Work: A pain in the… back?

Written by Tom Blake on 13 April 2016

It may come as a surprise to you but the majority of our day as accountants is spent sat at a desk in front of a screen (or two if you’re lucky!). I’m sure that this isn’t an unfamiliar situation to many of our readers as well. And how many times have you found yourself leaning forward, shoulders hunched over, or sitting at a strange angle on a chair that isn’t quite the right height for you.

We’ve all been there.

Working at a desk all day has serious side effects on our bodies. We weren’t built to stay in a static position for a prolonged period of time and in doing so a whole number of postural problems are likely to develop. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Rounded shoulders1
  • Forward head posture2
  • Hyperkyphosis of the upper (thoracic) spine3
  • Upper thoracic hump4
  • Hyperlordosis of the lower (lumbar) spine5
  • Scoliosis6
  • General neck, back and shoulder ache.

These are common problems and not only can they have a detrimental effect on your active life due to for instance a reduction in mobility, they can also affect you mentally resulting in a reduction in general concentration and increased self-consciousness. Not only this, the costs to you if you seek specialist help such as a physio or chiropractor can be significant.

What can I do?

Firstly and most importantly is to move around. It is recommended that you should get a few minutes of break for every 30 minutes of computer time. This can of course be incorporated into the tea round, toilet break or laps of the office.

If you have trouble remembering to take breaks, download Workrave – a handy fully customisable programme that reminds you to take breaks.

Stretch and strengthen – During these breaks, take the time to add specific exercises to counter the negative effects of sitting at a computer. Some exercises can be found here and should be done regularly as a daily routine.

Desk layout – This is important as it is the first step in improving your sedentary working life. Sit close to the desk as sitting further away will mean you’re shoulders will come forward to reach the keyboard and being closer to the screen will mean you will be less likely to crane your neck resulting in forward head posture. The keyboard and mouse should be positioned in a way that keeps your elbows to your sides, and your arms at or below a 90-degree angle. This way, the muscle load is reduced and you’re not straining. The monitor should be positioned so that your eye line (as if you were looking horizontally) is in line with the top third of the screen. Your chair should be at a height so that your feet don’t dangle (you may need a footrest) and your thighs are slightly below your hips. Your posterior thighs should be fully supported.

Correct sitting posture – Make sure you’re sitting on your sitz bones, the lowest of the three major bones that make up the pelvis, right at the top of your hamstrings. Rotate your pelvis slightly forward (but not from the waist). You may need to bend your legs, with your feet underneath your chair to some extent depending on your flexibility, in order to maintain the inward curve of the lumbar spine. Imagine that someone has attached a string to the top of your head and is lightly pulling on it. Roll your shoulders one at a time forward, up, back, and then down, so that each scapula has retracted slightly down your back and towards each other. Slightly tense your abs, keeping a relaxed, upright torso. For a quick posture hack, check out this video.

For additional info check out a superb article here and for more office based exercises check out this link.

As an employer, what can I do?

A happy and healthy workforce is without a doubt one that is more productive. Below are a few ways to keep your employees going for longer and longer:

Raise awareness – each of your employees, especially ones that are sitting at a desk for an extended period of time, should be made aware of the principles of good sitting, optimisation of workspace and the idea of taking regular short breaks. You could even point them in the direction this article for some handy pointers!

Be proactive in promoting an active lifestyle – suggest after work sporting activities (such as badminton) or put a team forward for a 5km or 10km charity fun run/walk. If these don’t appeal, perhaps subsidise membership to a local gym.

As above, subsidise membership to a gym – this is easy for an employer and you only need to pay for those that take the offer. As an extra benefit to the employee, you could always pay for a personal training session once every 6 months for those that wish.

Know your employees – If you employees are experiencing postural related pain, then this will affect their work, whether it is a reduction in concentration or even time off from work. It is in your interest to help your employees experience a pain free working life.

Provide health insurance – if more serious problems do occur, health insurance ensures that costs to the employee are kept to a minimum and time spent away from the office is reduced.

Here at WSM, we get to take advantage of a subsidised gym membership and a cycle to work scheme, both of which encourage a healthy lifestyle and regular movement. New to us as well, is a weekly lunch time Pilates class, which includes exercises specific to people in a sedentary lifestyle. You can’t stop tax returns being a pain in the arse, but they certainly shouldn’t cause a pain in the back!

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Usually the result of slouching, which weakens the muscles between the shoulder blades and shortens the pec minor, rotating your scapula forward and down. The humorous’ (upper arm bones) may also internally rotate and over time they start to live more comfortably at the front lip of their respective shoulder joints.  Once this happens, mobility in the joint is reduced which can result in shoulder impingement. Slouching is also often related to muscle fatigue, especially when sat in front of a computer. The diaphragm can become compressed leading to shallow breathing, resulting in less oxygen reaching the muscles that need it. These muscles then become more stressed leading to further pain. Check out the video for help in combatting rounded shoulders.
  2. When your head is out of its neutral position (above the shoulders) and is noticeably forward, putting strain on your upper back muscles and affecting the cervical spine. This is exacerbated by rounded shoulders. A nice apparent fix is demonstrated in this video.
  3. Known as hump-back, hyperkyphosis is a spinal deformity that looks like a forward posture of the upper back and thoracic spine.
  4. Caused by all of the previous points, a hump that can be seen around the upper back, below the neck, which can be unsightly. One explanation is that when the head is forward, the weight of the head puts more pressure on the upper back and neck muscles and stretches them.  In order to compensate for the increased weakness in these muscles, the body adds tissue to this area to protect it. Regular sports massages and relevant daily stretches and strengthening exercises are recommended.
  5. A natural curve in your lumbar spine is normal, however hyperlordosis is an exaggerated lumbar curve and anterior pelvic tilt. It’s fairly obvious to see why the daily routine of sitting at a desk may result in hyperlordosis. You sit on your glutes, resulting in weakness around your buttocks; your abs are not tense (due to slouching and incorrect posture) resulting in weakness around the front of your pelvis; your quads are tight as sitting shortens the muscle at the front of your leg. Your quads therefore pull your hip forward, while your abs and glutes aren’t strong enough to pull the hip back. Your body then realigns itself so you can function and the arch in your lumbar has now increased.
  6. The naturally common condition describes the abnormal twisting and curvature of the spine.

Please note: This article is meant for guidence only. Please seek the appropriate professional advice from a doctor or physiotherapist if you need it. WSM is not responsible for the content of any of the links.

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Tom Blake
Special Projects Manager