Is it possible to develop chronic illness from doing…nothing? Turns out, “sitting diseases” and various health conditions are on the rise as we become more sedentary. Whether it’s an increase in the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease or just increased pain from sitting at desk, here’s how to decrease your chances of chronic illness and to relieve pain.
Pain from sitting at desk is common
The statistics about sitting are grim:
- An estimated 36% of adults in the U.S. are completely sedentary in their free time
- Almost eight million people in the U.S. list their reason for disability as back pain
- Too much sitting increases your chance of premature death
- Sedentary lifestyles are more harmful than smoking
Even without discussing the monetary cost of too much seat time, pain from sitting at desk can make you very aware of the consequences. If you are managing multiple pain conditions, sitting can make each one of them more challenging and painful.
Keep reading for more on managing the different types of pain that come from sitting at desk.
How to deal with back pain from sitting at desk
Back pain from sitting at desk is the most common (and perhaps the most troubling) kind. It seems counterintuitive that simply being seated would cause so much pain, but here’s how it works.
Weight gain is the first thing you might notice as your lifestyle becomes more sedentary. When we exercise, our muscles release lipoprotein lipase, a molecule that helps process fats and sugars. Without movement, production of this molecule slows, and the pounds begin to add up. Carrying extra weight, especially in the belly, can add pressure to the lower back as that curve becomes more pronounced. This can lead to disc herniation and other serious injuries to the spine.
The strong muscles of the lower body—the glutes, the quadriceps, and the calves—also begin to atrophy without use. This weakness can cause us to rely on other parts of the body to hold us up, taxing muscles that are unused to this sort of task. Tight hamstrings also tug on the lower back and cause compression.
But there’s more. Sitting shortens the hip flexors on the front of the hips. This can be even more exaggerated if you hunch your shoulders over. Over time, this poor posture can lead to premature disc degeneration, with serious back pain from sitting at desk the consequence.
Maybe your job requires you to be seated for most of the day. So how do you deal with back pain from sitting at desk?
How to sit at your desk to avoid back pain
Start with the basics: good posture and ergonomics.
Ergonomics is the study of how people work. The focus is on the physical way we use our bodies in the course of our workday, with an eye to minimize the potential for injury due to over or improper use of our musculoskeletal system (bones and muscles).
Set yourself up for a pain-free workday by ergonomically modifying the way you sit at your desk. Sit as close to your desk as is comfortable to avoid the tendency to reach forward, placing an unnatural curve in your upper back. Keep your feet firmly on the floor, with knees directly above your ankles (use a small stool or cushion if your feet do not reach the floor completely).
Your upper arms should remain parallel to your spine, and your hands should form a 90-degree angle to the work surface. If you make these adjustments and realize that your chair or work surface is not conducive to proper posture, the following accessories can help.
The best accessories for reducing back pain at work
The best accessories for reducing back pain at work help to modify your work environment to suit you. Look for features in chairs and desks that adjust to you (instead of you adjusting to ill-fitting tools).
This includes desk chairs with:
- Adjustable seat and arm heights
- Adjustable lumbar support
- The correct seat depth to support proper posture all day
You can also consider sit-to-stand desks, treadmill desks, and stability balls that promote core engagement. Each type of desk has advantages in that they help you to maintain proper posture, encourage movement during the day, and adapt to meet your needs.
How to relieve and prevent back pain from sitting at desk
Even with proper posture and an ergonomically correct workspace, it’s crucial to bring some movement into your day every now and then. Set a timer for a stretch break every half hour and add a walk around the office on the hour.
If an important deadline keeps you at your desk, there are some chair yoga stretches that you can add instead of a walk. These poses can be completed at any fitness level; it’s amazing how much you can get your heart pumping doing a few deep breaths in chair-supported warrior pose!
Make sure to incorporate some full-body, stress-relieving exercise after work, too. A simple walk through the woods or a park after work can help promote good mental health and relieve and prevent back pain from sitting at desk.
How to deal with neck pain from sitting at desk
Neck pain from sitting at desk is an extension of the pain you feel from overall poor posture or ill-fitting office chairs and desks. We have become a society of “neck forward” people as we reach our heads forward and down to look at our smartphones and computer screens.
But consider this: for every inch your head sits forward of your shoulders, an additional ten pounds of pressure is placed on your spine. Now think about doing that for eight hours a day at work—that can be a real pain in the neck!
This head forward posture places excessive pressure on your shoulders and upper back, increasing your risk of disc herniation. It can also cause difficulty breathing and numbness in your hands and arms as the nerves to these areas are compressed.
How to sit at your desk to avoid neck pain
Start by ergonomically adjusting your workspace so that your eyes are level with the top of your computer screen. This keeps your gaze at the optimal level for comfort. Keep your mouse and other accessories within arm’s reach so there is no need to strain forward to use them.
The best way to avoid neck pain is to adjust your posture so that your head is over your shoulders (where it should be!). If you have spent years in a head-forward posture, this correction can take time and may feel uncomfortable at first. This is normal, as you are re-training your body.
Sit with feet flat on the ground, knees above the ankles. Imagine that you have a thread at the crown of your head, gently pulling your spine upwards. Keeping your chin parallel to floor, ease it back until your ears are directly above your shoulders (which are directly above your hips).
You may need to make this change gradually, but the more you notice and correct your posture, the less pain you will feel while sitting at your desk.
The best accessories for reducing neck pain at work
If your monitor is not at the proper level, look into adjustable monitor stands and desk mounts. These can be tailored to your desk even if it is a sit-stand model. You can also use a desktop document holder to make reading easier on your neck.
Finding yourself constantly reaching for something that is just a bit too far away? Consider organizing your desk so that everything is more conveniently within reach so as to minimize the strain of reaching forward.
How to relieve and prevent neck pain from sitting at desk
Since you are standing up once every 30 minutes to stretch to reduce back pain from sitting at desk, take some time to relieve neck pain while you’re at it.
As with back pain, yoga can help to relieve (and prevent) neck pain from sitting at desk. A few simple stretches to relax and release tension can be the difference between working comfortably and feeling terrible after a long day.
Add a little self-massage a few times a day for the added benefit of overall stress relief.
How to deal with shoulder pain from sitting at desk
Shoulder pain from sitting at desk is another consequence of poor posture and lack of movement during the day. A head forward posture rounds the upper back, placing strain on the tendons and muscles between the shoulder blades. The tips of the shoulders curve inward, overly stretching that connective tissue, too.
In addition to postural challenges, small repetitive motions can also cause injury over time, as can an improperly positioned armrest or desk height.
How to sit at your desk to avoid shoulder pain
The same rules for ergonomics and posture apply here, with one additional caveat: remove the armrests on your chair. In most cases, chair armrests hike the shoulders up.
This may feel comfortable at first, but it can lead to problems and shoulder pain in the future. If your desk, chair, and screen are at the proper height and your feet are solidly planted on the floor, you won’t even miss them.
The best accessories for reducing shoulder pain at work
The best accessories for reducing shoulder pain at work really depend on your job. Are you a customer service rep, on the phone all day? Invest in a headset to relieve not only shoulder pain but also pain in the neck.
Make sure that your upper arms are parallel to your spine, and your lower arms and wrists are in line with each other at a 90-degree angle from your body. This goes a long way to relieve not only shoulder pain but also neck pain (above) and wrist pain (see more below).
Finally, if you have shoulder pain due to injury, ask your doctor about a shoulder brace that can help you work more comfortably.
How to relieve and prevent shoulder pain from sitting at desk
Are you sensing a trend here? Standing up and simply moving your body twice an hour can go a long way to relieve and prevent shoulder pain from sitting at desk.
Dedicated yoga for shoulder pain can help when it hurts, but simply breaking up your day with a standing break, or adding variety to your tasks can go a long way towards preventing pain.
How to deal with wrist pain from sitting at desk
The repetitive nature of many sedentary desk-related tasks (e.g., typing and filing) can cause some serious wrist pain from sitting at desk. Coupled with poor ergonomics (more on that next), carpal tunnel syndrome (and overall wrist pain) is a serious condition that can become disabling.
When we use our wrists too much, without a break, or improperly, swelling in the wrist can place pressure on the median nerve as it passes through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. When this happens, pain, numbness, and tingling can be so bad as to immobilize your hands.
Simple overuse can also just cause fatigue and soreness in the wrists. Injury or pain in the neck and shoulders can also cause referred pain in the wrists.
How to sit at your desk to avoid wrist pain
Proper posture and ergonomics are key here. It’s crucial that your keyboard is at the proper height to allow your hands and wrists to be level with your forearms. Don’t lean the heel of your hands on your desk or laptop as you type, and keep your elbows close to the side of your body.
Avoid bending your wrists to the extreme in any direction. Yes, sometimes we need to move our hands in odd ways to get the job done but try to stay in the middle of your range of motion for most daily tasks.
And as always, sit properly to best support your whole body, all day long.
The best accessories for reducing wrist pain at work
If you have already been diagnosed with carpal tunnel system, most likely you have a brace and instructions to use it. Use it! This can go a long way to preventing further injury and helping your wrist heal.
Use padded wrist supports and keep your mouse at the same level as your keyboard for the most comfortable use. Talk to your doctor for additional support.
How to relieve and prevent wrist pain from sitting at desk
There is no need to stand to exercise your wrists, but they do need a little attention. Taking frequent breaks, every 15 minutes or so, to roll your wrists in circles in both directions or to flex and stretch your hands keeps the blood flowing and the muscles that support your wrists comfortable.
You can gently shake your hands to loosen and relax your wrists and arms to relieve and prevent wrist pain from sitting at desk. Or, try a few of the yoga poses for shoulder pain above to really get some relief.
Other forms of pain from sitting at desk
Believe it or not, simply sitting at your desk all day long can cause other types of pain you might not expect. Some people develop temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD or TMJ) due to tension in their neck and shoulders. A TMJ massage can help relieve this pain.
And we can all guess that sitting down for too long can be a real pain in the butt. As with the other conditions, moving your body is the quick and effective treatment. Simple stretches, regular breaks, and exercise outside of your workday can go a long way to counteract the effects from too much sitting.
Get help for chronic work pain
You’ve ergonomically modified your workspace, taken the breaks, and done the stretches, but you still have pain.
Arizona Pain can help if you’re in the Arizona area. We’ve developed a webinar series on how to manage multiple pain conditions at home. Take a look, then get in touch. We will work with you to develop a comprehensive pain management plan.