Real life desk job hacks for back pain sufferers from a real life desk jockey!
“Your back hurts because you sit too much.”
We have to put an end to this pointless diagnosis.
“Your back hurts because you sit too much” is probably one of the most overused blanket statements for diagnosing low levels of back pain. If I was completely honest, when I first started teaching about beating back pain over 8 years ago I would often say this myself. I want to set the record straight and fill you in on some of the most powerful and simple to apply “desk job” hacks you will find.
I know first hand what it’s like to have a job where sitting is what you do really well. As a full-time trainer, I was ALWAYS on my feet moving around and guess what? My back hurt. I then started a job where sitting was all I did for most of the day and guess what…my back still hurt. I hated hearing websites and “professionals” tell me to just stop sitting so much and find more ways of being active at work. I never really felt like they were meeting me where I was in that season of life.
I want to really address this sitting and back pain topic and cover what I agree with and don’t agree with and how you can make some reasonable and simple changes to your day to help make steps in your recovery.
When it comes to your back pain there will be things you just can’t help.
The goal is to make small investments throughout the day into your “healthy spine hygiene account” to make small strides towards big relief.
Unfortunately, in today’s working environment one of the worst things we are forced to get really good at is sitting. It’s the worst. The lucky ones are people like teachers, personal trainers, construction workers, and stay at home moms. They have a pretty good variety of standing, sitting and walking. These people can still have back pain but it’s not usually due to long bouts of sitting. This is where the importance of lifestyle design and customizing your own recovery plan to fit your personal situation comes in. We need to find the root cause and attack it like crazy!
Take chronic sitting for example. If all you do is sit all day your sole solution will not be to just stop sitting and start standing. You have to take the time to learn your body and adjust your position when your body starts giving you feedback. It’s like standing in line at a theme park. Do you just stand there with your arms by your side, only moving when the line starts moving? No, you rock back and forth, you cross your arms or uncross them, you shift your weight back and forth, you lean on the rail or wall etc. All of these different standing positions are brought on by your bodies way of saying, “I want to move!”Even the slightest change in position can help both your mental and physical state when it comes to back pain. Your tissues don’t like being in one static position. They want to be moved!
The problem I am noticing more and more is people are getting away from chairs and working at a standing desk, sitting on stability balls or other “ergonomic” contraptions. This is all great but when it comes to changing up the way you do something, you have to always remember, one technique should not necessarily replace the other entirely.
At the end of the day, the best formula is one that involves multiple positions and potentially different kinds of “work stations”.
I am going to dive into a few different approaches to how I handle and coach the desk bound lifestyle.
Sitting with back pain and how I approach it.
Office Chairs: Over the past 7 years I have sat in over 5 different “desk chairs” at my job and none of them have really helped relieve the pain I was having. If I was completely honest it was the cheapest chair out of the bunch that actually did anything to help me. I was doing a lot of things wrong back then and I wanted to share with you some desk hacks that I have seen a lot of success with my students.
1. Office Chair Hacks
If you experience back pain when sitting in your office chair, you have to play around with how you use your chair to get the most out of it. Here are a few of my go-to’s.
Don’t try and hold perfect posture all day. Its been known that the best way to use the chair is not not really use it at all. I always suggest starting with sitting towards the front of the chair without using the back rest but that will only be good for so long. After doing the “perfect posture” technique. Slide your butt into the back of the seat and place your back up against the back rest. Take a few deep breaths and just chill. Your spine is not going to snap just because your sitting up against the back rest. In fact depending on what type of irritation you deal with giving your lower back REST is what is best.
Take me for example. My “back pain” comes from my lumbar erectors and surrounding lower back muscles tightening and get stiff after repeated flexion with bad form. For me to try and stiffen my trunk for hours on end only causes the muscles in my lumbar spine to get tight. Giving my body a rest and allowing the muscles to disengage is good for me. This also gives me a chance to work on some deep breathing techniques that will get good blood flow going (this is huge). So the key to sitting in an office chair is to vary your positions. Sit without the rest and engage the core and pull the shoulders back and down. when you find yourself slacking on posture or getting tired. Slide back and use what the chair was designed for. Get creative just give your spine variety.
2. Stability Ball Hacks
Lets talk about the stability ball. You can actually go a few different routes with this. The key here is to stay focused on doing one thing…change your sitting position often “CYSPO” => Pronounced “Sis – Poe”. Write that on your desk in a few different areas to give yourself a reminder!
For starters getting the right ball is key. It does not have to cost a fortune but getting the right size is huge. At my desk I have a 75cm ball with no sand in it. I am 5’11 so this is perfect. I pump it up nice and tight and make sure to keep it stiff. If the ball doesn’t have enough air it will tilt your pelvis causing an increase in irritation to the discs. A stiff ball gives you more control over your neutral position.
Some of the items I suggest below are affiliate links of products I own or use myself.
There are two different types of stability ball chairs that I suggest. I will link them below and tell you what I think of both.
These LuxFit chairs are awesome! I have used one of these a few different times and when it comes to sitting with back pain this is a game changer. 2 of the most important facts about these.
- You get the “stability ball” feel when sitting, along with the benefits of getting off your normal chair and into something more active.
- You get the back rest aspect. This is key. You WILL NOT be able to sit on a stability ball for 8 hours straight. You need to give your body rest. The back rest allows you to get the rest your body needs while keeping the more active chair.
Super simple stability ball. Nothing crazy about this just make sure you get the right size. If you are 5’10 and up you need a 75cm ball for your desk. The sizes drop according to your height so make sure to get the right one. I cover why I like this chair in this section so keep reading and I will give you the skinny!
Using a stability ball is very similar to sitting on a chair with no back rest. Your core is engaged but not too much and your making sure you are sitting upright on the ball. You are defeating the whole purpose if you are leaning onto the desk or having to reach out to touch your mouse and keyboard. Bring the ball up under the desk and the mouse and keyboard to you so you can keep your arms/shoulders in a good position. This is your standard way of using a stability ball for a chair.
To spice it up I will often adjust where my feet are. For example, while sitting on the ball I will have one leg facing normal (forward) with the other leg extended back. I will switch from side to side with this technique. If you play around with it you can get a slight hip flexor stretch too!
When I am sitting on one of the stability ball chairs, I will often take what I call “Movement Breaks”. This is where I will stretch in different directions or do some basic spine movements while on my ball at my desk. Don’t over complicate the movements you do just give your spine movement in all different directions and make sure to stay away from any pain threshold. These should not be intense strenuous movements at all!
This is a pretty good example of what I do. You can tailor them to fit your comfort level but the key is to take advantage of being able to be more mobile compared to when you’re stuck in a chair.
Check out the video below for some examples!
3. Active Desk Hacks
This section is probably my favorite because these changes are extremely powerful. I have seen the culture of a small office change simply from one person making healthier changes to their own desk. Don’t be afraid of what people will think. A good office culture will allow everyone to work their “desk” how they want. Be brave and get weird. You will be surprised who you start seeing making the same changes!
Here are my best “desk hacks”
1 – I always have a few different mobility tools in my drawer or on the floor under my desk. I will often have my shoes off and using one of those balls to work the bottoms of my feet while I sit. It’s a great way to break up tissue and keep your brain connected with the rest of your body. This is key to being able to keep good posture.
2 – I have a 4-5 foot small PVC pipe in or around my desk as well. With this I will do shoulder hyper-extensions at my desk or while standing. After a while your shoulders start to round forward and muscles get short. This is a great way to open the joints up and keep a good posture in mind.
3 – Make a portable standing desk or invest in a Varidesk.
Lets talk portable: I have been known to keep cardboard boxes under my desk and pull them out through out the day to bring my keyboard and mouse up to a higher level while I stand. That’s the super cheap and ghetto looking version of a more active desk. You can get more creative with different types of plastic shelving you can pick up from your local store or you can go all in with a Varidesk.
I have been doing a lot of research on the best/most affordable active desk on the market and hands down this is the best so far. There are lots of desks out there but who needs a $900 dollar desk when you can cut that in half and have something you can put on ANY desk you work at.
Check out the video in the link above that shows you how this thing works. You can easily go from a sitting position to standing within a few seconds. No building or tearing down. Just leave it where its at. These are also big enough to run a double screen set up which I know a lot of different desk jobs require.
Lastly I want to give you a few bonus tips you can work into your day. This section is also for those who can’t make an active desk and are limited to what their office gives them.
Bonus: What if i can’t make a standing desk or use a stability ball chair?
I want to treat this section as if you aren’t able to implement the above tips for sitting with back pain at your office. These will also be good to just consider as added bonuses to your day.
1. Fight for a healthier work environment. It’s all about the approach. Your boss only wants productivity and results. If you approach him with how your more active desk will boost the things he/she wants out of you, your chances of having some leniency is higher. Talk about boosted morale, more productive and focused work and of course less days off due to back pain. This all affects his efforts to running the company. Don’t make it all about you!
2. Drink tons of water. One thing that is consistent with more water…more bathroom breaks. More bathroom breaks equals more steps. More steps equals more healthy movement in your spine. More water pumping through your system equals happier and more saturated discs. This is a good thing! It will not single handedly heal your pain but its a piece of your puzzle that needs to be locked in.
3. Go the long way. I am not a stranger to walking up 8 flights of stairs just to go pee. Nor am I a stranger to walking around the perimeter of the building while on a personal call for 10 minutes. Where ever I can get more steps in I try to take advantage of it. It almost becomes a game. How can I get more steps or movement into my day without waisting time or becoming less productive. One tip I will give you for bathroom breaks or any break for that matter. Get your work to a place where when you come back you can pick right back up where you left off. Often times with our work we get in these zones where we get super focused and are really productive. Then a coworker comes over or people start yapping and your focus breaks and it seems to take you 15 minutes just to get back in that zone. Learn to work in chunks so when you get up you can clear your mind and come back focused and knowing where you left off.
Sitting at a desk all day will cause back pain for different reasons depending on what is going on in your own back. Someone who has a disc herniation will have a different struggle then someone who has had a fusion. I don’t experience disc pain any more but I will get muscle stiffness from doing the wrong thing too much. We are all different but need to implement the fundamentals if we want to see long term relief.
Thanks for checking this article out guys!
What hacks do you use to keep yourself as healthy as possible at your desk! Share them below! I can’t wait to read them.
Talk to you soon!
P.S I have big goals this year with Fitness4BackPain.com and one of those is to reach 500,000 back pain sufferers around the world. I can only do this with your help. If the article provided any sort of value please share it how ever you can. There are a lot of sufferers who have no hope in getting better! Help be apart of changing their lives!