Reasons why we have back pain sitting on a desk
The Alexander Technique states that our habits of sitting at the computer grew out of our early experiences of reading and writing; that how we do anything is conditioned by our habits which feel comfortable to us.
It made us aware that we were taught to have the back be supported. However, this leads to a weakening of the core muscles to the point where the back seat becomes necessary.
As one of the leading teachers Jonathan Drake states:
“I call this passive approach to ergonomics, perhaps unkindly, the “sack of potatoes” approach. It is the bottom line, the trough of most health and safety thinking and it accepts human beings as they have become and will deteriorate further.”
There are several reasons why desk work causes musculoskeletal symptoms, including:
- Slouching occurs the longer you stay seated, keeping your spine misaligned
- Poor workstation set-up causes neck straining if computer monitors aren’t at eye level
- Bad habits like crossing your ankles and legs cause hip misalignment
- Lack of movement restricts blood and nutrient flow to spinal discs
- Continuous sitting increases wear and tear on your spinal discs
Natural vs the unnatural
The pelvis is not supported in any way when you sit on a normal flat seat and it rotates backwards so that the spine has no foundation. The result is that the spine changes from a natural S shape to an unhealthy C shape: the center of gravity of the body ends up behind the sitting bones rather than above them, which is an unstable position and places increased pressure on the lumbar disks, stretching ligaments and muscles that support the spine and putting pressure on the internal organs.
This makes it harder to breathe and digest, and the heart has to work even harder to pump blood around the body.
In a typical chair, the knees are at an angle of 90 degrees to the upper body and the hamstrings attached to the pelvic and back of the knee are extended, resulting in a further tilting of the pelvic and leading to the negative effect of a flat seat on the posture: the issue is that the human pelvic can not physically tilt 90 degrees and therefore the remaining 30 degrees or so needed to sit on a flat seat.
This backward pelvic tilt can be prevented by using a seat wedge or a saddle seat that is the most ergonomic computer chair you can have and that’s what you should be using, and it can also come with a footstool.
It means that your hips and thighs are higher than your knees and that there is no bending of your hamstrings (which also pushes the pelvis backwards).
The chair height should be 30% of your own height with a traditional /’ normal’ chair; it should be 35%-40% of your height with a saddle chair.
This allows you to actually sit on your sitting bones (the center of gravity on your sitting bones) and allows the pelvis to become the basis for your spine (rather than tilting back) and allows your spine to retain the standing natural S shape (the same pressure on the discs as when standing). So how do you improve your posture at the desk?
Improve your posture at work – best desk setup
If your desk is too low (probably) for you to sit at 30-40 percent of body height then using box files you will need to use blocks below or raise the desk height.
The top of your laptop screen should be at eye level when sitting, and the screen should be slightly angled up so that your gaze is slightly down and your head can tilt at the top of your spine.
To do this, you need to raise the laptop and get a separate mouse and keyboard.
James Olander’s popular kickstarter project Roost Stand offers a great solution, particularly when you’re on the go and have no other items available to elevate your laptop. In addition, you can level your computer by using objects such as books underneath
The elbows must be slightly higher in sitting than wrists (opposite when standing), the forearms must be horizontal (sloping up when standing) to ensure that your wrists are released.
You can swing your head, neck and torso over your sitting bones by sitting on a wedge or saddle seat and your chair becomes a perch rather than a seat so you can stand up at any moment.
If all this sounds too painful then it’s not just the spine that gets messed up by sitting down as the postural muscles turn off and avoid the lipase enzyme that extracts fat and cholesterol from the blood.
In addition, due to inactivity, the output of enzymes will drop by up to 95 percent, leaving fat in the bloodstream to circulate and accumulate as body fat and clog arteries. Professor of obesity, James Levine, said it best:
As well as sitting with a bent lower back, we also end up sitting with a bent upper (thoracic) spine.
At our desks, the top part of our spine from our rib cage to our neck is rounded forward, so when we stand up, this rounded position becomes the new normal as the musculature around the spine moves to this position so that we can no longer stand up straight.
The result is that we overcompensate by pulling our neck back and putting a ton of pressure on our neck (facet) segments to get our head upright.
To account for this habit, you need to make sure that you do not lean/lead when you type with one arm. For me, I have a tendency to lean in and rotate to the left with my right hand / arm / shoulder as I use the trackpad with my right hand.
This creates an imbalance and tips the right shoulder forward, rotating the scapula (shoulder blade) upwards into an unstable and rotated internal position.
You have to overwork to compensate for your pec minor and it will end up super tight and locked to the point where ironically you actually lose your inner rotation ability and find it hard to scratch behind your back.
A quick hack to reset your shoulders in the back of their sockets I’ve found is reaching out both arms in front of you and grabbing the top of both sides of your laptop screen. Try to rotate your arms (at the shoulder) (externally) in order to get your elbow crease to the ceiling. This position is stable.
So turn your elbows directly backward (just going through your body) and you should find that your wrists and forearms are much straighter and that the elbows are much more straight.
Another way to understand this is to sit down, grab both of your knees, then try to sit upright. Notice how your shoulders sink back, and when you do this, your elbows turn in.
Now reach your hands to your keyboard and try to maintain this strong position, which is rotated externally. It should look and feel like you’re holding in front of you a kettle-bell.
Don’t stay in the same position for hours upon hours!
Studies suggest the best plan for sustained spinal safety is to adjust the working environment regularly–walk about, stand up, sit… just don’t stay in the same place for 8 straight hours!