If you sit at a desk all day, it’s likely that you may have experienced mild neck or back pain, and you might even suffer from poor posture. You may have also heard that sitting on an exercise ball at work can improve both – but is it true?
Jim Palonis, PT, from UPMC Centers for Rehab Services’ Downtown Pittsburgh locations, answers this question and more related to the ideal position for sitting at your desk.
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Proper Desk Posture
Q: Is sitting in a desk chair bad for your back?
A: Sitting in a chair with poor posture can put you at higher risk of developing back pain and posture-related problems. Many of us find ourselves sitting in a slouched position with our lower back not resting against the back of the chair and our shoulders forward and rounded.
This posture results in a forward head position and places undo pressure on the entire spine from the neck to the lumbar area. Sitting in a chair with both feet flat on the floor and the body resting against the back of the chair will relieve stress on your spine and can alleviate or prevent pain.
Q: Are there any types of chairs that can prevent back pain or improve posture?
A: Ideally, a desk chair should be fitted for each individual person. Any lumbar support that your chair may have should allow for the natural curvature of the spine and prevent an increased arch in your low back. The depth and height of the seat should be positioned to allow your hips and knees to be bent 90° ensuring your feet remain flat on the floor. The back of the chair should be inclined at an angle where your back can rest against it, avoiding pressure on the lumbar spine. (For suggested measurements and proper setup of your computer workstation, please see the Ideal Position graphic).
Q: Can an exercise ball used as a chair strengthen your core? Can it alleviate back pain?
A: There is little fact-based evidence on the positives and negatives specific to exercises balls for chairs, but the most important thing to remember while sitting is to maintain the ideal position. If you are sitting on an exercise ball your back remains unsupported for an extended period of time. This requires muscle endurance to maintain the correct body posture. When your postural muscles begin to fatigue, you will begin to slouch; similar to sitting poorly in a regular chair. Sitting on an exercise ball requires your arms to remain unsupported while you type or use a computer mouse. This unsupported arm position at a computer workstation for an extended period requires muscle endurance in the upper back. When the upper back muscles begin to fatigue, you compensate by assuming a position with either an increased arch or flexed position in the low back, which can lead to back pain.
Q: What else can I do while sitting in a desk chair to prevent back pain and improve my posture?
A: Make sure your computer desk and chair are adjusted to accommodate your height. Stand up from your chair and stretch every 15 minutes if possible. You only need to stand for 10 to 20 seconds but this will give your spine and muscles a tremendous break. A study published in 2014 proved that prolonged sitting without intermittent breaks every 15 minutes significantly increased the pressure on the lumbar discs. This increased pressure, if continued over a long period of time, leads to degenerative changes in the bones, connective tissue and muscles.
You can also do seated stretches periodically, such as moving your shoulder blades toward each other, to promote back flexibility and improve posture. Performing pelvic tilt and lumbar exercises regularly at home or in the gym will help maintain postural strength and endurance.
If you are experiencing low back pain or would like more information about improving your posture, talk to your doctor or physical therapist for recommendations specific to your needs.
Q: How can I protect my back while I am using my home computer, laptop, or cell phone?
A: Chances are your home workstation isn’t anything more than a computer on a desk and an improper stool or chair. Therefore, it is important to keep the above principles in mind while working at home too.
Proper techniques should be used when working on laptops, which are great for being able to get work done when you are away from home or office. However, they should be used sparingly and not as a substitute for an ergonomically correct computer workstation. Laptops do not provide the proper wrist and forearm support and the smaller attached monitor encourages a flexed neck and trunk posture leading to increased strain in the neck, shoulders, thoracic and lumbar spine.
If you must use a laptop consider using a detached keyboard and mouse and place the monitor at eye level to promote an upright posture.
The neck is typically equipped to handle about 10 to 12 pounds of force. However, a 2016 study revealed that for every inch flexed down to look at a phone, the load of weight on the neck nearly doubles. This has led to a phenomenon known as “text neck” which is pain throughout the neck, shoulders and upper back caused by excessive use of the phone with poor posture. To avoid this, you must limit your time spent texting or playing games on your phone. Try to keep the phone at eye level as much as possible when sitting or standing or consider, when possible, lying down and holding the phone directly in front of your eyes about 12 to 18 inches away.