Whilst posture isn’t everything in back pain our experience suggests it can be a significant factor in curing back pain. In this article we’ll talk you through the kind of postural issues we see at the clinic which contribute to not only back pain but a myriad of conditions including RSI and knee pain.
Did you know that sitting in bad posture can even have a negative effect on our mood as well? Our mood is reflected in our posture and our posture will affect our mood. Just try sitting in really bad posture and see what it does to your mood!
We’ll consider both emotional and physical factors as we look to help you avoid some of the issues a life in the office can have on your back.
How Good Is Your Posture At Your Desk?
Do you think you have perfect posture? Probably not. And that’s actually ok. The most important thing is to notice your posture. Rather than plough on through your work endlessly without paying any attention to yourself we want to notice how we’re holding ourselves and make a judgement if we need to reset, have a break or carry on serenely.
What we’re striving for isn’t perfection. In fact people who strive for perfection tend to be too rigid or upright in their posture. What we’re looking for is Goldilocks posture. Not too much, not too little. Just right.
In seated office posture that means not too slouched and not too rigid. Just somewhere in the middle that’s just right for you. The key word here is you. How do you know what’s right for you? Well hopefully this quick alignment exercise will give you a better idea.
How To Sit Better At Your Desk
This quick routine is about finding where your pelvic neutral is. Not anyone else’s! By pelvic neutral we mean the position of the pelvis where the muscles on the front and back of the pelvis are working in equilibrium with minimal effort. Not causing the adaptations and shortening that can contribute to pain in the back or elsewhere in the body.
Below is a short video demonstrating the concept:
In case you’re unable to watch the video for whatever reason I’ll talk you through it. To start go into a really bad slouchy posture. Most people find this quite easy. Then from here go bolt upright into what I call finishing school posture. Now this is too upright. You may feel some tension or discomfort at the extremes of these two movements.
You may, or may not, have noticed that moving between these two extremes was all pelvic movement. You almost want to think pelvis thrusting as you might on the dance floor! These are the 2 positions we’re trying to move between. Don’t worry if you can’t quite get this. If you have a stiff low back your rib cage and your pelvis may move together in one chunk. That’s ok. So long as it’s not painful a rough approximation will be ok for the purposes of this exercise.
Now rock between these 2 extremities of pelvic position and start to make it a smaller and smaller movement each time you do it until eventually you get the nirvana that is pelvic neutral. This is what you should be aiming for at your desk. ‘They,’ whoever ‘they’ are, say that you should feel your ‘core’ muscles holding you in place in this position working at about 30% of effort. 30% feels about right. It’s not massively straining as if you were doing a plank or sit up. It’s just a background awareness that your muscles are doing something.
Whatever neutral position you find yourself in now go back to your normal posture. This should demonstrate just how far out you are day to day. If nothing changes then well done you. You have nothing to work on. You are very much in the minority!
For the rest of us imperfect mortals we may struggle to hold this change in posture for any length of time. If you do try walking around for a couple minutes, perhaps go and get a glass of water or herbal tea (no caffeinated drinks!) and then start again. As things progress it will get easier to hold yourself in good posture for longer.
If you find your ‘neutral’ position is painful or you simply can’t hold it for very long at all don’t panic. It just means that your body is not ready for such a significant difference! In the first instance try to go somewhere between pelvic neutral and your normal position. Hopefully that will be more comfortable. If this still doesn’t work you may need a professional to take a more detailed look at you.
Breaks are vital for our concentration levels as we discuss in our previous article Peak Performance. We can use breaks to make it easier to hold our new, more neutral, posture and also as a way of improving our overall well being at work. Which should help reduce pain and stiffness.
Translating Office Posture To Driving Posture
Many of you who have an office job also drive a lot. This next tip has been an important piece of advice in helping many people with their back pain whilst driving.
It starts with the same exercise we describe above but with you sat in your driving seat. Do the exercise to find pelvic neutral again exactly as we describe above. Now look in the rear view mirror. You will probably find that you can’t see anything!
Adjust the mirror so you can see out the back again. Then if you lose your pelvic neutral as you drive you have a reminder to get ‘tall’ again. You may need to adjust the back rest position when you do this. For most chairs I usually say try not to use the back of the chair and use your core muscles to keep you upright rather than relying on backs of seats. Due to the ‘bucket’ nature of car seats and potentially long duration of sitting I don’t think it is realistic in cars. Which is why adjusting the back rest is important to make it easier to hold pelvic neutral for prolonged periods.
I would love to come up with something that can monitor such a thing at your desk and give some sort of reminder when we’ve got lazy. Perhaps a buzzer or mild electric shock or something. Or perhaps more practically we could get a height measure which should be in contact with the top of your head at all times. More of a pipe dream than anything with marketable potential!
How Desk Posture Reflects How Good Your Day Is!
Reading of body language can be quite easy as you look around the office. If you look at people you work with and they seem bolt upright and tense it may be that they have a deadline looming and are working frantically. It may be that they are just of a more anxious disposition.
Conversely if you see someone slumped at their desk they may be more exhausted or of a depressive persuasion. As we said at the beginning of this article our mood is reflected in our posture and our posture will affect our mood.
As you walk into the office tomorrow have a look around. You’ll quickly see those who are uptight and stressed and those who are looking down trodden and beaten by the world.
When we are in tune with this reading of body language it can be useful in understanding how to approach each individual. However, it’s harder to recognise it in ourselves and change it for the better. So don’t beat yourself up if you struggle to implement what we’ve spoken about above.
If you catch yourself reverting back to your old posture congratulate yourself for noticing rather than berating yourself for not doing it right. Noticing how you hold yourself more often over a period of time should help low back pain and other office related issues.
If our mood is consistently, shall we say, non-optimal, then spending time in these body shapes affects our muscle length and contributes to pain and dysfunction. If you put a muscle in a short tight position it thinks it should stay there. Not only this but increased stress or low mood over time increases the sensitisation of our nervous system. We quite simply feel more pain when we’re more stressed. We discuss the nuances of pain in more detail in our previous article what is pain.
In short work on that posture to feel happier!
Why Laptops Are Bad For Desk Posture
Desktop machines are far from perfect but laptops, phones and tablets are worse! Rather than talk technical let me give you a real life example from an old client.
We’ll call him Dave. I’ll set the scene. We’d done 2 or 3 treatments on a long standing low back problem and were making good progress. I was expecting to sign Dave off as fixed at that session. An abridged version of the conversation was as follows:
Me: “How’s things Dave? That back still good?”
Dave: “Nope it’s been awful.”
Me: “Oh. It was pretty good last I saw you what happened?”
Dave: “I don’t know it just came on with a vengeance one day.”
Me: “Anything you were doing that day?”
Dave: “Oh nothing much. Just sat down for about 6 hours on the sofa writing reports for work on the laptop.”
Me: “We need to talk!”
This is quite a typical conversation. Variants of which we’ve had with many clients over the years. In this case the problem was twofold. Firstly the softness of the sofa allowed the body into a crumpled position. Secondly, with laptop usage, we inevitably look downwards. We have to. This has implications on the neck and all the way down to the low back. As you can see in this picture here:
You’ll be pleased to hear Dave is now fine and has a desktop machine at home to work on. A desktop machine is a much better option for prolonged computer use. Alternatively a docking station for your laptop to which you can attach a monitor and a mouse. As a very minimum if you do have to use a laptop please sit on a proper chair at a table. Sermon over!
Workstation Set Up For Back Pain And Beyond
This advice on how to sit for back pain forms part of a wider article on how to set up your desk to avoid injury. This has evolved over time in conversation with our clients based on our biomechanical knowledge and their input in terms of what works and doesn’t work for them. We hope you find this article useful also.
In this article we have also alluded to the significant impact that mood and well being can have on the pain that you feel. If you’d like some more ideas on how to improve your well being based on our work with our previous clients please click through to our Well Being Ideas article.
The insight in these articles can in isolation seem obvious. But the cumulative effect of all of these dare I use the term ‘life hacks’ can lead to a massive change in pain and quality of life. Now and for the future. Hopefully this article will be the catalyst for you to implement changes that will make a difference.