It was once said the only certainties in life are taxes, death and back pain.
Only a small percentage of people get through life without it, but for the rest of us, is there any way to reduce the chance of getting back pain? Other than not lifting 100kg in weight off the ground, bent forward with arms out-stretched!
When we think of activities that are harmful to the back, we think of excessive weight lifting, bending, certain sports and activities. However the everyday activity of sitting down can also be very detrimental. Too much is harmful to the back area (as is too little, which we can feel in our legs, which get tired from excessive standing). Likewise if the back has insufficient strength and movement. Erect sitting involves disc pressures that are significantly higher than that of normal standing. Sitting while slumped forward increases the pressure on the discs more, while slumping backwards increases the pressure more again.
When we sit for long periods of time, we not only damage and dehydrate our discs, but also tighten our muscles, ligaments, fascia and joints. This is not restricted to the spine, it also effects our hips and pelvis. Hence we build up a lot of tightness, which restricts our natural movement and puts excessive stress on our joints and other tissues.
Hence we tend to see weakened glutei muscles, overused back muscles, tight hip flexors, calves and hamstring muscles as well as compressed discs and joints plus tight connected tissue.
As well as restrictions and overuse in musculoskeletal areas, excessive sitting has an effect on blood flow and breathing patterns. In our soleus muscle (in the calf) there is a vascular pump which helps with venous return to the heart. However if we sit without any movement, the pump’s effectiveness is decreased.
Also with excessive sitting comes the potential problem of shallow breathing. The main muscle involved is the diaphragm, which is situated just below the ribs. When we sit for long periods its effectiveness gets diminished. A shallow breathing pattern can develop and our breathing function can become inefficient.
There is also the lack of movement with sitting down, which reduces calorie burn-off and can add to excessive weight being carried around the waist level.
As well as causing excessive pressure and tightness to our backs, excessive sitting has also been involved in causing problems in the neck and shoulders. This is usually prevalent in the office-bound worker, hunched over a desk, working a keyboard. This posture tends to lead to tightening and restriction in the posterior neck, frontal and upper shoulder areas, but can also lead to overuse of the area behind the two shoulder blades. We tend to see complaints of pain in and around the shoulder blades as well as shoulder pain and headaches or a dull variety.
Disks can re-hydrate themselves if we lie down for about 30-35 minutes, this however is not really feasible in the work environment!
However, there are a number of things we can do overcome these obstacles. The main thing is not to sit for long periods. Take breaks from the one position every 35-45 minutes, walk and stretch the body for a minute or so. Drink water, tap the feet while seated to help the soleus pump. Move position while seated. Move the printer away from the desk so we have to get up and walk to it. One way that some people have used to create movement while seated is to sit on a Swiss ball.
So all is not lost, variety is the key, avoid doing the one thing for too long.