Lower back pain is a common health problem in the workplace, and most workers are expected to experience symptoms of low back pain during their working life. It can affect anyone at any age, and the prevalence is increasing; disability due to back pain has risen by more than 50% since 1990.
Risk factors for developing low back pain in office workers
- Long working hours
- Poor ergonomic set up: desk, chair, computer height.
- Sitting for long periods
- Lack of exercise
- Poor sleep hygiene
Tips to avoid low back pain in the workplace
Long working hours and the accompanying stress of a high-pressure job is sometimes unavoidable. If your job requires long hours at a computer, it is important to take regular breaks. This may be as simple as a coffee or toilet break, but moving positions will take the strain off your back muscles and prevent them from becoming stiff and tense.
It is advisable to engage in a few minutes of movement for every hour sat at your desk; exercises such as touching your toes, rotating your torso and reaching your arms up and leaning back are all simple exercises to do to prevent stiffness occurring.
Ensure your computer, keyboard and mouse are in an optimal position; your thighs should be at right angles to your body or sloping slightly down, the chair height should be adjusted so your feet are planted firmly on the floor. Keep your computer screen at eye level, so you’re not straining your neck to look up or down at your screen. This helps to minimise the load on your lower back.
Tips to avoid low back pain outside of the workplace
If you’re sat at a desk for the majority of your day, it is essential to spend at least 30 minutes out of the rest of your day completing some form of exercise. This may be walking, swimming, biking, running or participating in a gym class but the rule is it should be something that raises your heart rate enough to cause you to be slightly out of breath. This helps to keep your back muscles strong and your joints healthy, as well as the many cardiovascular benefits.
The World Health Organisation recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise. Researchers have discovered that to walk at a moderate intensity; you have to walk roughly 5km/hr (3 miles/hr). At this pace, it will take 12 minutes to walk 1km. If you can find a way to walk 1km continuously; this may be to and from work, to the shops, or on a treadmill inside an air-conditioned gym, you will be walking 2km’s for 24 minutes a day (168 mins per week) thus exceeding the World Health Organisation’s weekly moderate intensity exercise guidelines by 18 minutes per week.
Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that occur after working out.
Interestingly, research now suggests that sleep deprivation increases our pain.
Specifically, it makes our bodies more sensitive to pain and less able to deal and tolerate it. So, it can make that small ache in the back feel much worse, and I’ll let you imagine what happens to our back pain when we add this increased sensitivity, to 8 hours sitting at a desk with minimal movement.
Further compounding this, sleep is a restorative process. So not getting enough rest can impair our body’s ability to heal and can exacerbate injuries or make us more susceptible to them.
What to do if you experience low back pain?
If you do experience back pain, it is essential in the early stages to refrain from activities that aggravate the pain. Your back is sensitised at this point and needs a period of up to 72 hours to recover. Using analgesia and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication can help settle the pain. After this period, it is advisable to move as frequently as you possibly can and re-introduce activities and exercises slowly. Addressing the risk factors stated above are an excellent way to help prevent a reoccurrence.
If the pain persists after a couple of weeks or radiates down your arms or legs, then it is essential to seek the advice of an appropriate health-care professional. This will give you a definitive diagnosis and the expertise to help guide your rehabilitation back to full health.
Once rehabilitated, it is advisable to continue with ‘maintenance’ treatments either through strength work, massage, manipulation, foam rolling, Pilates or yoga in addition to regular cardiovascular exercise. This will help to reduce the risk of back pain reoccurring and maintain a strong, supple body and healthy mind.