Talk about a slump: An estimated 60 to 80 percent of adults in Western countries are likely to experience lower-back pain. And with millions of Americans working from their living room couch these days, lower-back pain has become an even more prevalent issue.
“More people than ever are dealing with lower-back pain,” says physical therapist Ryan Nall, P.T., D.P.T., Clinic Director of Washington’s ProActive Physical Therapy Specialists. Not only has he seen this in his clinic, but in his own research. Lenovo’s recent “Technology and the Evolving World of Work” survey, in fact, found that 71 percent of remote workers complained of new and worsening aches and pains after a few months of working from home amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Luckily, from tweaking your work set-up to incorporating a few helpful stretches into your day, you can find relief. Read on for expert tips on easing lower-back pain.
1. Optimize your workspace
In an ideal world, you’ll be able to work at a desk with an ergonomic desk chair, but if that’s not possible due to space or budget constraints, use a small back pillow to take the pressure off of your lumbar spine and support its natural curvature while sitting, suggests integrative physical therapist Bianca Beldini, D.P.T., M.S.O.M. She also recommends using a small foot support (or a thick book or two) to lift your feet off the ground to provide some relief to your hamstrings while you’re sitting.
You can also replace your chair with a stability ball, which naturally promotes upright posture and supports your back since you have to engage your core muscles and sit up straight. “Choose a size that allows your knees and hips to be bent at about 90 degrees when you’re sitting on it,” suggests physical therapist Tyler Tredway, P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S.
However you choose to sit, make sure your computer monitor is directly in front of you at eye level, adds Preston Brown, D.P.T., G.C.S., another physical therapist. (If you use a laptop, you may need to prop it up on a few books.) This helps you avoid neck and shoulder pain from constantly looking down.
2. Move more often
Whether you work from home or in an office, taking regular breaks from sitting is important for your spinal health. Tredway recommends her clients with back pain get up and walk around at least once per hour. “The number one thing to avoid with back pain is a sedentary lifestyle,” she says. “This only takes a minute and does a lot to counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting on lower-back pain.”
If you don’t have a Fitbit buzzing you to get moving once an hour, Beldini suggests setting an alarm for every hour during the workday as a reminder.
“Our bodies were not made to sit for so long,” Nall says. “It puts too much pressure on our backside, causing acute and chronic pain in muscles and joints.”
3. Stretch it out
If you haven’t nailed a lower-back-friendly stretching routine, the pros recommend incorporating the following two into your days. Nall recommends stretching for 30 seconds for every 30 minutes spent sitting, so feel free to incorporate these into your workday movement breaks.
Figure 4 Stretch
“This stretch works to release the low back and piriformis muscles, which get very tight with sitting,” says Beldini. To do it, lie on your back and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Grasp the back of your left leg just above your knee and gently pull your left leg towards your chest. Hold for about 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Seated Lumbar Flex Stretch
This stretch helps to reduce pain-causing tension in your back muscles and also improves mobility. “Begin seated in a chair with hands on thighs and elbows out,” Nall says. “Bend forward as far as you can while rounding your back, hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and then slowly roll back up to sitting.” He recommends repeating this stretch three times daily.
4. Consider seeing a physical therapist
If three months of healthier working habits, regular movement, and a solid stretching routine don’t ease your pain, consider seeing a professional. (These days, many physical therapists offer virtual consultations in addition to in-person sessions.)
“If you’ve been battling with low-back pain for an extended period of time, it might require the benefits of a hands-on specialist like a physical therapist,” suggests Brown. “Seeking physical therapy is the fastest way to reduce your back pain because you receive care that eases muscle tension, soothes achy muscles, loosens stiff, stuck, and painful joints, and strengthens your body so your back pain stays away.”
It’s important to note that some telltale signs indicate your lower-back pain requires immediate attention. If you have sharp, shooting pain, bowel or bladder dysfunction, or genital numbness, reach out to your physician as soon as possible. Weakness, numbness, tingling, and/or shooting pain in your legs, unexplained weight loss, and/or fever also signal something serious is going on.