At some point in their lifetime, eight in 10 people will experience back pain. For many, this pain is experienced most at work — and it’s no surprise why. Work is where we spend most of our day, and for some of us, work can even be a source of stress. With hours spent sitting, standing, driving or lifting heavy objects, even simple movements on the job can cause discomfort.
But not all backaches feel the same. Some people experience a sudden and specific twinge, while others may have a dull, lasting pain. Most of the time, these symptoms are tied to injuries caused by physical exertion, such as bending over; this kind of pain, known as "acute pain," typically resolves within a few days or weeks as the body heals.
But even with a quick recovery, back pain can be pretty uncomfortable. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to prevent it — particularly at work, whether you’re at the office, in a car or at home. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
1. Mind your posture
How you sit, stand and carry yourself can have a direct effect on your spine and contribute to back pain problems. Even though it’s easy to forget, try to remind yourself not to slouch.
When you’re sitting, aim to keep your back parallel to the chair, your knees just above your hips and both feet flat. When you’re standing, stand up straight with your shoulders down and tucked back. When you’re not working, consider trying yoga; this calming exercise, which focuses on building balance, can also support good posture.
2. Create a back-friendly work environment
Whether you’re at home, in the office or on the road, you can always create an ergonomic space to support good back health. Here are some ideas to try based on your job setting:
- If you sit a lot: Put a small pillow behind your lower back. This can support good posture and relieve the discomfort of prolonged sitting. If you can splurge on some simple office upgrades, consider doing so. You could look for an adjustable-height swivel chair with armrests or a monitor stand to make your computer screen eye-level. Now that more people are working from home, these small adjustments can do a lot to make your new workplace more back-friendly.
- If you drive a lot: Try out different seat heights to see which position feels best when you’re sitting and also when you’re getting in and out of your vehicle. Moving the seat closer to the steering wheel can help you avoid hunching over as well.
- If you stand a lot: Mind your footwear. Supportive shoes with cushions in the soles are good options, but steer clear of high heels.
3. Take breaks
Your mind benefits from work breaks, and your body does too. For spinal health in particular, exercise is a great way to help prevent back pain. If you can, make a daily habit of taking a brief walk in both the morning and afternoon to clear your mind and stretch your legs. Setting a timed reminder to take a 15-minute break for every hour of work can help you remember to move your body regularly.
4. Lift with caution
Even if your job doesn’t require heavy lifting, you can still do damage to your back with small motions, such as moving copy paper to a shelf. For the safest approach, try planting your feet shoulder-width apart, lifting with your legs, not your back, and bending at your knees, not your waist.
5. Strengthen your core
The muscles in your abdominal area, known as your core, support your back and help protect it from injuries. Specific exercises can strengthen this important part of the body and help relieve tension in the back. Crunches are a popular core exercise, but you can always mix it up with different activities like leg raises at your desk.
What to do when pain persists
If you’re experiencing frequent or ongoing back pain, it might be time to visit your doctor. While most instances of back pain get better, sometimes the pain can persist, and if it lasts longer than three months, it could be what doctors call “chronic pain.” This happens when the nervous system sends pain signals long after an injury has healed.
Whether or not it’s chronic, pain in any form is no fun. The good news is that back pain is often treatable. If you have concerns about back pain, take action and consider your doctor to be a partner in your pain management. Together, you can develop a care plan that gets you back to work — and back to life.