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Back pain affects 4 out of 5 adults in the UK at some point in their adult life. Most cases are short-term, and slouching – poor posture either when sitting or standing – is a major contributing factor in many cases. Considering so many of us have sedentary, desk-based jobs in the UK, how can we prevent pain by maintaining good posture in the workplace?
During the working week, the average Brit spends longer at work than they do in bed1, and for many of us this means extended periods sitting in front of a computer. Sitting down for hours can take a huge toll on your body – particularly your back – if you’re sitting incorrectly. Lower back pain is at ‘epidemic’ levels3, and poor posture is responsible for many people’s discomfort4.
Good posture has more health benefits than simply preventing back pain, though. It is thought to help with sharper thinking, healthy digestion and improved metabolism, which will go some way towards counteracting the effects of sedentary work. It is also linked to improved self-confidence and can be a contributing factor in keeping your blood pressure in check5.
Your employer should provide manual handling training to prevent injury if your role is likely to regularly involve any kind of lifting or carrying. Here, we focus on how to combat back pain if you spend most of your day at a desk, or on your feet, like a nurse or school teacher.
Sit in the right seat
If you're sitting at a desk for a prolonged period, your seat should provide back support. Jobs that call for a lot of typing should also provide support for your forearms and wrists, as having to support them yourself strains your joints and muscles – both in your arms and your upper back, shoulders and neck6
. Repetitive strain injury in your wrists can cause carpal tunnel syndrome
, with symptoms including numbness, pain and tingling. Where possible, you should also use a seat that swivels or pivots so you can avoid twisting when you turn to talk to colleagues. If you’re not able to sit comfortably in the seat provided, your employer is legally obliged to make adjustments7
Keep your chin up
Allowing your chin to drop will stretch your spine and can cause pain. This applies whether you’re sitting or standing. If your computer screen is positioned in such a way that you have to lower your chin, it means your chair should be lowered or the screen raised. The centre of the screen should be roughly parallel with your eyes when looking straight ahead.
Wear the right shoes
The spine has a natural ‘S’ shape that acts like a shock absorber, but wearing heels can undo nature’s way of protecting us. Even small heels will affect your posture as the body has to overcompensate for the destabilising effect they have on your balance. This obviously applies more to women than men, but everyone should wear comfortable shoes if they’re going to be spending extended periods on their feet.
Avoid crossing your legs
Crossing your legs above the knees causes your hips to be slightly twisted, so sitting with your legs crossed for an extended period can cause stiffness in your lower back8. Aim to sit with your feet flat on the floor or your legs crossed at the ankles instead. It may be more convenient to use a footrest if sitting with your feet flat would leave you sitting uncomfortably low, or compromises your ability to see the screen and reach your keyboard/mouse without bending.
Shoulders back, hips forward
Despite common perceptions, good posture isn’t about standing bolt upright. At points during the day, be sure to roll your shoulders back and push your chest forwards. Pushing your hips forward a little will also help to reinstate that gentle ‘S’-shaped curvature to your spine. This is especially true for those of us carrying a few extra pounds on our stomachs, as this can pull us forward and cause excessive curvature of the lower spine. It will feel unnatural at first, but start to feel normal as your core muscles strengthen.
Strong core muscles help your posture, and holding your stomach in is a great way to engage these. It will help to stabilise the spine and also strengthen the back against injury. You can also strengthen the core muscles by doing exercise like yoga or pilates.
Treating pain early
You may already be suffering the effects of poor posture caused by your job. If this is the case, you should seek to remedy the cause of the issue as soon as possible. Short-term back pain should be treated with over-the-counter painkillers, hot/cold compression packs and simple changes to your daily routine. You should also stay as active as possible, as this will speed up your recovery. If you have chronic, long-term discomfort that cannot be remedied with improved posture or other lifestyle changes, physiotherapy can help and in some instances spinal surgery may be required.
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