The Seat of Your Discomfort

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

ByABC News
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.