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Is Your Job a Pain in the Back?

Is Your Job a Pain in the Back?

Maybe you think that if you’re not a lumberjack, farmer or construction worker, you won’t have to worry about back pain at work. You’d be wrong, though. Workers at just about any job are susceptible to back pain. “About 90% of people between the ages of 25 and 55 will have back issues some time in their lives,” says spine specialist Michael Parsons, NP, of the Spine Center at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

For most people, the pain goes away within 90 days. “What I can do for people who have an acute issue with their back is help them get better quicker,” says Parsons. People whose pain doesn’t go away within 90 days may need physical therapy or surgery.

What’s better than recovering in 90 days? Preventing back issues in the first place. Something as innocuous as your desk at work can leave your back screaming by the end of the day. Here are some tips to head back pain off before it starts.

Set up your workstation right. You probably spend 40 hours a week or more at your desk, so make sure it’s working for you and your back. “Start with chair height,” says Parsons. Your pelvis should be slightly higher than your knees, and your feet flat on the floor. “If you’re too short, get a footrest,” he says.

Screen position is important too, says Parsons. It should be set so that your head is neutral and you’re able to see the screen easily. “Make sure there’s no glare so you don’t have to move your head to see parts of your screen,” Parsons says. “Shoulders should be back and arms should hang naturally, with your elbows below the shoulders.” Keep your wrists level.

Move around. If you’re sitting at your desk with poor posture, you’re doing yourself no favors by continuing to sit. Parsons says people tend to stay in poor posture for most of the day. Getting up and moving around is a chance to reset your body. A good guideline is to get up for a few minutes at the top of the hour and half-past. Take a walk, get coffee, do a quick stretch, or go gossip by the water cooler.

Avoid repetitive motion. Here’s another reason to take a quick break from your desk every so often. Awkward and repetitive motion puts you at risk for a repetitive strain injury (RSI). “It’s well-known to contribute to back pain,” according to Parsons. Take your computer’s mouse, for example. “It should be close to you if you’re going to be reaching for it all day,” says Parsons.

If all else fails, talk to the boss. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “the estimate is that back pain cost between $100 billion and $200 billion in 2010,” Parson says. “Most of that is from lost productivity. That’s either money employees are not making or the company is not making from employees.”

Your managers are probably eager to save some money and increase worker productivity. Workstations with better ergonomics might be the answer. See if the higher-ups will entertain the idea of exercise balls; Parsons says sitting on one instead of a chair promotes better posture. Standing desks—or, better, desks that can move up and down—could be another option. Companies may be willing to spend money to help their employees…and make more money.

See More from Michael Parsons, NP:
Should I exercise when my back hurts?
Can applying heat or cold help lower back pain?

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

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