Desk Jockeys; The Real Back-Breaking Work
Traditionally, we envisaged hard labour being the type of job that would put us most at risk of back injuries. Heavy lifting day-in day-out was thought to be something that would wear down the spine and muscles to a point where we would be destined to chronic aches and pains later in life. Truth be told, the majority of the people coming through our doors with back pain spend their days in front of a computer rather than swinging a sledge hammer.
Did you know that farmers have one of the lowest incidences of back pain of any vocation? A job where you can’t avoid repeated heavy lifting and bending and carrying things of all shapes and sizes. It turns out we can learn plenty from our farmers. The biggest thing… MOVE! The body wasn’t made to sit in one spot for 8-12 hours per day. So, making an effort to move every hour or 2 is a really great first step to start to get on top of that nagging achy back. Sit-stand desks are a great way to still be productive whilst you’re not on your derrière. Just remember that standing still for 8 hours isn’t great either. So mix it up. If you have a sit stand desk, try alternating between standing and sitting every 1-2 hours. If you don’t have a standing desk, try standing when you’re on the phone or setting a reminder to stand for 30 seconds and do some simple stretches.
This blog is aimed at the type of pain where no obvious trauma has occurred. A typical story we hear will go something like this. “I haven’t done anything in particular to hurt my back. There was no event like heavy lifting, but it started aching if I would sit for too long, and now it’s to the point that it just aches all day”. Sometimes this pain can cause people to stop doing the things they love. Like walking the dog, gardening or cooking. Sound familiar? I once helped a lady who had stopped going to the gym, avoided lifting her 3 year old, and was about to miss her friend’s wedding in Queensland for fear of having to sit in a plane for 90 minutes. 18 months of her life in absolute misery from a some atraumatic back pain.
If you’re still reading this, chances are you can relate to some of this. If so, then you too have probably had thought like “my pain must be because I have bad posture” or “I think I need a new chair at work”. It is true that desk set up is fundamental to workplace safety for office workers and that having strength and good body awareness is a MASSIVE positive, but the fact is, if anyone sits in any one position for long enough, they’ll get sore. No doubt. Some people will even mention how they’re trying to sit up really tall all day at the office and experience nothing but pain, but when they get home, put their feet up and have a glass of wine, they get some relief. In cases like this, posture can’t be the only thing driving pain. This person actually feels BETTER when they slump.
If you’re thinking, “why now? I never used to have trouble doing the exact same thing”. Good point! Pain is a complex thing and this blog is far too short for a deep dive into the pain system. And honestly, quite often we don’t have a good explanation for why you’re all of a sudden not tolerating something that was fine before. As a junior physio, I would go searching for a reason and cling onto anything that sounded like a justifiable explanation. “Are you sure you didn’t lift something heavy? Nothing?”, “Could it have been the vacuuming that you did 5 days ago?”, “Have you been walking more? Or walking less??”. With more experience I now understand that sometimes there’s no obvious event or cause for pain.
One thing we do know is that once we start to get sensitive toward a stress (ie position), that sensitivity is likely to increase until we do something about it. Think of it like your phone alarm clock that starts off quietly trying to wake you without waking the neighbours. If you hear it and press the stop button, the alarm stops. No more alarm. But if it doesn’t get your attention (or you lie there and choose to ignore it), it will continue to get louder and louder until you HAVE to take notice. Your pain system is similar. The moral of the story here is to listen to your body when it’s telling you to get up and move.
Some more pointers for a pain-free life at the computer:
Routine exercise is proven to have positive impacts on chronic pain. We recommend 45 mins of moderate activity 5 days per week. Fearful of starting exercise due to your injury? Your physio should be able to find a safe starting point. If they can’t, get another one.
If you’re getting less than 7 hours, you’re at risk. Think of your pain system like your temper. If you have a busy, stressful week and hardly sleep, you’re much more likely to scream at the kids or at the poor guy asked for instructions at work. Your pain is the same. Less down time for the nervous system means you’re more likely to have an amplified pain response.
Eat healthy. Carrying extra weight is a risk factor for chronic pain as well as the majority of chronic diseases. And a poor diet doesn’t only put stress on your belt. Foods high in sugar, refined carbs, and artificial trans fats increase inflammation. So ditch the doughnuts.
Mental health. Stress, anxiety and depression are strongly linked to chronic pain. As is being unhappy in the workplace. Stressful periods at work and home can result in a more sensitive pain system. Speak to your psychologist or GP if you think you need help with this one.
I hope this gives you some useful tips to help have a healthier, happier life at work. Please share this with anyone that you think could do with a helping hand.
At Eastside Physio + Co, we are committed to delivering the best care to the locals of Surrey Hills and its neighbouring areas. Our skilled and experienced surrey hills physios are dedicated to supporting the well-being of our clients, who come from a variety of nearby suburbs, including Ashwood, Ashburton, Auburn, Balwyn, Blackburn, Box Hill, Burwood, Camberwell, Canterbury, Doncaster and Hawthorn.