What has been Causing my Neck and Back Pain: Sitting Disease and how to prevent it
By Valere Guertin
According to US news and World Report, 86% of Americans work a job in which they sit for a majority of their shift and the average American spends a total of approximately 13 hours a day sitting or being sedentary. This may come as a surprise to some, given the increase interest in spinning classes, yoga, CrossFit, and other types of exercise in recent years. The unfortunate thing is that an hour at the gym alone is usually not enough to fully stave off all the effects that a sedentary job can have on our bodies.
There are a few common changes that are seen in people who work a desk job. The first is that the hip flexor muscles get very tight. When the hips are flexed for prolonged periods of time, day after day, those muscles will start to adapt to that position and become shortened. This pulls your pelvis and tilts forward when you’re standing or walking or running. Since your spine is connected directly to your pelvis, this leads to an increase in the arch of your low back. This can be a source of a lot of pain and discomfort for many people.
Thoracic Kyphosis and How to Prevent it
If you work at a computer at your desk, this means that your arms are almost always out in front of you. This can lead to rounding of the upperback, or what is referred to as thoracic kyphosis. This position of rounded shoulders and arms out in front of you can cause the muscles in your upper back to get stretched out and weak and the muscles in the front of your chest to become tight, which makes it harder for you to be able to get into a nice upright posture. A secondary effect of this posture can be felt at your neck. You can try this out right now as you read this; go ahead and sit up nice and straight. Now slump down and round your upper back. Most likely 1 of 2 things just occurred; you either extended your neck back to be able to keep looking at the screen or your head slumped down, in which case you would have to extend your neck up. This leads to what we call forward head posture and the muscles in your upper neck at the base of head can become very tight. Those tight muscles can sometimes be a contributing factor of recurrent headaches if you suffer from that.
There are a few other changes that can occur as a result of a sedentary desk job, but the ones outlined above are the most commonly seen ones that cause people that most problems. So now the question is, what can be done to help correct this? First off is a description of an example of good sitting posture and how you can set up your desk to aid you in this.
Understanding Sitting Posture from the Ground Up
We’ll start from the feet and work our way up; feet should be flat on the ground when your shin is perpendicular to the ground. Along the same lines, your knees and hips should be flexed about 90 degrees as well. If you have to change those angles in order to have your feet flat on the ground, change the height of your chair so that you can easily achieve those 90-degree angles. If you can’t change the height, then you can either sit on some sort of cushion if the chair is too low or place a book or a yoga block under your feet if your chair is too high. Moving upwards, your low back should have a gentle arch to it and not be flat or flexed forward. It can help to slide your bottom to the very back of the chair and roll up a towel to place in the small of low back to help prevent you from slumping forward. Next up, your desk should be at a height where your elbows can be relaxed at your sides at about 90 degrees and your wrists in a nice neutral position. Your computer monitor should be at a height and angle to where you don’t have to flex your neck forward to read it. The illustration of sitting posture above is a good visual for how to set up your desk.
Another option, would be to look into a desk that can raise up so that you can stand periodically throughout your day. If this is not possible, set an alarm on your phone for every 30 minutes or every hour to remind you to get up and take a lap around your office or grab some water.
A Few Exercises to Improve Posture and Reduce Strain
- Shoulder Blade Squeezes:
There be done either while sitting or standing. For this exercise, keep your shoulders relaxed and back.Then squeeze your shoulder blades together as if your trying to pinch something between them. Hold each repetition for 5 seconds and perform 10-15 reps.
It’s important that your shoulders stay down and back to prevent them shrugging up to your ears. This exercise helps to strengthen the muscles in your upper back that can get
stretched out and become weak causing poor posture. Do this exercise 2-3 per day to help strengthen and improve posture.
- Sit to Stand Squats:
The purpose of this exercise is to activate your glutes, which can often become weak and less active from prolonged sitting. Start off sitting toward the edge of your chair. Stand up, making sure to squeeze your glutes to help extend your hips. Then slowly sit back down, making sure that you are reaching back for the chair with your bottom instead of letting your knees bend way in front of your toes. You can 3 times a week.
- Upper Trapezius Stretch:
This stretch is to help lengthening the muscles in our upper shoulders and neck that can get very tightthroughout the day. While you are sitting in your chair, with one hand, grab onto the seat of the chair. Tilt your head away from the side that is holding onto the chair. Hold for about 30 seconds and repeat 1-3 times on each side. If you want an extra stretch, use your free hand to help pull your head a little further to the side. Do 2-3 times a day to reduce tension in neck muscles.
- Lunging Hip Flexor Stretch:
This exercise is meant to lengthen the muscles on the front of our hips that are responsible for flexing your hip. These muscles can become very shortened with prolonged sitting and can contribute to low back pain. To start, kneel on right knee, put a folded towel under knee to alleviate stress on knee. Place your left foot flat on the floor in front of you, knee bent and aligned with ankle. Press hips forward until you feel tension in the front of your right thigh. Then extend your arms overhead and slightly arch your back while keeping your chin parallel to the ground. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides. Do 3 times each side 2-3 times a week.
- Transverse Abdominis Contractions:
The purpose of this exercise is to activate a muscle called the transverse abdominis. This muscle is the deepest of your abdominal muscles and is important for stabilizing your lumbar spine. Learning to properly activate this muscle can be helpful in relieving low back pain. In a seated position, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. As you inhale, imagine your belly filling and expanding like a balloon and push your stomach out slightly. The hand on your belly should move away from your body and the hand on your chest should not move.
As you exhale, imagine your balloon-belly deflating as you squeeze your abs to expel all the air. You should try and bring your belly button backwards toward your spine. Your hand on your belly will move back to the body and the hand on your chest should not move. Take this exercise slow and breathe through the nose. This should be activating your core but not very exertive. Stop if you feel light headed. You can do 10-20 reps of this multiple times throughout the day.