Chairs, phones and other enemies of your back

From the minor but persistent twinge to the white-hot sort that lances up your spine, defying description and limiting movement, we've all had back pain.

Most people are aware of the basics of ergonomics: sit with a straight back, bend your legs and not your spine – all that stuff.

It’s probably scant comfort to know that nearly all your colleagues will suffer from back pain at some stage in their careers. A few minutes around the water cooler will tell you that: everyone has their war stories.

What's less well-known is that the severity of back pain may have little to do with the severity of the physiological damage. A herniated disc might not be at all painful, while a muscle spasm triggered by lifting something the wrong way can be agonising.

Most back pain is caused when one of the nerves or muscles in the back is put under some stress, or if one of the discs between the vertebra is damaged or out of place. Sometimes there's no apparent anatomical cause, but the pain is real enough.

Several factors can heighten your risk of back strain:

Sitting for long periods. Very few people have optimum posture when sitting and rather tend to sag down in their chairs. Swivel chairs – preferred by many office workers – develop a slight tilt to one side, placing strain on the back. Sit in the same skew chair every day and back strain is almost inevitable. You can combat this by sitting in a hugely expensive chair that doesn't tilt, or you can get yourself a backless Swedish chair. They feel uncomfortable at first, but you get used to them.

Being unfit and overweight. These conditions often occur together. The first means that your muscles lack the tone to support your spinal column. The second means that your big belly will pull your spine forward. Again, back pain will be a natural consequence. The solution? Lose weight and get fit. You needn't be Usain Bolt – just lose the extra inches around your gut and get your muscles toned up.

Doing a lot of heavy lifting. Many people who work with heavy weights are attuned to bending with a strained back when lifting. But there are office drones who put their backs out by picking up nothing heavier than a sheet of paper. It happens and it's painful as well as a bit embarrassing.

Working the phones. Most people in call centres have headsets, while many other office types who spend comparatively long hours on the phone rely on the old crooked-neck way of grasping the receiver. A survey in the UK found that more than a third of office workers who used a telephone for more than two hours a day and also used a computer suffered from lower back pain.

Being stressed. Any increase in stress increases muscle tension throughout the body, which results in an increase in the chance of strain and pain.

So what can be done? Apart from the steps outlined above (losing weight, lifting correctly, getting a headset, looking at your chair in a critical light), getting up and walking around can do wonders. You needn't stroll around for hours – a quick stretch will do.

  • Try learning a couple of nifty yoga moves that elongate the spine. People may think you strange, but the following move helps relieve lower back strain: Lie down on the floor on your back. Lift your knees to your chest and put your arms around your legs.
  • Hold the position for ten seconds, breathing in deeply, then exhaling slowly. Repeat this several times.
  • If you have persistent lower back pain, see your doctor. If you suddenly develop a progressive weakening of the legs or serious and continual pain in the back and abdomen your should get medical attention immediately. And if you suddenly develop incontinence in the bowel or bladder, see a doctor – and a dry cleaner.

(William Smook, Health24, updated November 2012)

Read more:

The top 3 causes of backache
4 ways to strengthen your back

Visit our Backache Centre for more advice

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