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Lower back pain at work: everything you need to know to get your healthy back back

Lower back pain at work: everything you need to know to get your healthy back back

Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints in the workforce: half of Americans will experience it every year, accounting for 264 million lost workdays in the United States per year. So if you struggle with pain in your lumbar region, you are far from alone. But getting relief from lower back pain and preventing it from coming back requires you to understand where it comes from and to take a look at more than just your workplace. We’ve compiled all the information you need to understand, get relief, treat, and prevent lower back pain at work and at home.

Lower back: Structure and function

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To truly understand the cause of your lower back pain, and how crucial it is that you take care of it as soon as possible, it’s useful to understand how your lower back is structured, what its principal functions are and why it plays a vital role in your overall health.

Structure

Your spine is divided into 4 regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. The lumbar region is the part of your spine that makes up your lower back. The lumbar spine consists of 5 (or 6 in some people) levels, starting from below the last thoracic vertebra to the top of the sacrum.  

To make this clear, let’s consider the lumbar region as segments working together to move your lower back. A lumbar spinal motion segment is made up of 2 consecutive vertebrae stacked vertically, 2 facet joints, 2 spinal nerves, and 1 intervertebral disc. These are all held in place by muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which also limit excessive movement.

The facet joints allow for bending and twisting movements. The spinal nerves pass through small holes in the vertebrae and go down the rear pelvis and legs, branching off from the spinal cord or the cauda equina (a collection of nerves found at the end of the spinal cord).

The disc, placed between the 2 vertebrae, has a soft gelatinous interior called the nucleus pulposus, and a tough fibrous exterior called the annulus fibrosus. It holds the 2 vertebrae together, bears weight, absorbs and distributes shock, protects your spine from sudden movements, and allows for flexibility.

All of these elements can cause back pain if unhealthy, damaged, or injured. But the discs are especially susceptible to damage due to prolonged sitting and sedentary lifestyles.

Function

Crucial to how you move and how your weight is distributed, your lower back’s role in your body is not to be underestimated, nor is the pain often felt in this region. Taking care of and preventing lower back pain means you’re allowing your lumbar spine to healthily perform its functions:

    • Carries and distributes most of the weight of your body, which reduces the concentration of stresses.
    • Supports and stabilizes your upper body, including your neck and head.
    • Facilitates truncal movements: front to back, side to side, and twisting movements.
    • Protects the spinal cord.
    • Protects the cauda equina nerves that control movements and sensations in the legs.

Because of its important functions, pain in the lower back can gravely affect your quality of life.

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Lower back pain: types, causes, risk factors, and diagnosis

Working for long hours sitting in a chair is detrimental to our health. The sedentary lifestyle that comes with this prolonged sitting has been shown to put you at risk for a variety of serious illnesses and disorders. The primary risk is to develop musculoskeletal disorders, which encompass over 200 different conditions affecting the bones, joints, and connective tissues. The most common type of musculoskeletal disorders is lower back pain. And the most common work-related diagnosis in Western society is also lower back pain, mostly from overuse, but also from bad posture and prolonged immobilization.

Types of lower back pain

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Acute and chronic lower back pain

Lower back pain can feel very different depending on the kind. It can range in intensity, be constant or sudden, be sharp, shooting, dull, burning, etc. So first of all, let’s differentiate between acute and chronic back pain. Acute back pain is short-term: it lasts from a few days to a few weeks, but the inflammatory phases normally last between 3 and 7 days. Most people who experience acute back pain tend to take care of it at home, and it resolves on its own.

However, if untreated it can lag to return to normal and/or create collateral damage, consequently turning into chronic back pain. Pain is considered chronic after 12 weeks of prolonged pain and can last for much longer. Roughly 20% of people with acute lower back pain develop chronic lower back pain. But other disorders can also create chronic pain. Chronic lower back pain does need special attention, and typically can be treated.

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Categories of lower back pain

Due to its complex structure and mechanism, lower back pain can have many causes. Most of them can be divided into the following categories:

    • Congenital: these birth-related causes include skeletal irregularities and malformations like scoliosis, lordosis, and kyphosis, and spina bifida where the spinal cord and/or its protective covering haven’t completely developed.
    • Injuries: These include traumatic injuries that can happen playing sports, in an accident, a fall, etc. These acute injuries can cause damage to tendons, ligaments, muscles. They can create sprains (overstretched or torn ligaments), strains (tears in tendons and muscles), as well as cause the spine to compress, discs to rupture, or herniate.
    • Degenerative: This type of lower back pain occurs with wear and tear of the discs or the spine due to aging, repetitive motions, and sedentary lifestyles. They also include inflammatory diseases like arthritis and spondylitis.  
    • Nerve and spinal cord problems: These problems all include nerve compression from inflammation or injury, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, inflections, and more. Sciatica is a common one that creates pain that travels down the back of the leg from the compression of the sciatic nerve.
    • Non-spine sources: Lower back pain is not always associated with the lumbar spine and surrounding muscles and tissue. It can also be caused by kidney stones, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, pregnancy, and less common tumours and cysts.

For more information regarding these categories, visit the NIH website. 

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Most common in-office work-related lower back pain

While the aforementioned types of back pain can be aggravated by your work environment, only certain kinds can be caused by periods of prolonged sitting, sedentary lifestyle, and unergonomic work furniture. Let’s take a look at the more common ones.

Muscle and lumbar strain

What it is: Lower Back Muscle Strain happens when a muscle fiber is overstretched or overused causing the muscle to begin to tear. A lumbar strain is when the ligaments of the lumbar region are overstretched or torn. Both result in inflammation and similar pain.

How it feels: The pain will most likely feel dull, achy and sore. When a muscle is inflamed it may feel tender to the touch, cramp, spasm, and contract. Pain is at its most intense in the first few hours or days, but stiffness and tenderness can continue on for 1 to 2 weeks. Certain movements can aggravate the pain.

Most of the time, this is a minor injury that can take 4 to 6 weeks to completely resolve, but in most serious cases where the muscle tears completely, for example, recovery can take months. Click here for more information.

Herniated/slipped disc

What it is: As mentioned above, each disc has a soft inner portion, and a tough outer ring. When the inner portion of the disc protrudes through and tears the outer ring, it is called a herniated, or slipped, disc. This can be due to your disc degeneration with age, wear and tear, and inactivity.

How it feels: While sometimes asymptomatic, a herniated disc can create pain, especially if it is compressing a nerve. You might feel numbness, tingling or weakness in your buttocks and legs

Herniated discs sometimes require surgery, and can cause complications. Click here for more information.

Sciatica

What it is: Sciatica is when part of your sciatic nerve is compressed, it can be due to a herniated disk, a bone spurs on a vertebra, spinal stenosis or other, causing inflammation and pain.  

How it feels: Pain associated with sciatica normally radiates from your lower back to your buttocks and down the back of one leg. Usually affecting only one side. The intensity of the pain can vary from mild to sharp, intense pain. It sometimes results in a feeling resembling an electric shock, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness in the leg or foot. Coughing, sneezing, and prolonged sitting can aggravate the pain.

While sciatica can cause complications, it mostly resolves on its own or with non-operative treatments in a few weeks. Click here for more information.

Lumbar stenosis

What it is: Lumbar stenosis is when the spaces within your lumbar spine, the spinal canal, narrows, which can put pressure on the nerves that go through them, most commonly due to wear and tear.

How it feels: This can lead to back pain, numbness, tingling and weaknesses in your legs or feet. Walking can make your calves cramp, and your pain may improve when bending forward, sitting or lying down.

There are many treatments for spinal stenosis, including anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and surgery. Click here for more information.

Stress

We know by now that stress causes physical damage to your body, and this could apply to your back pain as well. While still controversial, the late Dr. John Sarno put forward a theory that your back pain might be related to what he calls Tension Myositis Syndrome: a condition of musculoskeletal and nerve symptoms. He believed that your anxiety, stress, repressed anger and other psychological factors could cause back pain. In his bestselling book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, Dr Sarno outlines ways to get rid of TMS related back pain without drugs, physical therapy and surgery, and as quickly as 2 to 6 weeks. If you are struggling with lower back pain and haven’t found a source, or are struggling to find relief, consider looking into Dr. Sarno’s theory, as many swear his technique cured their long-standing back problems.

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Who is at risk of developing lower back pain?

Risk factors of developing lower back pain can be physical and/or genetics, but can also be related to your lifestyle. The more of these risk factors you have, the higher risk you have of developing acute and chronic pain in the lumbar region. Here are the main risk factors:

    • Age: You start becoming at risk of lower back pain around 30 and the risk increases with age. This comes with natural wear and tear, and the aging process that affects bone strength, muscle elasticity, and the health of your discs.
    • Weight gain: Excess body weight, as well as a quick and important gain of extra weight, can put stress on the spine and put you at risk of developing back pain.
    • Genetics: Your family history can help you know if you are at risk of back pain because some illnesses have genetic components.
    • Work environment: A job that requires a lot of repetitive motions and heavy lifting puts you at a high risk of developing lower back pain. So does a job that requires you to be sitting on an ill-fitted chair with unergonomic accessories and furniture for prolonged periods.
    • Mental health and psychology: This is a two-way risk because anxiety and depression can make you more aware and amplify existing back pain, and inactivity due to mental illness can also provoke back problems. Excessive stress also affects the body by creating muscle tension and tightening back muscles. But chronic back pain can also affect your mental health and contribute to depression or other psychological disorders.
    • Overall health: If you already have a back injury or a degenerative disease, this puts you at a higher risk of developing lower back pain. Certain medicines can also affect the body negatively. Illnesses or diseases that cause chronic coughing puts you at risk. Pregnancy can also make you develop lower back pain.
    • Fitness level: Not getting regular exercise and not being physically fit weakens your back and abdominals muscles which can result in improper support of the spine. Only exercising during the weekend after spending the week sitting in a chair also puts you at risk of injury.
    • Bad posture: Slumping and slouching can aggravate disorders or injuries making your back pain worse.
    • Smoking: Smoking can cause the discs in your spine to degenerate faster by restraining their oxygen supply and blood flow.

If you are at high risk of developing lower back pain, check out our prevention tips below.

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Lookout for these red flags

While most types of lower back pain do not require immediate medical attention, be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

    • Loss of bladder or bowel control, incontinence
    • Progressive leg weakness, numbness or altered sensation in the lower extremities, which may even cause difficulty walking
    • Unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, with pain and neurological impairment like numbness in the extremities
    • Severe and quick onset stomach/abdominal pain along with sharp and crushing lower back pain that makes it impossible to stand straight
    • Fever and an increase in the severity of the lower back pain
    • Pain and fever following a surgery

Most people with lower back pain won’t develop any of these symptoms, but if you do, you should seek medical attention as quickly as possible. For more information on these symptoms and what they could mean, consult this page by Spine-Health.

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Diagnosis

When consulting a doctor regarding your lower back pain, be prepared to answer questions about your health, history, symptoms, and activities. If your back pain is severe, and your doctor suspects more than muscle damage, he might ask you to do one, or several, of the following tests to diagnose the source of your back pain:

    • Blood tests: to check for inflammation, infection, cancer, or arthritis
    • Bone scans: to check for signs of infection, fracture, disorders, or congenital defects.
    • Discography: to check for possible disc damage.
    • Electrodiagnostic tests: to check how reactive your nerves are, specifically the nerves in your back and in your legs.
    • Diagnostic imaging tests like MRI, CT scans, or X-rays: to look at your soft tissues and bones.
    • Myelograms: to check your spinal cord.

For more information regarding these diagnostic tests, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website.

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Treatment, pain relief, and prevention

Depending on how serious your back pain is, your doctor, or other healthcare professionals, might recommend a number of different treatments, going from medications to, although very rare, surgery. But there are many things you can do at home and at work to help you get relief from back pain, and prevent it.

Get relief at home

Acute and chronic pain are to be treated differently, but there are actions you can take at home to help relieve the pain in the short term, and in the long term.

Short-term relief

There are 3 main things you can do when facing acute lower back pain:

    • Over-the-counter medications: for rapid relief you can take analgesics (aspirin, acetaminophen), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen), muscle relaxants, or topical pain relief (capsaicin, lidocaine)
    • Ice and heat: While using ice is controversial, most people agree that icing the painful area reduces inflammation and pain. You should use ice during the first 48 to 72 hours of the acute period, then switch to using heat.
    • Stop your normal activities only for a few days and gently stretch (do check with a health professional before stretching). Bed rest, however, is not advised for people with lower back pain.

Make lifestyle changes

Your lifestyle can be causing, or aggravating, your back pain. Here are a few things you should look into to make sure you are not making things worse in your everyday life.

    • Posture: When you have a bad posture, your body weight is dispersed incorrectly on your spine, which can weaken and damage your lower back. It creates stress that can lead to injuries and damages. Take a look at this guide to help you fix your posture to relieve and prevent back pain.
    • Bed: an old, low quality or ill-adapted mattress can affect your back negatively, as well as damaging your overall health by decreasing the quality of your sleep. It is worth investing time and money in choosing the right mattress or you.  
    • Shoes: Improper footwear can be related to your back pain, especially if you have “flat feet”. Make sure your shoe provides arch support, are cushioned properly, have an appropriate heel height and the fit is right for your feet. You can also visit the OrthoFeet website for more information.
    • Smoking: If you smoke, consider stopping. Smoking harms your health in a variety of ways, including reducing the quantity of oxygen and blood flow to your spine, leading to structural damage. Smoking can also alter how you perceive pain, making your pain tolerance smaller than the norm. Several studies show that smokers are at high risk of musculoskeletal pain and a higher intensity of pain.  
    • Weight: the more weight you carry on your body, the more pressure it puts on your spine. Especially if you have extra weight around your midsection, which pulls your pelvis forward and causes strain on your back muscles and ligaments. If you feel like you have extra weight that might be hindering your spine health, take a look at what you eat and how much exercise you get in a week to see if it can be improved. Not convinced? Check out this article for the many ways excessive weight is linked to back pain.
    • Exercise: It is crucial that you incorporate exercise in your lifestyle. Strengthening your core and back muscles are key in preventing and relieving chronic back pain. While these exercises should not be done during the acute phases, they are important to include in your routine in the long run. There are a variety of exercises that can help you get rid and prevent lower back pain. Your healthcare professional might suggest some. Yoga is a great one, and we have a few exercises you can incorporate in your routine below. You might also want to look into tai chi or pilates, both are really great for your core and back muscles. You can even consider doing breathing exercises. Exercising will not only strengthen the muscles that support your back but also acts as an efficient stress and anxiety reliever, both of which can contribute to lower back pain.
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Get support at work

If you work in an office, work-related back pain is often due to ill-fitted non-ergonomic office furniture and prolonged periods of immobilization. There’s a few things you can do to create a work environment and a routine that helps keep your back healthy, rather than harm it.

Ergonomic furniture

Setting up an office with ergonomically designed furniture will change not only your relationship with work, but your overall quality of life. We spend so much time sitting at our desks, it is no wonder that ill-fitted office furniture contributes so strongly to the biggest work-related in-office pain complaint: lower back pain. We’ve compiled for you what we believe to be the foundation of an ergonomic office:

    • Sit-stand desk: If you are thinking of investing in a quality desk, consider buying a standing desk. Their height is adjustable, making sure it adapts to your particular height and allowing you to easily alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day. Movement will help rehydrate your discs and increase blood flow preventing back pain with the bonus of keeping you alert. If you already have a desk, here are some quick fixes to make it more ergonomic.
    • Ergonomic chair: Even if you have a standing desk, you will still spend half of your workday sitting in your chair, so it is crucial that you invest in a good one. An ergonomic chair supports the curve of your lumbar spine, while normal chairs tend to flatten that curve, directly leading to lower back pain. There is a lot to consider when buying an ergonomic chair, so here’s a guide to help you choose the right one, and to convince you it’s worth it! In the meantime, you can always adjust the one you have at home with these tips.
    • Monitor adjustment accessory: Protecting your eyes, head, and neck is the next thing to consider, because a neutral cervical spine is vital to your overall spine health. For the most neutral spine position, think about getting a monitor stand, desk shelf, or monitor arm. You also might want to get an independent keyboard, an ergonomic mouse, and an auxiliary screen for additional comfort. If you are working on a laptop, take a look at these tips, and consider using a laptop stand. These items will not only prevent pain due to bad posture, but also clear space on your desk. Also, consider your main light source, and make sure you are about a meter and a half away and perpendicular to a source of natural light (or any bright light source). 

We cannot stress the importance of having the proper equipment to work in your journey to get rid of, or prevent, lower back pain. Even if your lower back injury happened outside of work, working on ill-fitted unergonomic furniture creates weaknesses and imbalances that put you at higher risk of developing acute and chronic lower back pain.

Move!

Your body needs to move every 20-30 minutes. This allows your disc to regain the proper amount of fluid to stay healthy, and it increases blood flow throughout your body. A technique we rely on at ergonofis is the Pomodoro technique, which reminds you every 25 minutes to take a small break and move. This could mean switching between standing and sitting at your standing desk. Walking to get water, going for a stroll around the block, or heading over to your coworker’s desk when you need a question answered. You might also want to incorporate a few quick exercises to your work routine like these, or the yoga exercises proposed below.

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Yoga: The ultimate activity for lower back pain

An activity that has been shown time and again to improve posture and relieve lower back pain is yoga. We’ve partnered with Josh Kramer, a yoga instructor, to provide you with exercises that you can do at your desk that will help you get relief and keep pain at bay.

Josh is an International Traveling Yoga teacher based out of California. He has been practising Yoga since he was a young child and teaching since his late teens. His method melds a unique blend of Iyengar Yoga and Vinyasa flow - he emphasizes alignment and integrity in the poses, whilst challenging students with creativity and strength.

You can check out his Instagram to see what he’s up to, and practice yoga online with him on his webpage and on YouTube.

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Why Yoga is a great way to prevent and treat back pain

Yoga takes on a holistic approach maintaining health in the body and mind. Many Yoga poses and exercises stretch and strengthen the body in a way that can treat and prevent issues such as back pain.

Common back pain associated with sitting at a desk for long periods of time is likely a result of three factors: poor posture, tight muscles, and weak muscles. Yoga poses can be easily adapted in a modern context to balance out these factors. The greatest part is that your desk actually works as the ultimate Yoga prop – not only can you do a range of stretches at your desk, but your desk can help you stretch more effectively!

Likely culprits of back are tight hamstrings, shortened and weak hip flexors, tight abdominal muscles and weak back muscles, rounded shoulders, and an inflexible spine. The good news is that Yoga can help you address these problem areas and bring greater health and integrity into your body.

Pose/Stretch descriptions

Below are the descriptions for each of the Yoga inspired stretches/exercises that relate to corresponding photos and videos. All the information you need is there: when to do the stretches/exercises, how to do them, what they are addressing, and why they are beneficial.

Please note that the English names as well as the Yoga Sanskrit names are written. In Yoga, most of the classical poses have a Sanskrit name and an English translation – eg. Parsvottanasana translates to Pyramid Pose (“Asana” means “Pose” or “Posture”).

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Yoga poses and stretches

Stretch 1 – Half forward fold (Ardha Uttanasana)

This stretch is the ultimate reset for your overworked body. It lengthens your hamstrings, whilst at the same time opens your chest and shoulders. Sitting at a desk creates a tendency to round your back and shorten your hamstrings, so this exercise will help counteract that and alleviate any aches and pains. As an added bonus, lowering your upper torso shifts your blood circulation and allows it to flow easily to your head, giving you a fresh reset and clear mind.

To enter this pose, stand about a legs-distance away from your desk with your feet together. Place your hands on the edge of your desk, and bend at the hips drawing your chest towards the ground. Press actively into your hands, stretch through your shoulders, and draw your chest down. If you have tight hamstrings, slightly bend your knees.

Do this stretch as much as you like throughout the day to combat fatigue and stress, as well as alleviate any aches and pains in your back.

Stretch 2 – Hamstring stretch

This exercise uses your desk to stretch your hamstrings. If you have tight hamstrings, that can play a part in exacerbating your back pain. Sitting with your legs bent shortens your hamstrings, so it is important to lengthen them.

To enter this pose, set your desk to an appropriate height based on your flexibility. Stand a legs distance away from your desk with your feet together. Draw your right knee into your chest and find your balance, then place your foot on the surface of your desk. Keep your hands on your hips and maintain a straight spine. To intensify the stretch, fold forward at the hips and place your hands on your desk. Draw your chin towards your foot, and avoid over-rounding your spine. Gently exit the stretch, and repeat on the opposite side.

Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds on each side.

Stretch 3 – Standing pigeon pose (Kapotasana)

If you sit for long periods, the pressure on your glutes can lead to sciatic nerve compression as well as low-back pain. Pigeon Pose targets both your outer hip and your glute, and may help alleviate or prevent issues occurring in those areas due to sitting at a desk.

To enter Standing Pigeon Pose, set your desk to an appropriate height. Stand close to your desk with your feet together. Lift your right knee into your chest and find your balance. Place your shin on your desk, parallel to its edge. If you are tight, you may draw your foot closer to your body. Keep your spine straight, fold forward and place your hands or elbows on the desk. To intensify the stretch in your outer hip and glute, either bend your standing leg or raise the height of your desk. Repeat on the opposite side.

Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds on each side, or for 2-5 minutes for a deeper stretch.

Stretch 4 – Pyramid pose (Parsvottanasana)

Pyramid pose stretches the hamstrings, opens the chest and shoulders, improves posture and calms the brain – all essential ingredients for a healthy work environment!

To enter Pyramid Pose, stand about two feet away from your desk with your feet together. Place your hands on the desk. Keep your right foot planted, and step your left foot behind you about three feet depending on your flexibility. Place your left foot on the ground at angle; press the outer blade of your foot firmly down. Square your hips towards your desk, and lastly fold forward at the hips drawing your chest towards the ground. You should feel a stretch in your front leg’s hamstring. Press into your hands to allow your back foot to ground itself more. Repeat on the opposite side.

Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds on each side.

Stretch 5 – Upward facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) or “Up Dog”

Sitting at a desk with a rounded posture shortens your front body and weakens your back body. Upward Facing Dog helps to counteract this - it stretches the entire front body, whilst at the same time strengthens the back body. Back bends are traditionally known to energize and revitalize your body and mind, so this pose is also a great alternative to your cup of coffee.

To enter Upward Facing Dog stand one to three feet away from your desk depending on your flexibility. Place your hands on the desk (make sure its stable). Draw your hips towards the desk, lift your heels and come onto your tip-toes, arch your back and lift your chest up. Gently squeeze your glute muscles to protect your low-back, and gaze up slightly. Press your hands down and draw your shoulder blades together. You should feel a stretch through your hip flexors, your abdominal muscles, your chest and shoulders.

Hold this pose for a few breaths, come out, and repeat it several times.

Stretch 6 – Standing backbend (Anuvittasana)

This standing backbend is a gentle alternative to Upward Facing Dog without requiring use of a desk. It stretches your front body, strengthens your back body, as well as opens your shoulders.

Stand with your feet together. Clasp your hands behind your back. Slighty engage your glutes as you send your hips forward. Lift your chest, draw your shoulders back and press your hands towards the ground. Gaze up slightly and enjoy an energizing stretch throughout your front body.

Stretch 7 – Chair lunge (hip flexor stretch)

Sitting in a chair for long periods shortens your hip flexors (psoas). When you walk or stand, your hip flexor is tight and weak, and this can lead to back pain. Spending time throughout the day lengthening and stretching your hip flexors is a great way to prevent or alleviate back pain.

Stand in front of your chair. Place your right knee on the chair, and rest your foot on the back rest. Hold onto your desk for stability, slide your chair away from your desk and lunge into your front leg. You should feel a stretch in your right hip flexor. Repeat on the opposite side.

Hold for 10-20 seconds on each side.

Stretch/Exercise 8 – Desk squats

Desk squats will not only strengthen your quad and glute muscles, but they will also stretch your shoulders and strengthen your back body.

Set your desk to standing height. Stand in front of your desk with your feet around hips distance apart. Place your hands on your desk, and squat down to your maximum depth. As you do this, stretch through your shoulders. Press yourself back up and repeat this for 10-20 repetitions.

Stretch 9 – Desk lunge

A desk lunge is a great way to strengthen your leg muscles, as well as stretch your hip flexor/psoas muscle. You might also feel a stretch through your abdominal muscles. This is an effective exercise to re-energize yourself after being sedentary at a desk.

Stand two to three feet away from your desk with your feet together. Place your hands on the desk and step your right leg back so you are in a lunge position with your front knee stacked over your foot. Lift your right knee cap to engage your quad muscle. Draw your back heel away from you and feel a stretch through your right hip flexor. Sink your hips down so that your front thigh is parallel to the floor.

Hold it for about 10-20 seconds on each side.

Stretch 10 – Desk spinal twist

A key aspect of back and spinal health is twisting. Twists are a great way to stretch the muscles around your spine and side body, and maintain the overall health and integrity of your spine.

Set your desk to standing height. Stand alongside your desk with your left hip touching the edge. Place your left hand on the desk edge in front of you, and reach your right hand behind you and take a hold of the desk. Take a deep inhale, keep your spine straight, and on an exhale twist to the right. Use your grip on the desk to deepen the twist. Take another inhale, and twist deeper on an exhale. Return to center and repeat on the other side.

Bonus – Wrist stretches

Spending hours at a desk, using a keyboard and computer all day can be detrimental to the health and integrity of your wrists. These are some simple wrist stretches you can do throughout the day to condition and strengthen your wrists.

Get help from an expert

Other than consulting a doctor, many different healthcare professionals can help you get relief from, and even prevent, lower back pain.

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Physiotherapy

Physiotherapists are strong allies in the prevention and rehabilitation of work-related injuries. They aim to promote the health and well-being of their patients by studying how their bodies move, making sure there are no imbalances or weaknesses that could create injuries or make them worse. They do this by using a combination of manual practices and exercises that you can do on your own. Naturally, this applies to how your spine works and the development of lower back pain.

Dominic Baillargeon, founder of Nxt Generation Physio, believes getting educated about how your body moves is crucial in preventing and repairing damages, and a physiotherapist can assist you with that.

He advises consulting a physiotherapist from one to four times a year as they can help you relieve pain, prevent future injuries and even assist you in making sure your office furniture is adapted to your body and how you move.

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Acupuncture

Seeking pain relief is mostly why people consult acupuncturists. Acupuncture is said to unblock and move the body’s energy, known as Qi, through the body’s different systems, like the nervous, muscular, respiratory, digestive and circulatory system.

More practically, the method used in acupuncture of placing a number of needles on different acupuncture points on your body stimulates the nervous system. Consequently, releasing neurochemicals in your muscles, spinal cord and brain, and in turn releasing other chemicals and hormones that help regulate your system, relieve pain and promote physical and emotional well-being.

While acupuncture can get you relief from pain, it might not get to the cause of the pain, and will probably require follow-up visits.

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Osteopathy

Osteopaths look at your body as a whole, they put importance on the relationship between the structure and the function of the human body, and its ability to self-heal and self-regulate. They focus mainly on manual techniques aimed to facilitate healing in your body.

Osteopaths see a lot of patients looking to treat or prevent lower back pain. Manipulations are often gentle and subtle, and involve stretching, massaging and moving muscles and soft tissues. They will give advice regarding posture, breathing, stress reduction as well as lifting techniques and stretching exercises.

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Massage therapy

Massage therapist can also help relieve lower back pain, especially if your pain is muscular. Whether it's a strain, sprain or just a lot of accumulated tension in your back muscles, you can turn to massage therapy for help. Massages improve blood circulation, relax muscles and even increase your endorphin levels.

A study on massage and back pain done by the University of Miami has shown that massages lessened lower back pain, as well as depression, anxiety. It was shown to increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine while also improving the range of motion.

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Prevention tips

A lot of the ways we’ve addressed to relieve your lower back pain can also be used as prevention tips. So lets recap how you can alter your lifestyle and be better equipped to prevent future lower back pain. Additionally, make sure you know how to protect your lower back in your day-to-day activities.

Lifestyle changes

    • Exercise and stretch regularly to strengthen your core and back muscles, and to promote flexibility.
    • Maintain a healthy weight and a nutritious diet with a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals.
    • Work on your posture and body imbalances, consult a professional if need be.
    • Remember to move when spending a lot of time immobilized, like at work or watching TV.
    • Reduce stress in your daily life
    • If you smoke, stop!

Get equipped

    • Create an ergonomic design office space.
    • Invest in a supportive bed.
    • Wear appropriate shoes.

Protect your back during your everyday activities

    • Learn to lift heavy objects correctly.
    • Reduce everyday stresses on your lower back by dissipating activities that put a strain on your back like vacuuming, gardening or shovelling snow, and allow your back to rest after prolonged bending.
    • Be mindful that your discs are at a higher risk of injury when you wake up in the morning, so wait an hour or two upon waking before putting stress on your lower back.
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Important resources

We hope this guide has provided you with helpful information and advice to curb your lower back pain. While we do extensive research, we are not medical professionals. Do consult your physicians, or medical professionals near you to find the source of your lower back pain, as well as treatments. Here are some additional resources that you might find helpful:

Canada

Canadian Spine Society
The Chronic Pain Association of Canada
Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis
Canadian Association of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Canadian Pain Society

United States of America

American Spine Institute
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (AAPMR)
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
American Academy of Family Physicians

 

Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints in the workforce: half of Americans will experience it every year, accounting for 264 million lost workdays in the United States per year. So if you struggle with pain in your lumbar region, you are far from alone. But getting relief from lower back pain and preventing it from coming back requires you to understand where it comes from and to take a look at more than just your workplace. We’ve compiled all the information you need to understand, get relief, treat, and prevent lower back pain at work and at home.

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Lower back: Structure and function

To truly understand the cause of your lower back pain, and how crucial it is that you take care of it as soon as possible, it’s useful to understand how your lower back is structured, what its principal functions are and why it plays a vital role in your overall health.

Structure

Your spine is divided into 4 regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. The lumbar region is the part of your spine that makes up your lower back. The lumbar spine consists of 5 (or 6 in some people) levels, starting from below the last thoracic vertebra to the top of the sacrum.  To make this clear, let’s consider the lumbar region as segments working together to move your lower back. A lumbar spinal motion segment is made up of 2 consecutive vertebrae stacked vertically, 2 facet joints, 2 spinal nerves, and 1 intervertebral disc. These are all held in place by muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which also limit excessive movement.

The facet joints allow for bending and twisting movements. The spinal nerves pass through small holes in the vertebrae and go down the rear pelvis and legs, branching off from the spinal cord or the cauda equina (a collection of nerves found at the end of the spinal cord).

The disc, placed between the 2 vertebrae, has a soft gelatinous interior called the nucleus pulposus, and a tough fibrous exterior called the annulus fibrosus. It holds the 2 vertebrae together, bears weight, absorbs and distributes shock, protects your spine from sudden movements, and allows for flexibility.

All of these elements can cause back pain if unhealthy, damaged, or injured. But the discs are especially susceptible to damage due to prolonged sitting and sedentary lifestyles.

Function

Crucial to how you move and how your weight is distributed, your lower back’s role in your body is not to be underestimated, nor is the pain often felt in this region. Taking care of and preventing lower back pain means you’re allowing your lumbar spine to healthily perform its functions:

    • Carries and distributes most of the weight of your body, which reduces the concentration of stresses.
    • Supports and stabilizes your upper body, including your neck and head.
    • Facilitates truncal movements: front to back, side to side, and twisting movements.
    • Protects the spinal cord.
    • Protects the cauda equina nerves that control movements and sensations in the legs.

Because of its important functions, pain in the lower back can gravely affect your quality of life.

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Lower back pain: types, causes, risk factors, and diagnosis

Working for long hours sitting in a chair is detrimental to our health. The sedentary lifestyle that comes with this prolonged sitting has been shown to put you at risk for a variety of serious illnesses and disorders. The primary risk is to develop musculoskeletal disorders, which encompass over 200 different conditions affecting the bones, joints, and connective tissues. The most common type of musculoskeletal disorders is lower back pain. And the most common work-related diagnosis in Western society is also lower back pain, mostly from overuse, but also from bad posture and prolonged immobilization.

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Types of lower back pain

Acute and chronic lower back pain

Lower back pain can feel very different depending on the kind. It can range in intensity, be constant or sudden, be sharp, shooting, dull, burning, etc. So first of all, let’s differentiate between acute and chronic back pain. Acute back pain is short-term: it lasts from a few days to a few weeks, but the inflammatory phases normally last between 3 and 7 days. Most people who experience acute back pain tend to take care of it at home, and it resolves on its own.

However, if untreated it can lag to return to normal and/or create collateral damage, consequently turning into chronic back pain. Pain is considered chronic after 12 weeks of prolonged pain and can last for much longer. Roughly 20% of people with acute lower back pain develop chronic lower back pain. But other disorders can also create chronic pain. Chronic lower back pain does need special attention, and typically can be treated.

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Categories of lower back pain

Due to its complex structure and mechanism, lower back pain can have many causes. Most of them can be divided into the following categories:

    • Congenital: these birth-related causes include skeletal irregularities and malformations like scoliosis, lordosis, and kyphosis, and spina bifida where the spinal cord and/or its protective covering haven’t completely developed.
    • Injuries: These include traumatic injuries that can happen playing sports, in an accident, a fall, etc. These acute injuries can cause damage to tendons, ligaments, muscles. They can create sprains (overstretched or torn ligaments), strains (tears in tendons and muscles), as well as cause the spine to compress, discs to rupture, or herniate.
    • Degenerative: This type of lower back pain occurs with wear and tear of the discs or the spine due to aging, repetitive motions, and sedentary lifestyles. They also include inflammatory diseases like arthritis and spondylitis.  
    • Nerve and spinal cord problems: These problems all include nerve compression from inflammation or injury, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, inflections, and more. Sciatica is a common one that creates pain that travels down the back of the leg from the compression of the sciatic nerve.
    • Non-spine sources: Lower back pain is not always associated with the lumbar spine and surrounding muscles and tissue. It can also be caused by kidney stones, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, pregnancy, and less common tumours and cysts.

For more information regarding these categories, visit the NIH website. 

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Most common in-office work-related lower back pain

While the aforementioned types of back pain can be aggravated by your work environment, only certain kinds can be caused by periods of prolonged sitting, sedentary lifestyle, and unergonomic work furniture. Let’s take a look at the more common ones.

Muscle and lumbar strain

What it is: Lower Back Muscle Strain happens when a muscle fiber is overstretched or overused causing the muscle to begin to tear. A lumbar strain is when the ligaments of the lumbar region are overstretched or torn. Both result in inflammation and similar pain.

How it feels: The pain will most likely feel dull, achy and sore. When a muscle is inflamed it may feel tender to the touch, cramp, spasm, and contract. Pain is at its most intense in the first few hours or days, but stiffness and tenderness can continue on for 1 to 2 weeks. Certain movements can aggravate the pain.

Most of the time, this is a minor injury that can take 4 to 6 weeks to completely resolve, but in most serious cases where the muscle tears completely, for example, recovery can take months. Click here for more information.

Herniated/slipped disc

What it is: As mentioned above, each disc has a soft inner portion, and a tough outer ring. When the inner portion of the disc protrudes through and tears the outer ring, it is called a herniated, or slipped, disc. This can be due to your disc degeneration with age, wear and tear, and inactivity.

How it feels: While sometimes asymptomatic, a herniated disc can create pain, especially if it is compressing a nerve. You might feel numbness, tingling or weakness in your buttocks and legs

Herniated discs sometimes require surgery, and can cause complications. Click here for more information.

Sciatica

What it is: Sciatica is when part of your sciatic nerve is compressed, it can be due to a herniated disk, a bone spurs on a vertebra, spinal stenosis or other, causing inflammation and pain.  

How it feels: Pain associated with sciatica normally radiates from your lower back to your buttocks and down the back of one leg. Usually affecting only one side. The intensity of the pain can vary from mild to sharp, intense pain. It sometimes results in a feeling resembling an electric shock, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness in the leg or foot. Coughing, sneezing, and prolonged sitting can aggravate the pain.

While sciatica can cause complications, it mostly resolves on its own or with non-operative treatments in a few weeks. Click here for more information.

Lumbar stenosis

What it is: Lumbar stenosis is when the spaces within your lumbar spine, the spinal canal, narrows, which can put pressure on the nerves that go through them, most commonly due to wear and tear.

How it feels: This can lead to back pain, numbness, tingling and weaknesses in your legs or feet. Walking can make your calves cramp, and your pain may improve when bending forward, sitting or lying down.

There are many treatments for spinal stenosis, including anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and surgery. Click here for more information.

Stress

We know by now that stress causes physical damage to your body, and this could apply to your back pain as well. While still controversial, the late Dr. John Sarno put forward a theory that your back pain might be related to what he calls Tension Myositis Syndrome: a condition of musculoskeletal and nerve symptoms. He believed that your anxiety, stress, repressed anger and other psychological factors could cause back pain. In his bestselling book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, Dr Sarno outlines ways to get rid of TMS related back pain without drugs, physical therapy and surgery, and as quickly as 2 to 6 weeks. If you are struggling with lower back pain and haven’t found a source, or are struggling to find relief, consider looking into Dr. Sarno’s theory, as many swear his technique cured their long-standing back problems.

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Who is at risk of developing lower back pain?

Risk factors of developing lower back pain can be physical and/or genetics, but can also be related to your lifestyle. The more of these risk factors you have, the higher risk you have of developing acute and chronic pain in the lumbar region. Here are the main risk factors:

    • Age: You start becoming at risk of lower back pain around 30 and the risk increases with age. This comes with natural wear and tear, and the aging process that affects bone strength, muscle elasticity, and the health of your discs.
    • Weight gain: Excess body weight, as well as a quick and important gain of extra weight, can put stress on the spine and put you at risk of developing back pain.
    • Genetics: Your family history can help you know if you are at risk of back pain because some illnesses have genetic components.
    • Work environment: A job that requires a lot of repetitive motions and heavy lifting puts you at a high risk of developing lower back pain. So does a job that requires you to be sitting on an ill-fitted chair with unergonomic accessories and furniture for prolonged periods.
    • Mental health and psychology: This is a two-way risk because anxiety and depression can make you more aware and amplify existing back pain, and inactivity due to mental illness can also provoke back problems. Excessive stress also affects the body by creating muscle tension and tightening back muscles. But chronic back pain can also affect your mental health and contribute to depression or other psychological disorders.
    • Overall health: If you already have a back injury or a degenerative disease, this puts you at a higher risk of developing lower back pain. Certain medicines can also affect the body negatively. Illnesses or diseases that cause chronic coughing puts you at risk. Pregnancy can also make you develop lower back pain.
    • Fitness level: Not getting regular exercise and not being physically fit weakens your back and abdominals muscles which can result in improper support of the spine. Only exercising during the weekend after spending the week sitting in a chair also puts you at risk of injury.
    • Bad posture: Slumping and slouching can aggravate disorders or injuries making your back pain worse.
    • Smoking: Smoking can cause the discs in your spine to degenerate faster by restraining their oxygen supply and blood flow.

If you are at high risk of developing lower back pain, check out our prevention tips below.

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Lookout for these red flags

While most types of lower back pain do not require immediate medical attention, be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

    • Loss of bladder or bowel control, incontinence
    • Progressive leg weakness, numbness or altered sensation in the lower extremities, which may even cause difficulty walking
    • Unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, with pain and neurological impairment like numbness in the extremities
    • Severe and quick onset stomach/abdominal pain along with sharp and crushing lower back pain that makes it impossible to stand straight
    • Fever and an increase in the severity of the lower back pain
    • Pain and fever following a surgery

Most people with lower back pain won’t develop any of these symptoms, but if you do, you should seek medical attention as quickly as possible. For more information on these symptoms and what they could mean, consult this page by Spine-Health.

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Diagnosis

When consulting a doctor regarding your lower back pain, be prepared to answer questions about your health, history, symptoms, and activities. If your back pain is severe, and your doctor suspects more than muscle damage, he might ask you to do one, or several, of the following tests to diagnose the source of your back pain:

    • Blood tests: to check for inflammation, infection, cancer, or arthritis
    • Bone scans: to check for signs of infection, fracture, disorders, or congenital defects.
    • Discography: to check for possible disc damage.
    • Electrodiagnostic tests: to check how reactive your nerves are, specifically the nerves in your back and in your legs.
    • Diagnostic imaging tests like MRI, CT scans, or X-rays: to look at your soft tissues and bones.
    • Myelograms: to check your spinal cord.

For more information regarding these diagnostic tests, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website.

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Treatment, pain relief, and prevention

Depending on how serious your back pain is, your doctor, or other healthcare professionals, might recommend a number of different treatments, going from medications to, although very rare, surgery. But there are many things you can do at home and at work to help you get relief from back pain, and prevent it.

Get relief at home

Acute and chronic pain are to be treated differently, but there are actions you can take at home to help relieve the pain in the short term, and in the long term.

Short-term relief

There are 3 main things you can do when facing acute lower back pain:

    • Over-the-counter medications: for rapid relief you can take analgesics (aspirin, acetaminophen), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen), muscle relaxants, or topical pain relief (capsaicin, lidocaine)
    • Ice and heat: While using ice is controversial, most people agree that icing the painful area reduces inflammation and pain. You should use ice during the first 48 to 72 hours of the acute period, then switch to using heat.
    • Stop your normal activities only for a few days and gently stretch (do check with a health professional before stretching). Bed rest, however, is not advised for people with lower back pain.

Make lifestyle changes

Your lifestyle can be causing, or aggravating, your back pain. Here are a few things you should look into to make sure you are not making things worse in your everyday life.

    • Posture: When you have a bad posture, your body weight is dispersed incorrectly on your spine, which can weaken and damage your lower back. It creates stress that can lead to injuries and damages. Take a look at this guide to help you fix your posture to relieve and prevent back pain.
    • Bed: an old, low quality or ill-adapted mattress can affect your back negatively, as well as damaging your overall health by decreasing the quality of your sleep. It is worth investing time and money in choosing the right mattress or you.  
    • Shoes: Improper footwear can be related to your back pain, especially if you have “flat feet”. Make sure your shoe provides arch support, are cushioned properly, have an appropriate heel height and the fit is right for your feet. You can also visit the OrthoFeet website for more information.
    • Smoking: If you smoke, consider stopping. Smoking harms your health in a variety of ways, including reducing the quantity of oxygen and blood flow to your spine, leading to structural damage. Smoking can also alter how you perceive pain, making your pain tolerance smaller than the norm. Several studies show that smokers are at high risk of musculoskeletal pain and a higher intensity of pain.  
    • Weight: the more weight you carry on your body, the more pressure it puts on your spine. Especially if you have extra weight around your midsection, which pulls your pelvis forward and causes strain on your back muscles and ligaments. If you feel like you have extra weight that might be hindering your spine health, take a look at what you eat and how much exercise you get in a week to see if it can be improved. Not convinced? Check out this article for the many ways excessive weight is linked to back pain.
    • Exercise: It is crucial that you incorporate exercise in your lifestyle. Strengthening your core and back muscles are key in preventing and relieving chronic back pain. While these exercises should not be done during the acute phases, they are important to include in your routine in the long run. There are a variety of exercises that can help you get rid and prevent lower back pain. Your healthcare professional might suggest some. Yoga is a great one, and we have a few exercises you can incorporate in your routine below. You might also want to look into tai chi or pilates, both are really great for your core and back muscles. You can even consider doing breathing exercises. Exercising will not only strengthen the muscles that support your back but also acts as an efficient stress and anxiety reliever, both of which can contribute to lower back pain.
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Get support at work

If you work in an office, work-related back pain is often due to ill-fitted non-ergonomic office furniture and prolonged periods of immobilization. There’s a few things you can do to create a work environment and a routine that helps keep your back healthy, rather than harm it.

Ergonomic furniture

Setting up an office with ergonomically designed furniture will change not only your relationship with work, but your overall quality of life. We spend so much time sitting at our desks, it is no wonder that ill-fitted office furniture contributes so strongly to the biggest work-related in-office pain complaint: lower back pain. We’ve compiled for you what we believe to be the foundation of an ergonomic office:

    • Sit-stand desk: If you are thinking of investing in a quality desk, consider buying a standing desk. Their height is adjustable, making sure it adapts to your particular height and allowing you to easily alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day. Movement will help rehydrate your discs and increase blood flow preventing back pain with the bonus of keeping you alert. If you already have a desk, here are some quick fixes to make it more ergonomic.
    • Ergonomic chair: Even if you have a standing desk, you will still spend half of your workday sitting in your chair, so it is crucial that you invest in a good one. An ergonomic chair supports the curve of your lumbar spine, while normal chairs tend to flatten that curve, directly leading to lower back pain. There is a lot to consider when buying an ergonomic chair, so here’s a guide to help you choose the right one, and to convince you it’s worth it! In the meantime, you can always adjust the one you have at home with these tips.
    • Monitor adjustment accessory: Protecting your eyes, head, and neck is the next thing to consider, because a neutral cervical spine is vital to your overall spine health. For the most neutral spine position, think about getting a monitor stand, desk shelf, or monitor arm. You also might want to get an independent keyboard, an ergonomic mouse, and an auxiliary screen for additional comfort. If you are working on a laptop, take a look at these tips, and consider using a laptop stand. These items will not only prevent pain due to bad posture, but also clear space on your desk. Also, consider your main light source, and make sure you are about a meter and a half away and perpendicular to a source of natural light (or any bright light source). 

We cannot stress the importance of having the proper equipment to work in your journey to get rid of, or prevent, lower back pain. Even if your lower back injury happened outside of work, working on ill-fitted unergonomic furniture creates weaknesses and imbalances that put you at higher risk of developing acute and chronic lower back pain.

Move!

Your body needs to move every 20-30 minutes. This allows your disc to regain the proper amount of fluid to stay healthy, and it increases blood flow throughout your body. A technique we rely on at ergonofis is the Pomodoro technique, which reminds you every 25 minutes to take a small break and move. This could mean switching between standing and sitting at your standing desk. Walking to get water, going for a stroll around the block, or heading over to your coworker’s desk when you need a question answered. You might also want to incorporate a few quick exercises to your work routine like these, or the yoga exercises proposed below.

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Yoga: The ultimate activity for lower back pain

An activity that has been shown time and again to improve posture and relieve lower back pain is yoga. We’ve partnered with Josh Kramer, an international yoga instructor, to provide you with exercises that you can do at your desk that will help you get relief and keep pain at bay.

Josh is an International Traveling Yoga teacher based out of California. He has been practising Yoga since he was a young child and teaching since his late teens. His method melds a unique blend of Iyengar Yoga and Vinyasa flow - he emphasizes alignment and integrity in the poses, whilst challenging students with creativity and strength.

You can check out his Instagram to see what he’s up to, and practice yoga online with him on his webpage and on YouTube.

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Why Yoga is a great way to prevent and treat back pain

Yoga takes on a holistic approach maintaining health in the body and mind. Many Yoga poses and exercises stretch and strengthen the body in a way that can treat and prevent issues such as back pain.

Common back pain associated with sitting at a desk for long periods of time is likely a result of three factors: poor posture, tight muscles, and weak muscles. Yoga poses can be easily adapted in a modern context to balance out these factors. The greatest part is that your desk actually works as the ultimate Yoga prop – not only can you do a range of stretches at your desk, but your desk can help you stretch more effectively!

Likely culprits of back are tight hamstrings, shortened and weak hip flexors, tight abdominal muscles and weak back muscles, rounded shoulders, and an inflexible spine. The good news is that Yoga can help you address these problem areas and bring greater health and integrity into your body.

Pose/Stretch descriptions

Below are the descriptions for each of the Yoga inspired stretches/exercises that relate to corresponding photos and videos. All the information you need is there: when to do the stretches/exercises, how to do them, what they are addressing, and why they are beneficial.

Please note that the English names as well as the Yoga Sanskrit names are written. In Yoga, most of the classical poses have a Sanskrit name and an English translation – eg. Parsvottanasana translates to Pyramid Pose (“Asana” means “Pose” or “Posture”).

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Yoga poses and stretches

Stretch 1 – Half forward fold (Ardha Uttanasana)

This stretch is the ultimate reset for your overworked body. It lengthens your hamstrings, whilst at the same time opens your chest and shoulders. Sitting at a desk creates a tendency to round your back and shorten your hamstrings, so this exercise will help counteract that and alleviate any aches and pains. As an added bonus, lowering your upper torso shifts your blood circulation and allows it to flow easily to your head, giving you a fresh reset and clear mind.

To enter this pose, stand about a legs-distance away from your desk with your feet together. Place your hands on the edge of your desk, and bend at the hips drawing your chest towards the ground. Press actively into your hands, stretch through your shoulders, and draw your chest down. If you have tight hamstrings, slightly bend your knees.

Do this stretch as much as you like throughout the day to combat fatigue and stress, as well as alleviate any aches and pains in your back.

Stretch 2 – Hamstring stretch

This exercise uses your desk to stretch your hamstrings. If you have tight hamstrings, that can play a part in exacerbating your back pain. Sitting with your legs bent shortens your hamstrings, so it is important to lengthen them.

To enter this pose, set your desk to an appropriate height based on your flexibility. Stand a legs distance away from your desk with your feet together. Draw your right knee into your chest and find your balance, then place your foot on the surface of your desk. Keep your hands on your hips and maintain a straight spine. To intensify the stretch, fold forward at the hips and place your hands on your desk. Draw your chin towards your foot, and avoid over-rounding your spine. Gently exit the stretch, and repeat on the opposite side.

Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds on each side.

Stretch 3 – Standing pigeon pose (Kapotasana)

If you sit for long periods, the pressure on your glutes can lead to sciatic nerve compression as well as low-back pain. Pigeon Pose targets both your outer hip and your glute, and may help alleviate or prevent issues occurring in those areas due to sitting at a desk.

To enter Standing Pigeon Pose, set your desk to an appropriate height. Stand close to your desk with your feet together. Lift your right knee into your chest and find your balance. Place your shin on your desk, parallel to its edge. If you are tight, you may draw your foot closer to your body. Keep your spine straight, fold forward and place your hands or elbows on the desk. To intensify the stretch in your outer hip and glute, either bend your standing leg or raise the height of your desk. Repeat on the opposite side.

Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds on each side, or for 2-5 minutes for a deeper stretch.

Stretch 4 – Pyramid pose (Parsvottanasana)

Pyramid pose stretches the hamstrings, opens the chest and shoulders, improves posture and calms the brain – all essential ingredients for a healthy work environment!

To enter Pyramid Pose, stand about two feet away from your desk with your feet together. Place your hands on the desk. Keep your right foot planted, and step your left foot behind you about three feet depending on your flexibility. Place your left foot on the ground at angle; press the outer blade of your foot firmly down. Square your hips towards your desk, and lastly fold forward at the hips drawing your chest towards the ground. You should feel a stretch in your front leg’s hamstring. Press into your hands to allow your back foot to ground itself more. Repeat on the opposite side.

Hold this pose for 20-30 seconds on each side.

Stretch 5 – Upward facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) or “Up Dog”

Sitting at a desk with a rounded posture shortens your front body and weakens your back body. Upward Facing Dog helps to counteract this - it stretches the entire front body, whilst at the same time strengthens the back body. Back bends are traditionally known to energize and revitalize your body and mind, so this pose is also a great alternative to your cup of coffee.

To enter Upward Facing Dog stand one to three feet away from your desk depending on your flexibility. Place your hands on the desk (make sure its stable). Draw your hips towards the desk, lift your heels and come onto your tip-toes, arch your back and lift your chest up. Gently squeeze your glute muscles to protect your low-back, and gaze up slightly. Press your hands down and draw your shoulder blades together. You should feel a stretch through your hip flexors, your abdominal muscles, your chest and shoulders.

Hold this pose for a few breaths, come out, and repeat it several times.

Stretch 6 – Standing backbend (Anuvittasana)

This standing backbend is a gentle alternative to Upward Facing Dog without requiring use of a desk. It stretches your front body, strengthens your back body, as well as opens your shoulders.

Stand with your feet together. Clasp your hands behind your back. Slighty engage your glutes as you send your hips forward. Lift your chest, draw your shoulders back and press your hands towards the ground. Gaze up slightly and enjoy an energizing stretch throughout your front body.

Stretch 7 – Chair lunge (Hip flexor stretch)

Sitting in a chair for long periods shortens your hip flexors (psoas). When you walk or stand, your hip flexor is tight and weak, and this can lead to back pain. Spending time throughout the day lengthening and stretching your hip flexors is a great way to prevent or alleviate back pain.

Stand in front of your chair. Place your right knee on the chair, and rest your foot on the back rest. Hold onto your desk for stability, slide your chair away from your desk and lunge into your front leg. You should feel a stretch in your right hip flexor. Repeat on the opposite side.

Hold for 10-20 seconds on each side.

Stretch/Exercise 8 – Desk squats

Desk squats will not only strengthen your quad and glute muscles, but they will also stretch your shoulders and strengthen your back body.

Set your desk to standing height. Stand in front of your desk with your feet around hips distance apart. Place your hands on your desk, and squat down to your maximum depth. As you do this, stretch through your shoulders.

Press yourself back up and repeat this for 10-20 repetitions.

Stretch 9 – Desk lunge

A desk lunge is a great way to strengthen your leg muscles, as well as stretch your hip flexor/psoas muscle. You might also feel a stretch through your abdominal muscles. This is an effective exercise to re-energize yourself after being sedentary at a desk.

Stand two to three feet away from your desk with your feet together. Place your hands on the desk and step your right leg back so you are in a lunge position with your front knee stacked over your foot. Lift your right knee cap to engage your quad muscle. Draw your back heel away from you and feel a stretch through your right hip flexor. Sink your hips down so that your front thigh is parallel to the floor.

Hold it for about 10-20 seconds on each side.

Stretch 10 – Desk spinal twist

A key aspect of back and spinal health is twisting. Twists are a great way to stretch the muscles around your spine and side body, and maintain the overall health and integrity of your spine.

Set your desk to standing height. Stand alongside your desk with your left hip touching the edge. Place your left hand on the desk edge in front of you, and reach your right hand behind you and take a hold of the desk. Take a deep inhale, keep your spine straight, and on an exhale twist to the right. Use your grip on the desk to deepen the twist. Take another inhale, and twist deeper on an exhale. Return to center and repeat on the other side.

Bonus – Wrist stretches

Spending hours at a desk, using a keyboard and computer all day can be detrimental to the health and integrity of your wrists. These are some simple wrist stretches you can do throughout the day to condition and strengthen your wrists.

Get help from an expert

Other than consulting a doctor, many different healthcare professionals can help you get relief from, and even prevent, lower back pain.

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Physiotherapy

Physiotherapists are strong allies in the prevention and rehabilitation of work-related injuries. They aim to promote the health and well-being of their patients by studying how their bodies move, making sure there are no imbalances or weaknesses that could create injuries or make them worse. They do this by using a combination of manual practices and exercises that you can do on your own. Naturally, this applies to how your spine works and the development of lower back pain.

Dominic Baillargeon, founder of Nxt Generation Physio, believes getting educated about how your body moves is crucial in preventing and repairing damages, and a physiotherapist can assist you with that.

He advises consulting a physiotherapist from one to four times a year as they can help you relieve pain, prevent future injuries and even assist you in making sure your office furniture is adapted to your body and how you move.

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Acupuncture

Seeking pain relief is mostly why people consult acupuncturists. Acupuncture is said to unblock and move the body’s energy, known as Qi, through the body’s different systems, like the nervous, muscular, respiratory, digestive and circulatory system.

More practically, the method used in acupuncture of placing a number of needles on different acupuncture points on your body stimulates the nervous system. Consequently, releasing neurochemicals in your muscles, spinal cord and brain, and in turn releasing other chemicals and hormones that help regulate your system, relieve pain and promote physical and emotional well-being.

While acupuncture can get you relief from pain, it might not get to the cause of the pain, and will probably require follow-up visits.

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Osteopathy

Osteopaths look at your body as a whole, they put importance on the relationship between the structure and the function of the human body, and its ability to self-heal and self-regulate. They focus mainly on manual techniques aimed to facilitate healing in your body.

Osteopaths see a lot of patients looking to treat or prevent lower back pain. Manipulations are often gentle and subtle, and involve stretching, massaging and moving muscles and soft tissues. They will give advice regarding posture, breathing, stress reduction as well as lifting techniques and stretching exercises.

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Massage therapy

Massage therapist can also help relieve lower back pain, especially if your pain is muscular. Whether it's a strain, sprain or just a lot of accumulated tension in your back muscles, you can turn to massage therapy for help. Massages improve blood circulation, relax muscles and even increase your endorphin levels.

A study on massage and back pain done by the University of Miami has shown that massages lessened lower back pain, as well as depression, anxiety. It was shown to increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine while also improving the range of motion.

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Prevention tips

A lot of the ways we’ve addressed to relieve your lower back pain can also be used as prevention tips. So lets recap how you can alter your lifestyle and be better equipped to prevent future lower back pain. Additionally, make sure you know how to protect your lower back in your day-to-day activities.

Lifestyle changes

    • Exercise and stretch regularly to strengthen your core and back muscles, and to promote flexibility.
    • Maintain a healthy weight and a nutritious diet with a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals.
    • Work on your posture and body imbalances, consult a professional if need be.
    • Remember to move when spending a lot of time immobilized, like at work or watching TV.
    • Reduce stress in your daily life
    • If you smoke, stop!

Get equipped

    • Create an ergonomic design office space.
    • Invest in a supportive bed.
    • Wear appropriate shoes.

Protect your back during your everyday activities

    • Learn to lift heavy objects correctly.
    • Reduce everyday stresses on your lower back by dissipating activities that put a strain on your back like vacuuming, gardening or shovelling snow, and allow your back to rest after prolonged bending.
    • Be mindful that your discs are at a higher risk of injury when you wake up in the morning, so wait an hour or two upon waking before putting stress on your lower back.
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Important resources

We hope this guide has provided you with helpful information and advice to curb your lower back pain. While we do extensive research, we are not medical professionals. Do consult your physicians, or medical professionals near you to find the source of your lower back pain, as well as treatments. Here are some additional resources that you might find helpful:

Canada

Canadian Spine Society
The Chronic Pain Association of Canada
Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis
Canadian Association of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Canadian Pain Society

United States of America

American Spine Institute
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (AAPMR)
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
American Academy of Family Physicians

 



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