low back pain and sitting

Prolonged Sitting versus Low Back Pain

For those of you that have not heard, Dr. Peng is attending graduate school (Master of Science in Public Health, specializing in Epidemiology) at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Austin Regional Campus.  What is Epidemiology, you wonder?  A brief definition of Epidemiology is,

“The study of the distribution and causes of diseases or injuries in a select population”.

Therefore, epidemiological research attempts to find risk factors associated with a disease or injury.  As an example, Dr. Peng’s independent study course this summer involved a review of existing scientific literature on the association between prolonged sitting (since so many of the patients that visit PWC work in front of a computer for so many hours) and low back pain.  After reviewing several dozens of research articles, the following conclusions are made:

1) Prolonged sitting, or long sitting hours, did not show a consistent association with low back pain by itself.
2) However, the association between prolonged sitting and low back pain is much stronger if some of the other factors (indicated below) are also present:

  • Static and/or awkward posture (ie. bent over, like the above image)

  • Driving (or more precisely, whole-body vibration involved with driving, which increases compressive forces on the spinal structures)

  • Physically handling objects, ie. excessive lifting, pushing, pulling

Based on the above information, some of these factors often occur along with sitting, and some workers are definitely more prone to low back pain than others: for instance, white-collar office workers, and truck drivers.  Now that we’ve scientifically identified the risk factors, the advice we give to patients here at PWC make sense:

  • Avoid sitting  too long: once an hour, get up and stretch your arms, shoulders, move your head. 

  • Have an ergonomic person inspect your desk to make sure you are not in a non-neutral position.

  • Stop and stretch your back if you are driving for long hours. 

  • Make sure the item you are lifting is not excessively heavy, get a partner to help.  Don’t be a hero!

Also, if these factors are simply difficult to avoid at the workplace, it’ll be a good idea to come in periodically to make sure your spine is in good shape and muscles not too tight!

To ease low back pain, I also highly recommend improving your sitting posture as described in the Gokhale Method. You can read more about this here

— Dr. Trent Peng, Pflugerville Wellness Center