With many heading back to the office now, physiotherapist Scott Coleman shared his top tips for avoiding back pain at work.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 70-90 per cent of Australians will experience back pain at some point in their lives. The source of this pain can be physical; coming from ligaments, joints and muscles, or it can be psychosocial due to stress and the brain misreading messages from the muscles and nerves in the back.
Unfortunately, during these difficult COVID times we have some people working longer hours with changing work routines, increasing physical back pain, but we also have a lot of people experiencing stress-related back pain.
10 things you need to know about back pain and what you can do about it
1. Posture is important but it’s not the only cause of pain
A lot of back pain is due to posture, however it’s not necessarily “bad posture” that is the cause. The posture that is most likely to cause someone pain is the posture that they are not used to.
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If a person with “good posture” spends time in a slouched position, their joints and muscles will become painful.
Likewise, a person with “bad posture” who spends time in an upright “good posture” position will also experience pain in their joints and muscles as they are not used to this position. Often, trying to correct your posture from bad to good can only increase back pain.
2. Pay attention to your body
When muscles or ligaments are overloaded, you can feel it. You’ll usually feel small shots of pain when you move in certain ways, a deep ache or a tight feeling in your muscles. This is the first sign that something needs to change as the muscles or ligaments are not coping with the posture or position you are in, or the activity you are doing.
The first thing you need to do is try to stretch the muscles or joints causing the discomfort. Heat is also effective at relieving muscle ache and tightness. But most importantly, change your position or have a break from the activity you are doing.
3. Avoid a stiff upper back
Your upper back, or Thoracic spine, is the section of your back that moves the least due to its connection to your ribs. Unfortunately, this is also the section of your back that will stiffen up first when you are spending too much time working on a computer, resulting in your neck and lower back compensating and leading to pain.
It’s worthwhile keeping your Thoracic spine loose. The best way to do this is to roll up a towel nice and tight, then lay on your back on the floor with the towel positioned around your shoulder blades making a “t” with your spine. Try holding this position for 20-30 seconds everyday after work and see how you feel.
4. Movement is key
There are a lot of myths about the cause of back pain. The old label of a “slipped disc” due to heavy lifting or too much bending is not always the cause of back pain. Overloading the back through lifting or bending is a common cause of back pain, however back pain can also occur from a lack of movement or underloading. So get up regularly, walk around, and even do a little stretching.
5. Make sure you have an ergonomic office set up that works for you
This can be tricky, as unfortunately there are no set rules that result in the perfect set-up for everyone. The key is to listen to your body. If you experience pain in your neck or back while working, then your set-up is not correct.
Even if you have followed ergonomic advice from a safety professional or followed on-line instructions, if you are not comfortable then it is the wrong position for you.
6. Replicate your office environment if it hasn’t caused you pain in the past
For many going back to the office, they are experiencing pain because the setup is different. You spent the last six months working from home and finding the perfect setup for your body. Measure your chair’s height, work out the angle the back is slanted on and replicate this at the office. Don’t be afraid to ask HR for a new chair if the one you have isn’t working for you.
7. Angle your screen so you don’t slouch
Work out the height of the screen you’re looking at all day. A stand for your monitor will go a long way rather than slouching over your laptop, particularly if it’s a small laptop screen. This will help you sit up straight so your screen is at eye level and will also ease the strain on your eyes.
8. Alternate between sitting and standing
Sit /stand desks became somewhat fashionable a few years back, resulting in the majority of offices installing fancy electric adjustable desks. However, just as prolonged sitting can increase risk of back pain, so can prolonged standing. The key is to make sure you alternate between sitting and standing for durations that are comfortable for you.
9. What about activating your “core” to protect your back?
In my 15 years of working as a physio, one of the hardest things to do was teach someone to activate their core muscles to reduce back pain. You can spend hours laying on your back trying to “pull your belly button towards your spine” and still not get it right … or you can get up and go for a walk to activate your core muscles in a way that is functional.
10. Try wearable technology, or apps to help you with posture.
Through the aptly named ‘Office Coach’ the app provides slouch alerts, and stretch alerts, to reduce the risks associated with sustained posture, and also tracks steps, to encourage movement at a time where our incidental activity is at an all-time low because we’re sitting for most of the day.
Scott Coleman is a physiotherapist, founder and CEO of workplace health and safety app Preventure.live.