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Return to "Sitting Lifestyle" Brings Back Pain, Other Problems Overview

More on "Sitting Lifestyle" Brings Back Pain, Other Problems

"Sitting Lifestyle" Brings Back Pain, Other Problems

NEW YORK (Mar 1, 2012)

Jeffrey Radecki, M.D.
Jeffrey Radecki, M.D.

"What does your day look like?," Jeffrey Radecki, M.D., asks patients when they first meet with him. Dr. Radecki, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian, said a typical answer is, "I spend 10, 12, or 14 hours a day sitting at a desk in front of a computer." As a nation, we are increasingly sedentary, and sitting an average of 15.5 hours a day, according to one estimate. There's mounting evidence, though, that all that sitting is taking a toll. Research has linked hours spent in a chair to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, earlier death, and probably most commonly, back pain.

Dr. Radecki, who treats musculo-skeletal problems, said, "Most of the patients I see have back pain, and sitting is a major contributor to their pain." Sitting puts more pressure on the spine than standing, he said. After hours of sitting the muscles that support the spine are less engaged, and over time they weaken and tighten. The hamstrings and hip flexors in the legs also become increasingly tight with prolonged sitting, adding stress to the spine. And these changes lead to back pain.

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"I tell patients that humans evolved to be active," said Dr. Radecki. "We were hunters and gatherers, built shelters, and protected ourselves. But all that's changed because of computers and television and automobiles. We just sit a lot more, and we're not made to do that – and we are now seeing the consequences."

You can lessen your chance of developing back pain with some simple changes in your daily routine, Dr. Radecki said. Take a break every half hour. Get up and stand for a few minutes, walk to the water cooler for a drink. If you collaborate with other people in your office, instead of calling or emailing your colleagues, take a walk down the hall to see them in person. Use the stairs rather than the elevator whenever it is practical. Watch television from a treadmill or exercise bike instead of on the couch. Walk or bike to work as often as possible. Alternate throughout the day between standing at a raised desk and sitting, if you have control over your work environment. Choose a chair that has good lumbar support, and that can be set to put you at the right height for your desk. Then set up your monitor so that it's at the best height to avoid neck strain. But the most important preventive measure to avoid developing back pain is to, "be more active and avoid sitting in the same position hour after hour on end," said Dr. Radecki.

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People usually don't make changes in their routines until after they develop back problems. "A really severe bout of back pain is the best motivator for people to change their lifestyles," Dr. Radecki said. "Unfortunately, at that point, they have a lot more work ahead of them than if they had increased their activity level as part of their usual daily routine before the pain developed." If you do develop back pain, apply ice to the area, take anti-inflammatories such as Advil or Aleve, and, again, remain as active as possible. "Don't lie in bed all day," he said. And if you've already had a bout of back pain, exercises that have a low impact on the spine such as using a stationary bike and swimming are usually helpful.

Before, during, and after back pain develops, Dr. Radecki's message is the same: "The best thing you can do for your back is not just sitting, not just standing, but alternating between different movements and activities so you're using many different muscles and being really active."

Jeffrey Radecki, M.D., is an Assistant Attending Physiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, and an Adjunct Instructor in Rehabilitation Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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