Back pain - stop talking about good posture
It has been a few months since many of us started working remotely.
A few months is all it took for that spot at the base of the neck to feel compressed by the unyielding force of gravity. For your shoulders to grow stiffer and stiffer, and for every bending motion of the spine to be inevitably followed by a grumble of pain. Unable to bear it any longer, you decide to take a break from your laptop, you lift from your chair and... the low back awakens - firm and sore. You try bending forward, swaying your hips in a 360-degree loop but, to each movement, those low back muscles tenaciously hold you back.
Are we told the truth?
Most of the blogs you'll read, filled with ergonomic marketers and "expert opinions" will tell you that it is important to "re-create your work environment at home". Important because you should always guarantee the "correct" posture of your body by supporting the low back, holding a stone rigid mid-spine and fixing the neck straight into the computer screen.
We know, however, that no study has succeeded in showing a correlation between "good" or "bad" sitting posture and back pain. Although addressing these elements may provide you with temporary relief from the strain of long sitting hours, it is a symptom-based approach, taming the flames without ever turning off the fire. The reality is that ergonomic supports and devices are not making your back any stronger or more mobile. Rather, they foster an over-reliance on external resources diminishing your body's ability to face diverse situation... and the impact on your next bank statement will be anything but fun.
So, if the causes and solutions for your back pain from long sitting hours at a desk are not as simple as the common narrative we receive, where do we find them? Let's review the current evidence and break down the problem to give you real tools to manage your pain when working from home.
A matter of routine?
Love them or hate them, here is truth... the body relies on your routines to work efficiently! This happens because the body learns behaviours. If day after day we ask it to perform a similar routine, our body will adapt neural pathways, muscles performance and joint flexibility in order to efficiently accomplish these tasks. So, now that all the daily walking and cycling to work, regular tea-breaks from our computers, precise work-out schedules and, yes, ergonomically-assessed work stations have vanished, our systems may be taken by surprise.
Though we are mentally quick to adjust to changes, our bodies are way slower. Changing routine means asking the body to learn new behaviours, something that takes time and slow progression, especially if we are breaking from habits that have been established for a long time. In an ideal world, we should aim to provide our body with the means to easily and efficiently adapt to whatever activity we want to perform. In other words, be free from set routines. In the reality of our everyday lives, however, we can still adopt measures to vary our routine without necessarily compromising on efficiently carrying out all of our tasks.
What is good seated posture?
We have all been told to sit straight and open our chest because that is good posture. Indeed, over the years, lots of scientific research has been trying to show which posture may lead to back pain and which may prevent it. Despite the efforts, however, evidence is yet to demonstrate what good sitting posture is. Some academics swear that holding a neutral curve when sitting - ie. sitting upright - allows you to efficiently spread pressure through your spine and reduce the chances of pain. Others, instead, have shown that a slouched sitting position allows our back muscles to remain relaxed compared to sitting upright, thus holding less tension and decreasing the strain in our back. On a final note, there is a group of scientists who believe any form of sitting to be the source of our issues, advocating the revolutionary benefits of expensive standing desks.
As it stands, there is no set evidence to show what the best seating posture may be. Clearly, it seems that no posture stands above others. The relentless endeavour to find a "one size fits all solution" has failed once again, leading us to consider that probably the key is in variability and postures that suit your unique individual needs. So, feel free to slump, sit upright, cross your legs, lie on your sofa... but transition regularly from one set-up to the other, every half-an-hour, without losing your work-flow... move, move, move!
Move move move
"Motion is lotion", is one of our favourite quotes among osteopaths. This is no mystery or revolution, but many still seem to not address the point. Our body is made for moving, it evolved to allow us to hunt for prey and run from predators, to build huts and work the land, and to regularly rest in between these tasks. Solid evidence shows that moving promotes muscle and joint health, increases the production of immune cells, speeds up bodily recovery processes, makes us feel sharper mentally, more lively and healthy psychologically. So, a question that naturally arises: should we be moving more often and better or fixing ourselves into comfy chairs for hours on end?
How to move more whilst working
We still get sold cheap truths in the form of expensive chairs instead of finding solutions that are real, far-sighted and work with the logic of nature and our bodies. Before each working day, make sure that you organise your home office with multiple working set-ups. You may have a comfy chair and a solid wooden one at your desk to swap every 30 minutes. Work for a while on your small coffee-table sitting on the floor, maybe have a cushion ready or maybe not... your choice! For sometime sit upright and for a bit just slouch and let your back relax. If tired, lean your back against the wall or sofa... maybe place your laptop on your bent knees to avoid your neck constantly bending to the screen. Then head to the armchair set-up, to the kitchen table, to lying on your front and back to your desk!
As you can see, there is no right or wrong positioning of your body. As long as whatever position you're in is comfortable do not worry, just transition to the next one after more or less 30 minutes.
Experiencing back pain is normal
Experiencing back pain is normal. Most of us will experience back pain in the course of our lives, it's just one of those things you cannot escape. But that does not mean something is going badly wrong. Most times you will just get up, walk, stretch and fidget around, and in the next few days the back is fine. What is not normal is not recovering from it! Make sure you are moving enough, and if it persists look for a professional opinion.
Osteopaths will offer you a holistic and precise perspective on your back pain. They will look at your past history of injuries, movements, muscular health, diet, daily routines and a lot more. Osteopaths will be able to give you ad-hoc advice, based on your specific physical and lifestyle needs. The rest of the osteopathic session is dedicated to hands-on treatment, combining neuro-muscular work, massage-like techniques, joint mobilisations and manipulations to reduce the discomfort and place your body in the optimal state for recovery.
In essence, we lead lives defined by hours on hours of sitting in one static position. The short and intense workouts interspersed between these hours or the very expensive orthopaedic chairs and desks bought on amazon are not the answer to regain a more 'natural lifestyle'. What our body is lacking is continuous movement throughout the day... but there are measures you can adopt to face this problem without compromising on productivity. If in doubt or unable to get better, an osteopath will be able to guide your body through a sound recovery process and advise you on what is best for you.
Thomas is available for appointments at Core Clapton on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.