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Sitting and Back Pain

Low back pain is a big problem in our society. It doesn’t grab headlines like some other health problems. Usually, news space is reserved for “big” stories like cancer or outbreaks of some disease. However, back pain is always present lurking in the background. Review these statistics to see what back pain is like in America:

  • Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability world-wide.

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  • Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work.
  • Back pain is the number two reason for visits to the doctor’s office (behind upper respiratory tract infections).
  • Americans spend at least 50 billion dollars on back pain each year (1).
  • Experts estimate that 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life (2).
  • 31 million Americans experience back pain at any given time (3).

It would be great if there was some magic pill or exercise that could take away back pain or prevent it from happening. Sadly, that is not the case. Even those who religiously work at strengthening their backs are still at risk for injury through trauma like a car accident.

To begin with, take a look at the best position for the low back. A couple of notes: 1) .1 MPa is equal to 14.5 lb/sq in 2) The following measurements are for a healthy individual of average weight (approx 70 kg).  According to Wilke et al (4), lying on your back directs only .10 MPa of force through your intervertebral discs. While standing in a relaxed posture the amount of force jumps to .50 MPa.  That is already a fourfold increase in force. Sitting in a chair in a relaxed posture (not slouched and not military straight) is very similar at .46 MPa.

From there, the pressure increases as you bend forward. This continues up to .83 MPa when flexed forward completely. That is very large increase when compared to the neutral lying down posture. If you try to pick something up while seated that amount of pressure can jump all the way up to 2.30 MPa. It should be evident that it is very possible to overload the back through normal daily activities. By the way, it is also possible to over-correct by sitting too straight. That can increase pressure in the low back to .55 MPa.

While the human body is capable of handling the pressure loads listed above, repeated exposure can lead to damage over time. Those who have a desk job and spend multiple hours per day seated can build up microtrauma in their discs. Then, they have the low back injury when “bending over to pick up a pencil.”

Don’t lose heart though. Taking a closer look at your posture while at work can help prevent new incidents of low back pain and/or shorten episodes of low back pain. For the most part, these modifications are simple to implement and require discipline more than anything else.

  • Get enough sleep. It sounds simple, but it is incredibly important.  Sleep is where the discs in the spine recover from the previous day’s trauma and take in nutrients to prepare for the next day.  Shortchanging your body on sleep won’t just lead to drowsiness.  It can also make the spine more susceptible to injury.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight. The diet is where the body gets all the necessary nutrients to help the body heal and recover.  A heavier weight places more stress on the spine which equals more pressure in the discs.
  • Change your position often. Do not get stuck slouched forward for the whole day.  Avoid prolonged activity (typing all day for instance).
  • Do not be chained to the desk. Get up and walk around.  Take frequent breaks.
  • Stretch when possible.

Utilizing these tips will not completely protect your back from instances of pain.  It can help make sure that those instances are few and far between though.  Contact our office if you have any questions about what you can do to protect your back at work.


  1. In Project Briefs: Back Pain Patient Outcomes Assessment Team (BOAT). In MEDTEP Update, Vol. 1 Issue 1, Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, Rockville.
  2. Vallfors B. Acute, Subacute and Chronic Low Back Pain: Clinical Symptoms, Absenteeism and Working Environment. Scan J Rehab Med Suppl 1985; 11: 1-98.
  3. Jensen M, Brant-Zawadzki M, Obuchowski N, et al. Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Lumbar Spine in People Without Back Pain. N Engl J Med 1994; 331: 69-116.
  4. Wilke HJ, Neef P, Caimi M, Hoogland T, Claes LE. New in vivo measurements of pressures in the intervertebral disc in daily life. Spine. 1999 Apr 15; 24(8): 755-62.