Is Working from my Coffee Table Causing my Back Pain?
Not a week goes by that I don’t see another new article in my newsfeed pointing out the dangers of bad posture. If you’re like me, you’ve taken the warnings seriously and tried to “fix” the way you sit and stand while you work. And perhaps, like me, you’ve discovered that sitting up straight all day is nearly impossible. So are we doomed to suffer from the effects of bad posture? Is there nothing that can help us?
To answer these questions, it is important to focus on the problem. There are a lot of “experts” out there, and lots of opinions. And so many of them are saying the same thing that they must be right.
As it turns out, there is actually very little evidence linking posture to future back or neck pain. It is not for lack of trying. But when these studies are concluded, over and over again, no clear causal relationship between slouching and pain is established. When I first discovered this, I frankly had a hard time believing it. But now, I not only accept it myself, I want to share the good news.
The idea that poor posture causes pain sounds right, but it’s not. First of all, it’s hard to define what “good” posture is. And the fact is, any kind of posture becomes bad for you if it’s held indefinitely. Our bodies were made to move through the day in every direction. So a lack of movement, even when you’re in a “good” position, is not good for us over extended periods of time.
Secondly, we are highly adaptive creatures. If a person with poor fitness is willing to work hard, they can eventually run a marathon or accomplish any number of impressive physical feats. With effort, most people can strengthen their muscles, make their cardiovascular system more efficient, etc. The same thing is true with slouching. We are able to become very good at holding our head just so it doesn’t fall forward onto the keyboard. Our muscles will stretch in some places and tighten in others. This may not be helpful and can even be detrimental to certain activities, like throwing a ball, but it doesn’t mean that slouching will cause you to hurt.
You may say, “I know that bad posture caused my back pain! I know what I feel. What do you say to that?” My instinct would probably be to agree with you…maybe. Let me explain what I mean. For example, if I fall off my bike and scrape my left arm, I will likely develop a scab as it heals. At that point, wearing a long-sleeved shirt may cause pain. But I wouldn’t stop wearing long-sleeved shirts entirely, would I? Those sleeves would only be bad for me while I had that scab that was trying to heal. Similarly, if someone has back or neck pain, certain postures might irritate it, but it’s not necessarily the cause.
Let’s talk about working from home because of the pandemic. Perhaps you were used to a highly ergonomic, quiet work space and had no back pain. Suddenly, you found yourself hunching over the coffee table for nine hours a day and struggling. In that case, yes, the sudden change in posture could be the cause of your pain. But the problem probably has far more to do with the rapid change in your environment—consider the added stresses of working longer hours, having dogs underfoot, the doorbell ringing, and your kids doing online school three feet from your conference call.
Rapid change in stressors is a big reason why our muscles strain, our tendons break down, or we experience other kinds of pain. Near the beginning of the pandemic, I saw many patients who seemed to have postural pain. But people who have developed problems a year or so after they started working from home can probably blame other stressors for their pain. Things like a lack of exercise, increased stress, less overall movement, sleep issues, and weight gain can all be contributing factors.
All that said, thinking about the way you sit and stand is important. Maybe your back or neck is sore—there can be many causes for how you feel and when you feel that way. You may feel it more when you sit for long periods. This is common. So, try new things like sitting up straighter. If it helps, keep doing it. Or position your computer closer to you so you don’t have to slouch towards it. Same for the keyboard and mouse. Put your hands where they are the most comfortable and try to find a way to get the keyboard and mouse to meet your hands there, rather than reaching your arms forward towards your equipment. I get so much positive feedback about this small change. You don’t need any special equipment or a doctor’s note. You can just do it on your own.
On the other hand, if you hurt more when you are sitting upright, go ahead and slouch a little. Don’t worry, you aren’t breaking any rules. Just enjoy feeling a little bit better. Better yet, to give your body a break from the seated position, give standing a try. You might like it—but if you don’t, that’s okay, too.
Hopefully, you can discover ways to feel comfortable in your work environment, and then give yourself permission to reposition if you become uncomfortable. That is about as good as a person can hope for. Add short movement breaks to your day to help alleviate stiff muscles and joints. Even ten minutes at a time helps. (Need inspiration? Watch this video!)
And give up trying to be perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, despite what your news feed says.