Lower back pain is a widespread condition affecting millions of adult Americans today.¹ The causes of lower back pain while sitting range from muscle strain, trauma, sports injuries, and bad lifestyle habits. Many people find that certain activities and positions aggravate their back pain. This article discusses lower back pain when sitting, the symptoms, the causes, and tips to prevent it.
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Lower back pain while sitting may come as a sudden and sharp or as a constant dull ache. It may last a few days, weeks, or longer than 12 weeks. Common symptoms of the lower back when sitting include:
Persistent aching or stiffness
You may experience stiffness or consistent pain along your spine
You may also feel a sharp pain in the lower back, especially when sitting. The pain may spread from the low back to the buttocks, down the back of your thigh, and into the calf and toes.
Another common symptom of back pain is difficulty sitting upright without any discomfort and pain.
There are several reasons why your lower back is painful while sitting. Finding the root cause of your back pain is important for finding the appropriate treatment. Some of the causes include:
Poor sitting posture can trigger or worsen lower back pain. Incorrect posture while sitting or standing may increase stress and strain through the lower back area. For example, sitting in a slouched or hunched over position can strain the disks. The disks are the fluid-filled cushions protecting the vertebrae from rubbing against each other.
Previous injuries to the lower back, such as disk bulges or stress fractures, might also be causing lower back pain while sitting. These injuries may be traced back to a particular incident, such as a sports injury, car accident, or lifting something heavy.
A recent study reveals as many as 40% of people will get sciatica during their lifetime.² Sciatica can occur when the sciatic nerve is compressed. This can cause symptoms from the lower back and down towards the leg. Examples of these symptoms include pain, tingling, weakness, and numbness. Sciatica can also be caused by various conditions, such as a bulging disk or spasming muscles. Sitting for extended periods can make the symptoms worse.
Herniated disks can occur due to age-related changes (e.g., disk degeneration) or sudden trauma (e.g., heavy lifting and repetitive bending). As the disks age, they become more prone to rupture or tearing. This may cause the inner contents of the disk to begin to leak out from the borders. Once the contents spill out onto the spinal cord, it can pinch the nerves in this area, leading to sciatica and shooting pain down the leg.
Muscle strain or lumbar strain can occur with repetitive or sudden movement. Symptoms of a lumbar strain include back stiffness, pain, and difficulty moving. Muscle strains can become a larger issue during extended periods of poor sitting posture.
Lumbar disk disease
Lumbar disk disease is a degenerative condition that develops over time and with aging. During the aging process, the disk begins to dry out and lose its ability to absorb shock through the spine. Once the vertebra dries out, it can no longer cushion the vertebrae from stress and impact. As a result, the spine may no longer withstand extended periods of certain postures, such as sitting.
The spinal cord travels through a hollow tube created by the vertebrae called the intervertebral foramen. At each level of the spine, the nerves branch out to other body parts. Spinal stenosis causes the tube to narrow, creating pressure on the nerves traveling through the spine. If the tube is not wide enough, the cord gets squeezed, leading to pain, weakness, or numbness. Spinal stenosis can be caused by an injury, age-related changes, an infection, or even a tumor.
Spondylolisthesis occurs when the vertebra below slips behind away from its original position. A common reason this occurs is due to stress fractures of the bones on the lower spine. The fractures occur due to overuse and can occur on one or both sides of the vertebrae. If the vertebra slips far away enough, it could even begin to pinch the surrounding nerves. The most common symptom of the condition includes vague pain during prolonged sitting, standing, or walking.
The following are the factors linked to a higher risk of developing low back pain:
Your job and its associated physical activity
Obesity and excess weight
A sedentary lifestyle
Strenuous physical activity or exercise
Medical conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis
Several simple self-help strategies can help prevent lower back pain when sitting. These include:
Regular exercise can help reduce pain and improve movement. Some types of exercise include pilates, walking, and strength training. Make sure to consult a physical therapist or physician before exercising.
Excess weight can worsen your back pain by putting excess strain on your lower back. Regular physical activity and dietary changes can help with weight maintenance to prevent back pain.
Putting an end to smoking
If you smoke, try and quit for good. Research reveals smokers are more vulnerable to lower back pain than non-smokers. ³ While the exact reason is still being investigated, cigarettes contain chemicals that may restrict blood flow to the spinal structures, increasing the risk of injuries, inflammation, and pain.
Getting adequate sleep
If you are prone to back pain, your sleep quality may be another factor. Insufficient sleep can affect your ability to recover from pain and injury. Examples of factors that may be impacting your sleep include sleep position, mattress firmness, and light exposure before bedtime. Those who are finding sleep troublesome should seek the advice of their doctor.
Maintaining right sitting posture
One way to prevent and recover from lower back pain is maintaining the right sitting posture. However, the ideal sitting posture can vary from person to person. Below is some general advice that may help you discover the best posture for you.
Avoid sitting for extended periods without moving. Perform simple exercises after every 30 minutes of sitting to prevent stiffness and tension through the back.
Sit with back support like a rolled-up towel along the curvature of your back.
Keep your knees and hips at a right angle by using a footrest, if necessary. Ensure your legs are not crossed and your feet are flat on the floor.
At your desk, adjust your chair height and workstation to keep you eye-level against your screen.
When lifting or carrying any heavy object, move close to the object, bend your knees and brace your stomach muscles. As you stand up, use your legs to support your back while carrying the object as close to your body as possible. Ensure you maintain the natural curve of your back to prevent rounding of the spine.
Lower back pain often gets better on its own. Home remedies like resting, hot and cold therapy, over-the-counter pain relievers, and gentle stretches can help with recovery. However, you should see your doctor if your lower back pain is severe and cannot be managed with your home remedies. Additionally, if the pain occurs alongside the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:
Tingling or numbness down the legs
Difficulty walking or moving legs
Very severe pain
Loss of bowel or bladder control
Loss of sensation in the legs
The following are some of the treatments for low back pain while sitting:
Several proven home remedies help alleviate symptoms of lower back pain. These include:
Cold and heat therapy
Typically, ice is recommended during the first 48 to 72 hours on your lower back before switching to heat. Alternating ice and heat can help relax muscles.
A warm bath or a massage can be effective at relaxing stiff and knotted muscles in your back.
Frequent changes in position
Sometimes, sitting or lying on your back for extended periods causes more discomfort. Regularly changing your sitting or sleeping position may relieve tension and pressure on the lower back.
Some over-the-counter pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can help reduce inflammation and pain.
Stretches and exercise
Several exercises can help strengthen your lower back pain. These can include the plank and the dead bug.
Self-care treatment techniques can provide effective relief during the first 72 hours of lower back pains. If the pain persists, seek medical attention from your doctor.
There are several types of medical treatments to treat lower back pain. Seeking the appropriate drugs and medication for your situation may depend on the symptoms and conditions you have been diagnosed with. Common medications include:
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
For serious and chronic lower back pain, surgery may be preferred. However, a doctor usually recommends surgery if all other remedies and treatments fail to work. Surgery can also be an emergency option for severe conditions, such as cauda equina or severe nerve damage. The following are examples of surgeries that could be performed:
A discectomy is a procedure to remove the herniated disk material in the lower back. During the procedure, the parts of the disk pinching the nerve are removed to relieve the pressure on nerves or the spinal cord.
Intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET)
IDET therapy involves inserting a catheter in the spinal cord to heat around the lower back region. The procedure helps thicken the disk wall and reduce the bulging material from the disk.
Nucleoplasty is a minimally invasive alternative for treating disk bulges. The procedure leverages a needle that produces radio waves to dissolve and shrink excess tissue from a bulging disk.
Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure performed to connect two or more vertebrae in the spine to provide additional stability and reduce excess movement between them. The technique mimics the natural healing process of broken bones.
Laminectomy is a surgical procedure that creates more room in the spine by partially or completely removing bone from a specific part of the vertebrae called the lamina. Creating extra space can help enlarge the area in the spine where the spinal cord travels through (i.e., vertebral foramen). This opens up the space for the spinal cord and nerves to travel through to prevent compression on these areas.
If you have a sore back while sitting, you are not alone. Lower back pain is very common and can occur without an obvious cause. Studies reveal that up to four out of five people experience back pain at some point, making it one of the most common reasons to see a doctor.⁴ Fortunately, it is possible to prevent lower back pain through good lifestyle habits, such as exercising regularly, paying attention to your posture while sitting, getting adequate sleep, and reducing inactivity.
Acute low back pain | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sciatica: Of all the nerve | Harvard Health
Low back pain fact sheet | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke