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Why the Way You Are Sitting Right Now is Causing Back Pain

Aching BackIf you’ve never experienced back pain consider yourself lucky. In fact, only headaches rate higher on the list of common complaints of pain. That’s right—headaches are number one and back pain is number two.

There can be many causes of back pain, but common low back pain can be caused or exacerbated by poor posture.

Admittedly, scientific research is mixed on this issue. Normally I favor the consensus of solid research, but on this issue you can count me among the many healthcare professionals whose clinical experience shows us that improving posture often decreases low back pain.

And the good news is you can do something about it right now.

First, Understand Your Curves

Your spine was designed with three curves—a cervical (neck) curve, a thoracic (upper back) curve, and a lumbar (lower back) curve. Curves are good. They provide shock absorption when we walk and provide lever arms for muscles.

But if you start messing with those curves—either flattening them or making them more curved—you’ll change the pressure on your vertebrae, spinal discs, and muscles. And if you change that pressure over a long period of time—or at the wrong time during an activity—you can produce pain.

Both genetics (heredity) and environmental factors (like certain activities or chronic postures) can produce abnormal curves. For instance, you may have been born with a genetic predisposition for an increased lumbar curve (hyperlordosis). Or your posture—over time—may have flattened it (hypolordosis).

To check your own lumbar curve, stand with your back against a wall in your normal, relaxed posture. Slip your hand behind your lumbar curve. If it’s hard to slip your hand in, it’s likely you have a flattened curve. If you have space between your hand and your back it’s likely you have an increased curve.

For a more conclusive evaluation see a healthcare professional.

In today’s society of decreased exercise and lots of sitting, the abnormality I have observed most often is a flattened lumbar curve.

Second, Keep Your Curves

In order to avoid common low back pain you need to maintain your spinal curves while you’re sitting, standing, walking and doing other activities. Short periods of flattening or increasing the curves generally don’t cause problems—it’s the long periods of sitting, standing, walking or working that cause the problems.

Chances are—as you’re sitting and reading this post—you’re slouching, which causes flattening of your lumbar curve.

So how can you sit correctly? First, slide your buttocks backward against the back of your chair. Most chairs are designed to maintain the lumbar curve. Next, lift your chest a little. Don’t get too crazy with it. It should be a slight adjustment.

So why lift your chest?

Try this: Slouch your chest and shoulders forward and pay attention to what happens to your lower back. It flattened out didn’t it? Now pretend there’s a stake driven straight through your chest and point that stake up high. Your lower back’s inward curve increased, right?

Lifting your chest is one of the biggest keys to controlling the curvature of your lower back.

It may sound strange, but essentially you need to do the same thing when you’re standing and walking. Lifting your chest a little bit while standing and walking will increase the lumbar curve.

Why Car Seats Can Be the Worst Offenders

Sitting correctly in a car is difficult. Many “bucket” seats have poor lumbar support and—combined with slippery leather or vinyl—make it difficult to maintain your lumbar curve. While driving, the combination of your flattened lumbar curve and bumps in the road will essentially turn your shock-absorbing spine into a non-shock-absorbing pile driver. This can be one reason your back hurts after driving.

So here are a few tips:

Slide your buttocks back into your car seat. If the surface is too slippery to keep it there, try sitting on a piece of grippy shelf liner material. If you have a lumbar adjustment in your seat, adjust it so you maintain a slight lumbar curve. A small rolled-up towel can do the same thing. Then, lift your chest and head a little and adjust your rearview mirror to accommodate your new position. Later—when you forget and start slouching—you’ll be tempted to re-adjust your mirror. Don’t do that. Let your mirror be your reminder and adjust your posture to match your mirror.

For an excellent yet simple illustration on spinal curves and posture, see Mayo Clinic’s slideshow here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this subject, so please leave a comment below.

If you have significant back pain you should be evaluated by a medical doctor. Also, the treatment of back pain will commonly involve more than just posture and can include special exercises, pain-relieving treatments or medications, and specific and comprehensive training. 

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