Most of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives. In fact, low back pain is the second most common reason for doctor's visits.¹ Back pain can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) and can be caused by various reasons. However, the most typical reasons include strains, sprains, and spasms.
It’s essential to understand the condition's root cause to help find strategies that ease and prevent back pain. One such cause includes prolonged sitting in a bad position.
If you work primarily at your desk, you spend a lot of time sitting in one place in your office chair. Having an ergonomic setup is vital for treating and preventing lower back pain.
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Poor posture is very common, and slouching for hours on end can lead to pain in the neck, shoulders, and lower back.
Although there are several strategies to relieve back pain from sitting, having the right chair is key. Researchers have found that having an appropriate ergonomic chair helps with your productivity.²
A good ergonomic office chair has a number of features, some of which are general and some of which are more personal. It's generally not recommended to buy a chair without sitting in it, although that can be challenging. Some features you may opt to look for include:
Adjustable seat height
Your seat should be at a height where you can sit with both feet on the ground and have your knees at about a right angle. A too high seat may not provide enough support for your body, while a seat that is too low can strain your knees.
At least five castors (or wheels)
Chairs with fewer castors are less stable and more likely to tip.
Adjustable seat pan depth
Generally, only more premium chairs have this feature. An adjustable seat pan depth lets you keep your body flat against the backrest, maximizing the support against the lower back and factoring in unique leg lengths.
Wide seat pan
Choosing a seat pan with at least 1 inch greater width on either side ensures that the seat is large and supportive enough for you.
Rounded front edge to the seat pan
Having a more curved edge will prevent the seat from digging into the back of your thighs and knees.
Back and lumbar support
Having a backrest that contours to the shape of your spine provide extra support and comfort while sitting for long periods. Some chairs may even have adjustable backrest support to ensure a customized fit.
Having a high enough backrest helps ensure that the whole back is getting support (not just a part of it).
However, not all chairs will have these back-saving features. Although these premium features may be more pricey, think of them as an investment in your health. Preventing injuries and pain is always greater than finding a cure.
Before parting with your hard-earned money, consult with a medical professional to see if your current chair suits your body. Try out a work colleague or friend’s office chair to see whether it suits you. Some brands, such as Herman Miller and Steelcase, will generally offer products that are high quality and arrive with the features listed above.
If you work in an office, you may not have control over when or if you get a new chair. Fortunately, there are easy ways to look after your back if you can’t purchase a new chair. Examples include:
Use footstools - If your feet cannot reach the ground, sitting at your workstation may feel uncomfortable (especially if the other option is having the desk too high). Fortunately, a footstool can provide support to your legs during these situations. Although adjustable footrests offer more comfort and adjustability, anything sturdy should be enough (i.e., using a small box or stool.).
Consider lumbar cushions - Adding a cushion between your back and the chair is the easiest and quickest way to increase back support. You can use a folded or rolled towel or a small pillow as an interim solution. If you’re looking for a longer-term fix, you may opt to buy special lumbar supports or add straps to a pillow to hold it firmly to prevent slipping.
Make sure your overall desk setup is correct - Ideally, your keyboard should be at about waist height while the monitor is at eye level. Consider purchasing an external keyboard and a laptop riser to ensure the right height if you use a laptop. Avoid keeping the laptop on your lap to prevent poor posture and losing balance. Keep everything within reach, so you don't have to keep overreaching. If you do need to reach outwards, try swiveling and adjusting your chair first.
Standing desks have become popular, but they might not be right for everyone. Sit-stand workstations provide greater adjustability as you can change between sitting and standing during the day.³ However, preferences can vary person-to-person.
There are indications that using a gym ball or exercise ball as a chair can be helpful for some people with lower back pain.⁴ It works by encouraging "active sitting" where your muscles are working all the time. However, available studies are done under the supervision of a physical therapist and may not be practical in an office setting. Although it increases muscle activation, many people will often switch back to using a regular chair for convenience. If you want to try a gym ball, make sure it is the right size for you.
Kneeling chairs can help some people with back pain.⁵ However, there is not enough research to support its use. Kneeling increases the curvature of the lower back and can help provide comfort for those with certain conditions and postures. Kneeling chairs are relatively cheap, so it may be worth trying if you are not comfortable in a regular chair. Those with chronic lower back pain should consult a physical therapist before purchasing a kneeling chair.
Generally, the most reliable choice is a good ergonomic office chair. Additionally, you may consider sitting on an exercise ball or switching between sit-to-stand workstations. If you are fortunate enough to have a sit-stand desk at work, make sure you actively switch positions.
The best type of office chair to prevent lower back pain varies from person to person. However, the most reliable option is an ergonomic chair that you can adjust to your body type. If this is not available, you can use things like lumbar cushions and footrests to compensate.
Other options, such as standing desks, kneeling chairs, and exercise balls, might only be temporarily effective and won’t suit everyone. Ideally, you should also consult a physical therapist who specializes in ergonomics.
Although finding an ergonomic can be expensive, having the proper office equipment can help prevent lower back pain and preserve your physical wellbeing.
Low back pain - Acute | MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia