The Seat of Your Discomfort

Your uncomfortable office chair could be the root of your back pain.

February 9, 2009, 3:29 PM

Jan. 31, 2008 — -- This is a man's world.

A 5-foot-10, 165-pound man, to be precise. Many of the things we use every day are designed for him. Car seats and movie seats, countertops at stores, bookshelves and handrails all cater to him, unapologetically.

Call it a design flaw, one that can be a big problem in the office. And our bodies may be paying the price. With average working Americans spending about eight hours a day in their office chairs, an uncomfortable one can lead to long-term health consequences, such as chronic back pain.

An ill-adjusted chair and poor posture are two of the most common back pain culprits, said Dr. Barrett Caldwell, ergonomist and associate professor at the Schools of Industrial Engineering and Aeronautics & Astronautics at Purdue University. "A chair should be a place to rest and focus on work rather than just a structure you are on."

But focusing on work can be part of the problem.

"We don't notice [discomfort] when we are trying to get something done," said Karen Erickson, a doctor of chiropractic medicine in New York. "We all have very unconscious patterns that we don't even realize. They are not easy to stop doing."

And a desk job is not doing a person in pain any favors. Sitting for long periods of time is one of the most stressful positions for the spine because it puts weight and stress on the discs in the lower back, where the spine naturally curves inward. If the surrounding muscles are not strong and configured to support the spine, the head, neck and shoulders compensate by leaning forward into a hunched C shape. This exaggerated shape fatigues the muscles and can lead to excruciating pain.

"This is why your mother always told you to sit up straight," said Dr. Carol Warfield, professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School.

Jane Benjamin, 53, felt the truth of that advice firsthand. As a young psychology student, Benjamin spent hectic school days in clinics and hospitals, always in an uncomfortable chair.

One day Benjamin was washing a pair of stockings in her sink and straightened up to hang them. Immediately, a searing pain, which turned out to be a muscle spasm, shot through her back. She fell to the floor.

"I went to my knees and was completely crippled," Benjamin recalled. "I thought something was horrendously wrong."

Washing those stockings may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but the root of Benjamin's problem turned out to be her office chair.

According to the American Chiropractic Association, half of all working Americans experience back pain symptoms each year. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons for missed work.

Improving your posture can be key, and the right chair can jump-start the process. The best is one that can be adjusted at various positions so that the body is relaxed and upright. The chair should be low enough so that your feet are flat on the floor. The seat should be deep enough so that your backside is up against the back of the chair, but not so deep that it extends out to the knees.

Lumbar support for the lower back may be a feature on the chair already, or it can be added with a small pillow. With the shoulders relaxed and the upper arms parallel to the spine, the arm rests should support the forearms at a 90-degree angle.

"It's kind of like the three bears," said Steve Conway, a doctor of chiropractic medicine based in Wasau, Wis., referring to the childhood tale. "You've got to find just the right spot."

But Conway, who consults with many companies on ergonomics in the workplace, cautions that just because a label says ergonomic does not mean it will solve all pain problems. Rather, it is more important to fit the chair and the work station to the person.

Scott Bautch, of the American Chiropractic Association, recalled a female patient who had terrible pain in her back and wrists. He observed her at work and found her sitting at an L-shaped desk, pulling herself from one work station to the other with her hands because her feet did not touch the floor.

"It was not a typing problem, like I thought," Bautch said. He recommended a stool and a smooth mat under the chair, and the patient's pain disappeared.

Movement is another key to pain relief, and doctors recommend taking "microbreaks" every 20 minutes to stretch and walk around.

But stay away from pain medications. "They only mask the problem," Erickson said. Movement and exercise, say these professionals, are more effective, long-lasting ways to combat the pain.

"The body relishes variety," Bautch said. "You're gonna use the muscles you're resting and rest the muscles you're using."

Benjamin, for one, now takes care to sit properly when she sees patients and move around when she takes breaks.

"Currently I'm quite good," Benjamin said. "But I've never washed stockings the same way since."