Back pain in the office

Many people that sit a lot at work know the problem: Towards the end of a long working back, neck or shoulders start to hurt.

A large survey of over 1,000 participants, conducted by the Healthy Back Working Group, showed that almost half of the people working in offices suffer from back problems – at least once a week! 1

In the following article on back pain in the office we would like to explain the causes of these complaints, when back pain in the office should urgently be clarified and give an overview of what employees can do about back pain in the office.

1. Back pain in the office: Usually several causes come together and cause the complaints

Experts largely agree: In the vast majority of cases, back pain is not a cause requiring urgent treatment, but rather a so-called non-specific back pain. 2 Here the pain comes from the muscles, from limited interaction of muscles and spine or other causes – but not from a change in the area of the spine.

Back pain in the office is no exception.

Above all, experts suspect the lack of movement of people who sit a lot at work  in monotonous postures and often don’t move enough in their leisure time to cause back pain. Sufficient exercise both during leisure time and at the workplace should significantly reduce the risk of back pain. 3

However, sitting at work alone does not increase the risk of back pain in several studies. Rather, numerous factors seem to interact here. 4,5

And so not only a lack of exercise alone, but a number of other factors in the workplace are involved in the development of back pain.

Interestingly, studies found that in sedentary occupations a combination of high workload and physical factors such as posture favors the onset of back pain. 6

Satisfaction with the workplace or fear of dismissal also influences the occurrence of back pain. 7

2. These warning signs of back pain in the office can indicate a cause requiring treatment:

The guidelines for the treatment of back and neck pain define a number of urgent causes requiring treatment and the warning signs for them. 6,8 A doctor should be consulted quickly in the event of back pain at the workplace, especially in the case of the following warning signs:

  • Was the back pain preceded by an accident? (possible indication of spinal column injury)
  • In addition to back pain, are there any signs of infection or indications that make infection in the neck area more likely? Examples are fever, a strong feeling of illness, known limitations of the immune system or injection therapy.
  • Is there a previous history of a tumor disease? (possible indication of settlement in the area of the spine)
  • Are there weight loss or sweats at the same time as back pain, especially at night? (possible indication of a basic disease requiring clarification)
  • Are there any sensation limitations or limited muscle strength in the arms or legs? (possible indication of pressure-related nerve damage, e.g. due to a herniated disc)
  • Is there a reduced bone density, for example in the context of osteoporosis or long-term cortisone ingestion? (possible indication of damage to the vertebrae)

However, each of the individual symptoms is only conditionally meaningful and the overall impression including the survey of the medical history and physical examination is decisive for the further procedure.

Of course, this does not mean that other types of back pain do not need to be clarified – but a cause requiring treatment is less likely if none of these warning signs are present.

3. This is what employees can do about their back pain in the office

Of course, all treatment methods, as presented in our articles on low back pain or neck pain can also be applied with the reseective pain when they occur in the workplace.

Nevertheless, there are many other things that those affected can do in the event of corresponding complaints in the workplace. In the case of pronounced complaints, a visit to an occupational health physician is certainly a good starting point.

a. The most effective measure: Bringing movement into everyday office life

Certainly one of the simplest measures is to reduce the lack of exercise at the workplace and to reduce the one-sided strain to some extent.

There are many ways to tackle this problem: Telephone calls can often be made standing up, when concentration decreases you can get up for a few minutes and move around in the office, you can talk to colleagues personally instead of making phone calls or writing e-mails… There are many ways to bring a little more movement into everyday office life. 9

Several studies also show that structured exercise programmes at work can relieve back pain and are well suited as preventive measures against renewed back pain. 7

Even short relaxation and strengthening exercises for the workplace can help to alleviate the symptoms – in the short and long term!

Here we could show two simple exercises, standing or on the chair.

As we emphasize in our articles on low-back pain and neck pain, exercise also plays a central role outside the workplace when it comes to preventing back pain.  10

b. Ergonomy at the workplace: adjusting the workplace to the needs of the back

Another way to do something about back pain in the office, besides movement, is to make the workplace ergonomic, i.e. in this case: back-friendly.

This initially includes office furniture. Here not only the selection of suitable furniture is decisive, but also the correct adjustment and optimization of the workplace with regard to back-friendly equipment. A Dutch study shows that the back-friendly adjustment of the workplace by an expert can greatly reduce complaints.11

Many companies offer their employees appropriate advice and support them in adjusting their workplaces to suit their backs.

When selecting office furniture, there are criteria for the respective furniture which should be fulfilled for a piece of furniture suitable for the back.

But the design of a back-friendly and ergonomic workplace does not stop with the furniture. The current German guidelines for the treatment of back pain (NVL Kreuzschmerz) also call for job satisfaction measures to be used as part of the prevention of back pain in the workplace. 14

Considering the proven impact of stress and strain in the workplace and the role of job satisfaction in the development of back pain, this is certainly an important step!

4. Summary:

Back pain in the office is an extremely common problem that affects almost every second employee in office jobs.

In most cases, no physical changes are responsible for the development, but a complicated, intertwining phenomenon. Various factors such as posture and lack of exercise, but also workplace-related factors such as stress play a role.

Employers should see back pain in the office as a multi-layered problem that can usually be tackled well with exercise and a back-friendly workplace.

  • Posted by Kaia Health Team on February 28, 2020
  • Posted in For Individuals, tagged with Musculoskeletal Conditions

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