Give Your Back A Rest At Work

How to Properly Utilize Your Chair to Minimize Back Pain

By Amy Elliott

My office is located near the fitness center in a large office complex.  Given this set up, one might naturally assume that I treat primarily workout related injuries, and would be quite surprised to discover that this is not really the case.  While I do see the occasional sprain or strain sufferer, the majority of my caseload hails from the cubicles in the offices above the fitness center, with the chief complaint being lower back pain (followed in quick succession by neck and shoulder pain and tension throughout the upper back). Taking a closer look at the statistics on lower back pain deflates some of the shock value inherent in the sheer volume of office related “back injuries” I see.  For example:

  • Experts estimate that as many as 8 out of 10 people will experience a back problem at some point in their lives.
  • Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide (according to the Global Burden of Disease 2010).
  • One half all of Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year (according to a study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine).

Many people recognize that lifting heavy objects, twisting, and turning are stressful to the lower back, but fail to realize that sitting completely still (especially over prolonged periods of time) also places a substantial burden on their back. In sitting, your lower back bears the load of your entire upper body. Even when you’re not moving, your back is working.  The bigstock-a-woman-with-back-pain-from-si-40728325position in which you sit can greatly affect the way this load is dispersed and subsequently the stresses placed on the various structures of the lower back (specifically the discs).  Maintaining the natural curvature of your spine is key in reducing these stresses but is exhausting to do over an eight hour period of time, even if that time is spent sitting. This is where proper use of a supportive chair can help!

Simply owning an ergonomic chair is not enough!  Many of my patients claim that they use a great chair, yet they’re still experiencing back pain during the work day.  Upon assessment I often find that they are correct in that their chair is of the appropriate design to offer support, but that they are using it incorrectly.  By far the most common error I see is under-utilization of the back support in favor of perching on the edge of the seat, or sitting back in the seat but leaning forward away from the backrest.  To optimize its potential, you must lean back against the rest and allow your chair to share in the burden of supporting your body weight and maintaining your spine in its optimal alignment.

The other common mistake I see is the failure to adjust the chair to the proportions of your body.  Because we are all built differently, it stands to reason that a “one size fits all” approach to providing support will not effective and for that reason most chairs are adjustable in a number of ways.  In order to assure that your chair is adjusted properly, I recommend following these steps:

1.  Sit all the way back in the chair so that your hips are in contact with the back support and lean back. The “lumbar support” or small cushion protruding from the back rest should fill the space left by the natural curve of your spine.  On many chairs this is adjustable and if it seems too high or too low, it may need to be moved.  If your chair lacks a lumbar support all together, a small towel roll tucked into the same space will do the trick.

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2.  Now that you are seated all the way back in your chair and your back is in full contact with the back support, bring yourself as close to your workspace as your desk will allow and rest your hands on your work surface. Your elbows should be bent to about 90 degrees.  If not, adjust your chair either up or down to achieve this position.  Also adjust your arm rests so that they support your elbows and give a very slight lift through the upper arm and shoulders.  This will decrease the strain to your upper spine and shoulders.



3.  In this position you should have a bend of slightly more than 90 degrees at the hip and a 90 degree bend at the knees. Your feet should be in contact with the floor. If they are not, you may need a small stool or thick book to bridge this gap.


4.  Last but not least, you will want to adjust your monitor so that you are able to gaze straight ahead into the center of the screen. If you are working with a laptop computer, you may need to utilize an external keyboard in order to achieve proper posture without having to remove your forearms from the work surface.



While all of these adjustments will go a long way towards keeping your back happy at work, try not to get too comfortable for too long.  Even with an impeccable set up, sustained positioning puts undo strain on your back.  Stand up and stretch or move around about every half hour.  If you have the opportunity to take a 20 minute break from your desk, take a walk.  When you come back, be sure that you’re once again properly situated before getting started with your work again.

ARC Physical Therapy offers a free Corporate In-service all about ergonomics called “Desktop Fitness.” This 30 to 40 minute lecture/demonstration program addresses the basics of setting up a work station comfortably and inexpensively in order to adhere to sound ergonomic principles. This program also includes demonstration and practice (by all present) of a simple preventative exercise/stretching program to be performed by the individual at their desk, called the “One Minute Muscle Manager,” which saves time and actually increases productivity because the individual is not as distracted by neck, shoulder, or low back discomfort.

If you would like to know more about how to ergonomically optimize your work space, please email Amanda Letrich, Director of Public Relations at to schedule a Desktop Fitness seminar for you and your coworkers.

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