Don't let work be a pain in the back

BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
Ask Earle

22 October 2015

Why does work cause back pain?

From office workers spending long hours sitting at a desk, to manual labourers active and moving about all day long, almost everyone is susceptible to developing back pain at work. In fact, back pain is one of the most common complaints of the UK workforce, resulting in approximately 15 million missed days at work per year.

There are many causes of back pain at work, and understanding what is causing your back pain is often the first important step towards finding an effective remedy.

What is causing my back pain?

No matter what type of work you do, back pain is often caused by putting too much stress on the spine or incorrect loading on the spine. This is often the result of poor posture, while either sitting or standing. Additionally, lifting, carrying and bending over can increase the pressure on the spine, while repetitive movements or twisting can increase risk of muscle injury and fatigue.

Many pregnant women experience back pain, regardless of the type of work that they do. However, standing and sitting for prolonged periods of time can be particularly onerous in pregnancy as there is extra strain on the muscles in the spine. During pregnancy, perhaps more than ever, it is vital to ensure a good working environment to support the correct posture and ensure that you regularly take breaks to change position and stretch your muscles.

Does my chair worsen my back pain?

If you are spending all day sitting down, then how you are sitting and what you are sitting on will definitely be a fundamental factor in back pain symptoms. Slouching under or crouching over a desk puts excess strain on the spinal ligaments, muscles and discs, increasing risk of injury.

Choosing the right chair is vital in helping to prevent or reduce back pain symptoms. A good chair will be adjustable in height. With some chairs, it is also possible to adjust the angle of the backrest and the depth of the chair’s base.

Your chair should be adjusted so that it supports your lower back and that there is a 2-4 inch gap between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees. Armrests can be effective in helping to keep your arms in the right position as well as helping to take some of the strain off your back.

Additionally, the seat should be well padded so that it is comfortable enough to sit on for extended periods, as well as being made out of a breathable material.

Preventing back pain while sitting

However, not all of the onus can lie with the chair. No matter how good your chair is, if you sit on it incorrectly, you are still at risk of developing back pain. Good posture means that all parts of the body are correctly aligned with those around it, minimising pressure and strain on the spine. Maintaining a good posture whilst sitting, is your primary step towards preventing back pain.

Your upper arms should be parallel to your spine and there should be a 90ᵒ bend in your elbow. Your hands should rest comfortably on the work surface in front of you. You should also have a 90ᵒ bend in the knees, and your feet should be slightly apart and flat on the floor or slightly raised by a footstool to reduce pressure on your lower back.

As your head is the heaviest part of your body, incorrect alignment will have repercussions throughout your body. Your head should be positioned straight on and held such that the upper spine does not bend and the neck and shoulders correctly support the weight of your head. When looking straight forward, your eyes should rest on the centre of your computer screen.

Try to keep your head in this position as much as possible. Many office workers find themselves cradling the telephone in the neck so that they have both hands free when taking a phone call. However, keeping your head in this position for even just a few minutes can result in pain and stiffness in your neck and back. Try to avoid this habit, or use headsets rather than a handset if you are regularly using the telephone.

Many people may not be spending their day sitting in an office at work, but instead sitting when driving for several hours a day, and back problems are just as common in lorry drivers, for example, as they are for office workers.

The same principles of posture can be easily transferred to spending long hours driving. You should not feel that your posture is being affected by your seatbelt or placement of mirrors. Take time to set up your driving position such that it encourages good posture, and this will help to alleviate back problems. No matter how secure your posture is when you sit, giving your body regular breaks by standing up, walking around a little and stretching out will prevent your muscles from stiffening up and becoming sore. It is also worth wearing comfortable and loose fitting clothes, as any tightness will restrict blood flow and circulation, potentially causing muscles to cramp and fatigue.

Is standing all day at work causing my back pain?

It is all very well to understand how to sit at a desk, but if your job involves you being on your feet all day, then this is unlikely to be the root of your back pain. However, being on your feet for prolonged periods of time can also take its toll on your back. Like with sitting, therefore, it is important to keep all parts of the body correctly aligned so that you place the minimum amount of pressure on the spine.

Your spine curves naturally, and the aim when standing is to maintain these natural curves in the spine. Ideally, you should be able to draw an imaginary vertical line down the side of your head, shoulders, hips and heels. Your abdomen holds much of the responsibility for supporting this position so it should be tucked in and strong. Keep your feet approximately your hip’s width apart, and balance your weight evenly between both feet.

A good way to check that you are standing correctly is to stand with your back against a wall whilst facing straight forwards. Your head, shoulder and buttocks should be touching the wall, and your feet should be 2-4 inches away from the wall. There should be a small gap in your lower spine, approximately the thickness of one hand. If it is more than this, you need to tighten your abdominal muscles to reduce the curve in your back, or if it is less than this, you need to arch your lower back slightly, probably by bringing your shoulders back.

Preventing back pain when standing

Your best way to reduce symptoms of back pain while standing is to try to maintain this ideal posture continuously throughout the day. Remember that it is easy for us to become accustomed to poor posture, so correcting it may feel uncomfortable initially. To begin with, we will probably need to constantly remind ourselves to straighten up. However, with perseverance and practice, good posture should become natural feeling, and your back will thank you for it.

When lifting or carrying, attempt to keep the spine in the same correct position, particularly avoiding twisting, turning or over-stretching. You should bend from your knees, not your hips. If you are carrying heavy loads, try to keep them as close to your centre of gravity as possible, reducing your chances of over-balancing and straining your muscles.

Your feet take the brunt of your weight when you are standing, and although a good posture helps to distribute your weight evenly and support it throughout your body, wearing shoes, which are comfortable for your feet is important. If you are on your feet all day, avoid wearing high heels and instead wear shoes with a thick rubber sole and a heel of approximately ¼ of an inch. You may find that your feet swell if you stand for prolonged periods of time, so breathable shoes should help to accommodate any such swelling.

It is important to give your body a change of position regularly to prevent muscles from becoming stiff, so take short breaks to walk around and stretch out. If possible, you could also give your feet a short break by sitting down for a few minutes.

Exercises for back pain when sitting

Many people promote the benefits of sitting on an exercise ball to do your work, or even walking on a treadmill at the same time. If these facilities are possible, such as if you work from home, or have a particularly innovative office environment, then there is no doubt that such measures may help to improve your back pain. However, for the majority of office workers, there may be somewhat more of a raised eyebrow from your boss if you decide to spend your morning seated on a big rubber ball.

It is just as well therefore, that there are many exercises you can try to relieve your back pain when working in even the most conventional of offices.

It is likely that your neck will begin to feel the strain of sitting down first as it is supporting the weight of your head. Gently tilt it from side to side, and also stretch the muscles by slowly shaking your head. For an extra stretch, bring your chin down towards the base of your neck and hold it there for a few seconds, feeling the stretch along the back of your neck and down your spine. This is a good stretch for your upper back and neck. Shrug your shoulders a few times to release any further tension.

To stretch your lower back while sitting, bring one leg to the horizontal position, hold, then lower it and repeat with the other leg. Additionally, position both feet firmly on the ground with a 90ᵒ bend in the knees, then keeping your legs in that shape raise them a few inches off of the ground. Lower again and repeat. This is an excellent way to stretch your lower back as well as strengthen your abdominal muscles.

Stretching your arms above your head is a great way to stretch out your back. With your arms stretched above your head, bend your torso from side to side to stretch the muscles down the sides of your back. Then bring your hands together and stretch them down behind your back as far as you can.

Dangle your arms down your sides then bring them up and forwards so that they are stretching out 90ᵒ front of you. Hold the stretch and then move your arms out to the side. Carefully twist your torso to one side then the other.

Another good exercise to try which will help the whole of your back is to stand up and sit down without using your hands to assist you. This exercise can be performed every time you stand up to go to the photocopier or toilet. Additionally, take the opportunities that you can to go for a quick walk. For example, instead of sending an email to a colleague at the other side of your office, walk over and talk to them. You could even go for a walk outside instead of having a meeting at your desk, this way combining work with a little exercise. You may just find that the fresh air and oxygen makes you more productive than staying inside.

Exercises for back pain when standing

If your day is spent doing manual labour, you may feel that yet more movement, exercise and stretching is the last thing that you need. However, if you are beginning to develop back pain, this is an indication that your muscles are struggling and they need to be strengthened or stretched out.

Research suggests that warming up before exercise reduces risk of soft tissue damage, such as muscle strain, and it is a practice that is becoming more and more commonplace. People rarely think of warming up before work, as they do not see it is as exercise. However, for many jobs involving manual labour, a proper warm-up adequately prepares the body for physical tasks.

When you are carrying out tasks, keep your back in a neutral position as much as possible. For example, when sweeping a floor, don’t bend down, but keep upright and sweep using your arms.

Remember to take regular breaks, particularly from lifting heavy loads. During these breaks stretch out or massage any sore muscles. It is important to keep your muscles warm, however, as going back into the physical demands of work with cold muscles increases your risk of injury.

It is important that you are fit and strong enough to do your job, and many manual labourers find that weight training outside of work helps them in their job. Strengthen your muscles, especially your abdominal muscles, as it is these that support your back. Additionally, it is your leg muscles which will need to be engaged when lifting, in order that you do not place unnecessary strain on your back.

Are there treatments for my back pain?

As with all persistent conditions, if your symptoms do not ease relatively quickly, it is important to have your back checked by a doctor in case of a more serious injury or underlying condition.

Many people instinctively reach for the medicine cabinet and take paracetamol or ibuprofen for their back pain. However, this is not necessarily the best treatment approach, as it simply numbs the pain, rather than correcting an injury. Additionally, these types of treatments can only be taken in the short-term, while recovering from a back injury may take much longer. However, with the correct treatment, your chances of a recurring injury are significantly minimised.

Make sure that you give your back a good rest and don’t put it under unnecessary strain. Maintain good posture as this is the position in which your back is best supported, even if it initially does not feel particularly natural.

I recommend…

Herbs can be a helpful alternative to conventional medicines for many people. For back pain, the flower Arnica, which has been used as a poultice for tired and sore muscles in alpine regions for hundreds of years, can be particularly effective for reducing pain and inflammation.

Applied externally in the form of a gel, Arnica is a natural treatment which can be used for relatively long periods of time. Fresh extracts of this flower can be found in A.Vogel Atrogel Arnica gel, helping you enjoy a pain-free working day once again!

For long term back pain, you may find Atrosan useful, our licensed fresh extract of Devil's Claw, a herb traditionally used to each muscular and joint pain.

Atrosan® – Devil’s Claw tablets for muscle and joint pains

30 tablets

£ 10.99

find your local stockist

Relieves muscle & joint pain, backache and lumbago. Also available in 60 tablet size.
More info

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As the A. Vogel Muscles and Joints advisor, I recommend Atrogel® for the effective relief from aches and pains.

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