Sitting at desks all day is wreaking havoc with our backs.
But there are some simple changes which we can all make to beat the aches and pains.
The first thing to think about is what time it is. If you’re reading first thing in the morning or last thing at night, you’ll probably be quite comfortable.
If it’s just before lunchtime, however, there’s a high chance you’ll be in pain.
That’s what scientists from George Institute for Global Health and Sydney Medical School reckon at least – they’ve just discovered that the highest number of back pain attacks, and the highest danger of putting your back out, occur before lunchtime.
They also noted that being tired when lifting or moving something triples the risk of sudden back pain, and being or sitting in an awkward position increases the chances eightfold.
Of course, for many, that “awkward position” means being positioned at an office desk.
“Back pain is becoming remarkably common among office workers, and others who sit all day,” says physiotherapist Tim Allardyce.
“As our lives become more sedentary with the advance of technology, we are leaving our bodies at risk of suffering with chronic spinal pain. The main reason being that our bodies are designed to move, to stay flexible, and not suited to sitting for long hours.”
Obviously, knowing this doesn’t mean we can do that much about it – we can’t all just walk away from our jobs. But, Allardyce says, simply walking away from the desk for a couple of minutes can be enough.
“My first tip [for easing back pain] is get up out of your chair every 30 minutes for a two-minute walk around the office. Use any excuse to get up – go grab a water, go and talk to a colleague rather than e-mail them.”
There’s also the basic fact of moving more generally, not just during the working day, but whenever you can.
“If you sit down all day, you probably then travel home sitting, and then sit down to eat your dinner before sitting on the sofa to watch TV,” says Allardyce. “Get out of that habit and do some exercise! Swim twice per week, walk regularly, and cycle once per week to get the spine more mobile and your core muscles stronger.”
If you notice your back pain specifically in the morning, it could be because inflammation can build up during the night, due to immobility of the spine. If this is happening, you will typically feel “sore getting out of bed, putting your socks on, and cleaning your teeth”.
The trick is to do some mobility exercises before you go to bed, says Allardyce.
“Rotation exercises are excellent – lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the mattress. Drop your knees to each side creating a gentle and safe rotation stretch to the spine. Perform ten each side to keep your back mobile, and do this before going to sleep and when waking.”
Whatever they might say, it’s not as simple as turning your computer on and off again. To avoid a backache-inducing day of labour, you need to set up your computer screen just right.
“Place the screen at the correct height – the upper third of the screen should be at eye level, make sure your hips and knees are at 90 degrees, and don’t use a laptop at work,” says Allardyce. “If you do fall short in these areas you will be over-flexing your spine and susceptible to lower back disc problems.
As a general rule, Allardyce says you should go for a mattress that’s not too hard, not too soft, but supportive and comfortable. “Definitely invest in a good quality mattress,” he says.
“Memory foam mattresses have gained popularity in recent years due to their ability to mould to the shape of your spine, hence providing support to your body, and memory foam toppers can be useful as well.
“Try before you buy – go into a bed shop and lie on ten mattresses, you will soon get a feel for what’s comfy.”
QUICK NHS TIPS FOR BACK-FRIENDLY CARRYING AND LIFTING
1. Always bend your knees and hips, not your back.
2. Never twist and bend at the same time.
3. Always lift and carry objects close to your body.
4. Try to carry larger loads in a rucksack, and avoid sling bags.