to reduce the stress on your back.

  • While sitting, keep your arms parallel to your spine. Don’t let your shoulders roll in front of your chest. In other words, don’t slouch!
  • Support your lower back by sitting on the harder, firmer edge of the chair’s seat. This goes against traditional thinking that you should sit all the way back so that your spine rests against the back of the chair. But sitting on the edge actually keeps your pelvis from tucking under your spine—a gateway to slouching. Sitting on the edge also allows you to position your legs so that your knees are below your hip sockets, at more of a 120-degree angle. This angle also helps to align your spine properly.
  • If your chair is too soft (and most these days are), create a perch out of a pillow wedge or a rolled-up blanket, sweater, or yoga mat. Place it a few inches from the edge of the seat, then sit on the front of this “perch” so that your hips/pelvis tilt slightly forward. This position also elevates your sitting (sitz) bones, which, again, prevents slouching. In addition, using a perch makes it easier for your knees to bend at a comfortable—and back friendly—120-degree angle under your seat.
  • If you are sitting at a desk, make sure to keep your eye level aimed at the center of your computer screen. The average head weighs about 10 pounds, so any slight angle downward puts strain on your neck and upper spine.
  • Don’t sit for too long. Our bodies weren’t designed to sit for extended periods of time. We were actually built to be in constant motion. A good rule of thumb is to change positions, or get up and move around, every 20-30 minutes throughout the day. A good way to make sure you do this is to drink a lot of water. Not only is staying hydrated important for overall health, it makes you have to go to the bathroom—which forces you to get up and move!

On a final note, if you are able to get a standing desk, that’s another option to consider. With back pain such a common issue, it’s important to do everything in your power to prevent it. If you simply sit less during the day, you can eliminate one of the biggest risk factors associated with back pain.


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