Make Your Work Area Work for You

Working doesn’t have to be a pain. Read on to find out what can cause back pain when sitting at your desk. We’ll also give you tips on how to take care of your back to avoid desk-related back pain.

Got a desk at home or work? Or maybe both? Wherever you have a desk, chances are you’ve stood up from it and noticed a sore back before. Many people who sit at a desk for long hours know back pain all too well. Plus, back pain can make it hard to focus. Also, if it’s bad enough, back pain can even make you miss work. In fact, over 264 million work days are missed yearly because of back pain.[1]

Working doesn’t have to be a pain. Read on to find out what can cause back pain when sitting at your desk. We’ll also give you tips on how to take care of your back to avoid desk-related back pain. Last but not least, we’ll show you how to make your desk area as back friendly as possible.

Common causes of back pain at your desk

Inactivity

So how exactly does sitting at your desk contribute to back pain? The biggest culprit is just that—sitting too long all day, both at the desk and in general. Bodies are meant to move, and if we’re inactive for too long, it can take its toll. This can get compounded by sitting with poor posture or not having an ergonomic desk setup.[2,3] (“Ergonomic” means designed to minimize physical fatigue and strain.)

Just look at Emma, the “worker of the future” model designed by ergonomics specialists in the UK. With hunched shoulders and swollen wrists, Emma was created to illustrate how common working habits might affect bodies in the next few decades—unless people start taking measures to care for their bodies and improve their desk areas now.[4]

Stress

Both personal and work-related stress can also lead to back pain. One large study found that people experiencing personal stress were more likely to develop chronic back pain.[5] Another study found that several work-related stress factors like work-life imbalance, hostile work environment, long working hours, and job insecurity are linked to lower back pain.[6]

Bodies are meant to move, and if we’re inactive for too long, it can take its toll.

What you can do about desk-related back pain

Luckily, there’s plenty you can do so you don’t wind up like Emma! First, consult your doctor to make sure your back pain isn’t related to any red flags such as a serious injury, infection, or medical condition (like a herniated disc or cancer). After ruling out any red flags, the number one thing you can do is to sit less and move more throughout your day.[5]

Let’s start with the easiest movement hacks first. Got a phone call? Take it standing up and enjoy getting a chance to stretch your legs. Notice your focus flagging at your desk? Stretch your arms and legs. Better yet, get up for a few minutes. Take a walk around the block. If that’s not possible, walk around the space for a couple of minutes. Small actions like this are a good way to bring a little more movement into everyday life.

Another great way to get moving and manage back pain is to use the Kaia Pain app. The app was designed to be used anytime, anywhere. You can do all of your Kaia physical exercises at once or spread them out over the course of the day in short “spurts.” The Kaia Pain app helps to create structure and accountability to ensure that you make time to move. In the app, just select the days of the week that you want to work out. Plus, you can opt to get handy reminders that can help you stick to your plan. Studies have indicated that structured exercise programs like Kaia can help back pain to back off and keep it from returning.[7]

Further, manage stress by practicing mindfulness, doing activities you enjoy, and taking regular time for relaxation. The Kaia Pain app makes it easy, as it’s packed with several relaxation exercises that can help relax your back and your mind.

Last, if there are any work-related issues that are contributing to your stress, make a list of them and brainstorm some ideas for how you can handle them. Think about where you can get support and additional information. For instance, you may need to take action and request a meeting with your supervisor to discuss “job creep” (ie, extra hours creeping into your workweek).

Desk design for back health

Besides cutting down on sitting time, ramping up daily movement, and managing stress, another way to a happier back is making your desk area more back friendly. Here are some ergonomic tips for a better working environment[8]:

  • Desk: Choose the desk height that works best for you, the size of computer you have (if you’re using one), and the work you’re doing. Some people swear by standing desks. There are even treadmill desks available. For people who type a lot on the computer for work, a seated or standing desk may work. For people like architects and artists who draw for work, a higher-sitting desk tends to work best. Research your options and find what feels best to you, keeping your physical height and work needs in mind. Oh, and if you’re a laptop user, we’re sorry to say that your lap actually isn’t the most ergonomic place to put it when you’re working! Check out this article for laptop tips.
  • Chair: Make sure you’re using the proper seat. An adjustable chair is ideal. Adjust your chair so your work surface is up to your elbows. Your knees should be on the same level as your hips, and the back of the chair should push your lower back slightly forward.
  • Computer: Have the center of your computer at eye level. You want to make sure that your computer isn’t below eye level, which forces you to lower your head to look at your computer, creating neck strain. This is where old, heavy textbooks come in handy to stack under your computer to raise it to eye level!

Conclusion

Working at your desk doesn’t need to hurt. There are lots of ways to push back on back pain. Make sure to avoid sitting for long periods. Remember to move your body regularly every day, even if it’s just to take a walk around the block for a few minutes. Take the driver’s seat with stress by practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques daily. Last but not least, make sure your desk, chair, and computer are adjusted ergonomically so you feel comfortable and alert when you work.

References

1. United States Bone and Joint Initiative. The Hidden Impact of Musculoskeletal Disorders on Americans. https://www.boneandjointburden.org/docs/BMUS%20Impact%20of%20MSK%20on%20Americans%20booklet_4th%20Edition%20(2018).pdf. Published 2018. Accessed April 27, 2020.
2. Mayo Clinic. Back pain at work: preventing pain and injury. Mayo Clinic website. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/back-pain/art-20044526. Published May 22, 2019. Accessed April 27, 2020.
3. National Institutes of Health. Low back pain fact sheet. National Institutes of Health website. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Low-Back-Pain-Fact-Sheet. Published March 2020. Accessed April 15, 2020.
4. Fellowes. Meet Emma our work colleague of the future. Fellowes website. https://www.fellowes.com/gb/en/resources/fellowes-introduces/work-colleague-of-the-future.aspx. Accessed April 27, 2020.
5. Kopec JA, Sayre EC, Esdaile JM. Predictors of back pain in a general population cohort. Spine. 2004;29(1):70-78.

Further Reading