How to Sit With Low Back Pain

Almost everyone will have low back pain at some point. Standing and walking is better than sitting with low back pain, but sometimes you must sit and there are ways to sit better with low back pain.

woman sitting at desk with poor posture

When you have to sit at your desk, sit with your back supported and with your feet flat on the floor. Don't cross your legs! Sitting like this example will leave you with back pain in the long run. © Onest Mistic | Getty Images

© Onest Mistic | Getty Images

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), almost everyone will experience low back pain. There are many causes. Your spine is made up of bones called vertebrae separated by cushions, called discs. The vertebrae are attached to spinal muscles and to each other by ligaments and tendons. A sudden injury to a ligament or tendon can put your lower back muscles into spasms causing acute low back pain.

A common cause of longer-term low back pain is a tear, bulge, or degeneration of a spinal cord disc. A bulging disc can push on a nerve leaving the spinal cord and cause pain that shoots down the leg, called sciatica. No matter what the cause is, sitting is not good for low back pain. It makes the pain worse, prolonged sitting can even be the cause of low back pain.

Why Is Sitting Bad for Back Pain?

According to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health, sitting puts more pressure on your spinal discs than standing. In fact, the best way to relieve back pain from sitting is to get up and move. Studies show that people who sit for work are at higher risk for low back pain. People who work in offices or work on the computer from home may spend more than five to seven hours of a work day sitting. Leisure time spent sitting in front of a TV or gaming on a computer screen also adds to sitting time.

People who work at call centers and answer phones may spend 95 percent of their work day sitting. A recent study in the journal Applied Ergonomics found that 75 percent of call center workers experienced low back pain. Workers who had less pain moved more, even while sitting. Changing position and stretching while sitting is called dynamic sitting. People who moved less, called static sitting, had more pain.

How to Sit When You Need to Sit

The first rule is get up and move about every 10 to 15 minutes, never sit for more than 30 minutes. While sitting, be dynamic not static. Change position and stretch your back and shoulder muscles in your chair.

Cleveland Clinic offers these tips for sitting with back pain:

  • Get up every 15 minutes.
  • As soon as you get up, do some stretching and then walking.
  • Support the natural inner curve of your lower back – called the lordosis – while sitting. If your chair does not support your lordotic curve, place a rolled towel or cushion for support.
  • Use a straight-backed chair with a firm seat and arm rests.
  • Sit with your back supported and with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Don’t cross your legs.
  • Rest your elbows on the chair or desk and sit close enough so you don’t have to lean forward.
  • The height of your chair should allow your thighs and your forearms to rest at a 90-degree angle from the rest of your body (straight out, not tilting up or down).
  • Use the same rules for leisure sitting. Slouching in a soft chair will make back pain worse.

Other ways to prevent or reduce back pain are exercising regularly, adding exercises to stretch and strengthen back muscles, keeping good posture while walking, standing, and sitting, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking. Smoking ages your spine.

AAOS adds these tips for back pain:

Use heat or ice to reduce back pain and muscle spasms. Use over-the-counter pain relievers. Call your healthcare provider if back pain continues for a few weeks or gets worse. Get help right away if:

  • You have loss of feeling or weakness in your lower body.
  • You have back pain after an injury or with a fever.
  • Your pain gets suddenly worse.
  • You have loss of feeling or movement.
  • You have loss of bowel or bladder control.

For more information, see our health report Managing Low Back Pain.

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Chris Iliades, MD

Dr. Chris Iliades is board-certified in Ear, Nose and Throat and Head and Neck Surgery from the American Board of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery. He holds a medical … Read More

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