You bend over to grab a folder from your filing cabinet and you feel it-a sudden flash of fiery pain that shoots through your spine. But while that motion may have set off the painful sensation, bending down was probably just the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.
Day in and day out we treat our backs poorly, mostly with improper and repetitive movements. It only makes sense that a big part of the problem is how we move-and, more often, don’t move-at work, where most of us spend a major portion of our lives. Other factors play a role as well, such as the number and variety of manual tasks performed on the job, along with age, genetics, your schedule, desk setup and stress load. Experts say all these things combine to create unnecessary discomfort.
«It’s important to know that aspects of the work environment can make things better or worse,» – says Dr. Jeffrey Katz, associate professor of medicine and orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book Heal Your Aching Back.
A Common Problem
Back pain is a much more common problem than most people realize. Lower-back pain is cited as the No. 2 reason why Americans see their doctors, second only to colds and the flu. And patients suffering from backaches consume more than $90 billion annually in health care expenses, according to 2004 research from Duke University.
On the whole, up to 80% of people will deal with this health problem at some point in their lives, Katz says. In an office setting of 100 people, he estimates that on a given day, 10 to 12 people probably have some kind of back pain.
Despite the prevalence of the problem, most people don’t put in the effort to examine and tweak their regular work habits to prevent it.
«People don’t take care of themselves until they’re in pain,» says Todd Langer, a Boulder, Colo.– ased corrective exercise expert and creator of the P.A.S.T. Functional Fitness Method, which aims to relieve pain through unique balance-board-driven exercises.
Langer, who works with back pain sufferers at One Boulder Fitness Health Club, says the biggest mistake office workers make is continuing to sit in their desk chairs for hours on end. Sitting for sustained periods of time puts too much pressure on the discs and joints in your back.
To give your body a break, Langer suggests regularly moving your rear around in your chair and shifting your weight. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, stand up occasionally during conversations and try to take a short walk at least every half-hour, even if it’s just to the water cooler or printer. Use your e-mail to send yourself reminders until it becomes a habit.
It’s also a smart idea to examine your work stations for potential causes of imbalances, says Stefan Aschan, owner and founder of Strength123, a provider of nutrition and fitness programs in New York City and online. Are the floors in your office uneven? Does your chair rest half on and half off a thick, plastic rug pad? Do you, as many men do, keep your wallet in your back pocket and sit on it all day long? Do you cradle the phone between your head and shoulder instead of wearing a headset?
If so, you may be changing the way your body weight is distributed on your discs, Aschan says. Over time, that pressure may cause a disc to bulge, which can be painful.
While you’re looking at your desk, check on the positioning of your chair, computer and phone. You may have heard this advice before, but following through is another story. Todd Sinett, owner of the New York-based Midtown Chiropractic Health and Wellness practice and author of The Truth About Back Pain, recommends asking your company for an adjustable chair that will help maintain the natural curves of your spine, supporting your lower back. (Placing a pillow behind you will also do the trick if your boss won’t spring for an ergonomic chair.)
Your feet should lightly rest on the floor or, if you’re short, on a footrest. You shouldn’t have to crane your neck forward, up or down to see your monitor, and you shouldn’t have to strain to reach your phone. The goal is to square yourself.
Work-related stress can take its toll on your back too, Sinett says. While people manifest stress in different ways, it usually creates muscle tension. That constant contracting, over time, can cause muscle spasms and headaches-and possibly make you more vulnerable to injury.
If you’re too tired and stressed out after a long day of work to do anything but pass out on the couch, you could be compounding the problem, says Dr. Stephen Courtney, an orthopedic surgeon at Texas’ Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano. Just as you should be stretching your muscles throughout the day, you should also be giving them a regular workout, either at the gym, on the court or in the yoga studio.
As with any change you make to your daily habits, there’s no guarantee an exercise regime will protect you from back problems. But it might decrease the frequency of recurrent episodes, according to Katz. For people in pain, it’s a move in the right direction.
Allison Van Dusen