Back pain is increasingly associated with long periods of sitting. But is sitting for hours really the new smoking and does this effectively produce damage to the intervertebral discs or even the spine?
The fact is that statistically back pain is one of the most important causes of sick leave with a large percentage of those affected having a sedentary occupation. There is no doubt that sitting and back pain are linked. Furthermore, most back pain is located in the lumbar region.
It is fundamentally important to understand what the different causes are, why so many people suffer from lower back pain and how lumbar support could help prevent or alleviate it.
What are the causes of lower back pain?
Since lower back pain is common, it’s important to know the cause so the problem can be addressed at its root. Here’s a breakdown of the most common reasons for back and lumbar problems.
A main reason for back pain and especially lower back pain comes from lack of movement. The lack of movement is caused on the one hand by working in the same position for a long time (mostly sitting) and on the other hand because many people are not active enough.
Often, when sitting on an office chair, the backrest is fixed, whereas with a movable backrest, i.e. dynamic sitting, fluid is returned to the intervertebral discs. Dynamic sitting keeps the intervertebral discs supple, which prevents lower back pain. Therefore, do not leave the backrest of your office chair fixed, but in a movable state. Adjust the backrest counterpressure according to your weight so that you have support from the back cushion even when it moves.
Additionally, modern man has invented newer and newer methods of transportation and thus unfortunately moves his body even less, which in turn has a negative effect on the musculoskeletal system often resulting in back pain.
In former times the advice for complaints in the back was that one should hold oneself calmly and if possible not move, but lie down as much as possible. In the meantime, however, we have come to realize that movement is an excellent remedy for back pain as well as being a great preventive measure.
The stress factor is another trigger for pain in the back. With too much stress, the muscles tense up, which triggers pain in the lower back, shoulder or neck region. Due to this tension, people often adopt a bad posture because they want to avoid the pain, which leads to a vicious circle resulting in even more back pain. Try to avoid stress as much as possible and do not attempt the impossible, as this will eventually damage your health.
One-sided body load
One-sided body load is another factor for back pain. This happens when, for example, a load is always carried on only one side, whether it is a briefcase, shopping bag or shoulder bag. This creates a one-sided load in the lumbar vertebrae.
Another one-sided body load is always crossing the same leg over the other while seated which can eventually cause the pelvis to become misaligned.
If you find yourself doing any of these things, try to always carry heavy loads distributed on both arms or switch sides regularly. The same goes with alternating crossing your legs. The best would be not to cross the legs at all and to assume an upright sitting position with thighs parallel to the ground.
Excess weight not only puts pressure on the joints, but also on the spine and especially on the lower back. Particularly when overweight people bend over, this puts even more pressure on the discs in the lumbar region, which can accelerate a herniated disc. If you are overweight and experiencing back pain, you should consult with a nutritionist and switch to a healthy eating plan.
Gardening and the like
Heavy physical work or especially gardening can quickly cause distress to your back and is usually felt first in your lower back. This is partly because such work involves adopting an unaccustomed position, which puts unilateral stress on the intervertebral discs in the lumbar region. It is best to respect the ergonomics and not to work with a crooked back, especially in such activities. Change your position regularly to avoid one-sided body load. When gardening, you should stand up straight frequently for a short while. This relieves the back and stimulates the blood circulation.
Lying on a mattress that is too hard or too soft puts the body in an unnatural position, which can cause pressure points on the spine, causing discomfort in the lower and upper back. The rule of thumb for a good mattress is that the heavier the person, the harder the mattress should be. Since you spend about 1/3 of your life on a mattress, you should seek advice from a professional in this area to ensure maximum quality of life and a healthy back.
Sitting in general, but especially on an office chair at a desk is a major cause of lower back discomfort. Although today the knowledge about the effect of ergonomics and the influence on back pain in connection with an office chair is well known, a large number of office chairs still have deficiencies. This is mainly due to the seat and back cushions, which are usually too thin and do not have an ergonomic shape. In an office chair, lumbar support incorporated into the back cushion should be a standard design, but unfortunately this is hardly the case. As a result, the classic office complaints are in the lower back, especially in the area of the lumbar spine L4/L5. Herniated discs are also mostly found in the lumbar spine area and are often a result of years of incorrect sitting posture and the resulting overloading of the intervertebral discs.
What is lumbar support?
In order for the back, or rather the spine, to remain in its natural S-shape while sitting, it needs the corresponding support in the back cushion. This ensures an upright sitting position and the curvature in the lumbar region guarantees a healthy posture.
Lumbar support in an office chair can be provided in two different ways:
Lumbar support already present in the shaping of the back cushion
Actually, it should be a must for every office chair that the shape of the upholstery is ergonomically designed with the natural curvature of a spine reflected in the back cushion. However, a majority of office chairs are produced in a cheap way. On the one hand, foam material is economized and, on the other hand, production costs are massively reduced by simply shaping the upholstery. This explains why so many office chairs have a thin cushion or use cheap foam material, which is worn through after a few years and then crumbles like flour. Despite this, many manufacturers claim to offer ergonomic office chairs. However, there are three simple tricks that can be used to check the ergonomics of an office chair relatively quickly.
- a clear support should be felt in the lower third of the back cushion. The cushion must have a curvature of a few finger thicknesses in this area and come outwards so that the important support of the lumbar vertebrae is effectively guaranteed. Only a small curvature or a straight surface, as is the case with most cheap office chairs, is insufficient and can have a severely detrimental effect on health.
- thin cushions provide little support to the lumbar region. Thicker cushions are better for comfortable back support and with more foam, more support can be given to the lower back. Cushions with molded foam would be ideal, as this material maintains the restoring force for years and does not interfere with blood circulation due to its softness. The easiest way to determine this is to press on a seat or back cushion with your index finger or thumb. You should not feel any hard surface, but only the foam. The easier it is to feel the hard surface, the more problems such a cushion can cause after sitting for hours.
- sit on the office chair and test it. The best way would be to test it over several days. However, if you don’t have the time, you can sit on the chair for a moment and consciously check if you have a straight back when you sit all the way back in the chair and lean on the back cushion. When doing this, you should not have a crooked back, but your spine should be in the same posture as if you were standing. The backrest upholstery should be tangibly tight along the entire back without any gaps between the chair and your spine.
Office chairs with a mesh back basically provide less of an ideal ergonomic support than upholstery with foam. This is primarily because the mesh upholstery loosens over time, providing less support for the lumbar vertebrae. Secondly, mesh feels harder than foam, which in turn negatively affects blood circulation. Many people choose a mesh back because of the good ventilation, which is certainly an argument. However, it should also be taken into account that many people get chilled at the back and kidneys precisely because of this air permeability and can fall ill as a result. A mesh back can guarantee an ergonomic shape if the mesh has strong tension and has a good curvature in the lumbar region, even when the mesh is loaded.
Additional lumbar support for office chairs as an option
Higher quality office chairs offer supplemental lumbar support as an option. Such additional lumbar support is certainly a useful add-on option and should be chosen especially if the normal cushions do not offer enough support in the lower back area.
There are several types of such optional lumbar support.
- In a mechanical lumbar support, the arching is created by tensioning or relaxing the mechanism. This involves creating more arching when a wire is tensioned and less arching when it is relaxed. This allows the most comfortable position to be customized.
- A similar system exists with an air pump, where pumping in air causes more arching and releasing the air produces correspondingly less arching. The only disadvantage with such systems is that they do not remain 100% tight and some air always escapes. This means that after a few days/weeks the bulge must be pumped up again. The advantage is that the air feels pleasantly soft and the bulge is somewhat flexible when not filled to the maximum.
- Especially with mesh backs, foam support is usually offered for the lordosis area, which is certainly recommended here. Mesh backs generally have more of a problem guaranteeing good support for the lumbar vertebrae, but this can be remedied with such an option.
- Additional plastic or metal in the cushion or on the mesh back can also be used to create supplementary support for the lower back. This is not an ideal method, as hard material can affect blood circulation. But if this guarantees a better arch in the cushion, it may still be an ergonomic improvement.
Lumbar support for a car seat or normal chair
With many car brands today, you can also have a lumbar support for the seat as an option, which is certainly a good investment. Normal chairs rarely have the option of lumbar support.
Car seats and chairs, unfortunately, often lack lumbar support and inevitably cause back pain. As a rule, lumbar support is primarily an aftermarket option. Fortunately, a large selection of such additional ergonomic products is available. These are usually made of foam or even Tempur while products made of mesh or some sort of lightweight mesh are also available. Even if these additionally attached products look a bit unusual and possibly disturb the design effect, they have a high impact in ergonomic support. It is absolutely advisable to use such additional products in case of lack of ergonomics and insufficient lumbar support in the car seat, office chair or chairs in general.
If I find myself in a situation without sufficient lumbar support, which is often the case, for example, on a short-haul airplane flight or in a restaurant on an uncomfortable chair, I use a folded sweater or even my windbreaker as a lumbar support. With the windbreaker, I hang this normally over the chair and bring the sleeves into the lumbar area and then fold it over double. This has allowed me to accommodate to many uncomfortable chairs and to sit pain free. Even better, of course, would be to always carry a portable lumbar support with you. Even a towel rolled up can also be an ideal lumbar support.
Personally, I find lumbar support to be one of the most important things in an office chair. If the upholstery provides good support, this option is not really needed, but it is effectively an ergonomic added value.
Considering that back pain in the region of the lumbar spine is in the vast majority of cases caused by incorrect sitting, priority should be given to finding a personal solution for healthy sitting. Investing in a truly ergonomic office chair with lumbar support is an ideal solution. If you do not want to change your office chair then at least acquire an additional ergonomic product, which you can attach to the chair as a lumbar support.
If the topic of ergonomics in the office or home office appeals to you and you are interested in it further, my book “Wellness in the Office” provides even more tips and tricks. Combined with humorous drawings, I present 50+1 tips to make your office a little paradise.